I have just returned from two weeks based in Jerusalem. So many stories, so many impressions, so many experiences—what cultural and spiritual richness in this one city!
Jerusalem (along with nearby Bethlehem where I also spent 4 days & nights) can make a strong claim to be the place where our Christian faith, and our Jewish heritage, all began. Within the disorientating, yet compelling, Church of the Holy Sepulchre can be found the traditional sites of creation, crucifixion and resurrection. Quite a claim! Whilst the church itself may not “feel” like the “green hill, far away” which has been lodged in our memory since childhood, it has an ancient pedigree and has been receiving pilgrims ever since St. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, identified the site in the early 4th Century.
Wandering the ancient, crowded streets of the Old City it is not difficult to feel that you are walking in the very footsteps of Jesus, as indeed the Via Dolorosa, the traditional route Jesus followed through the city to his crucifixion, invites pilgrims to do. The ground level may be about 40 feet higher now than it was in the 1st Century but surely the climate, the aromas, the bustle, the ubiquitous flights of steps are much the same? In Holy Week, walking the Via Dolorosa is easier said than done! Several of my attempts to walk this holy path were unsuccessful simply because of the large numbers of groups all with the same idea. In the end I managed it late in the afternoon on Good Friday—only to be almost crushed in the Holy Sepulchre Church itself as various denominations made their sacred processions around the interior of the building, followed by huge numbers of their devout members. Anyone who thinks religion is dead should visit Jerusalem as Lent reaches its dramatic conclusion!
I was intrigued by this 13th Century map—seen on a number of posters, cards and street mosaics—which showed Jerusalem as the centre and meeting place of three continents.
In many ways it is now the meeting place of the world. On Palm Sunday I joined a procession of 10,000 Christians from every tribe and nation (or so it felt ) joyfully making our way from Bethphage into the city, just as Jesus did at the start of the first Holy Week. People travel from far and wide to express solidarity with Palestinian Christians, a decreasing and pressurized community. Flags from many nations are waved, along with the palm branches. As we walked one section, children on a road above were cutting palms from the nearby trees and throwing them down to us—that felt very like the Gospel account!
To be in Jerusalem during Holy Week was awe-inspiring (if crowded!). However, it was also Pesach (Passover) so Jews from the worldwide diaspora were also descending on the city. I witnessed the remarkable sight of 100,000 Jewish people from all over the world gathered at the Western Wall on Thursday for the Priestly Blessing. Each day of the week of Pesach seemed to be different in nature, some quiet, some busy, some sombre, some joyous and celebratory—more evidence of faith alive and well.
In Bethlehem on the previous Friday, I happened to be in Manger Square during Islamic Friday Prayers—yet another vast crowd of faithful people (almost exclusively men) were assembled, listening in devout silence to amplified preaching from the mosque. I had gone out to do some shopping, but that seemed totally inappropriate and I stood quietly to one side, pondering further on yet another visible—almost tangible—expression of faith. In Jerusalem a few days later I took the opportunity to go onto the Temple Mount during its limited public opening hours and was totally awed by the Golden Dome – what love, what creativity, what mystery and devotion has been poured into that building, perhaps the most beautiful religious building I have ever seen.
So if Jerusalem was once the meeting point of three continents it is now the meeting point of three faiths. That offers huge opportunities but can also cause tension, especially when politics is so closely bound up with religion. It was good to engage with the work of the Methodist Liaison Office in Jerusalem; where mission partners from the United Methodist Church and from the Methodist Church in Britain give of themselves unsparingly in seeking to build peaceful community amidst the tension.
Where and when and how the situation in the Middle East will end are unanswerable questions – and must also be our ongoing prayer. Of course the name Jerusalem means “City of Peace” and the city’s streets were well known to the Prince of Peace; like the psalmist (Psalm 122) we continue to “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”