By Jay Mason
I have fixed my eyes on your hills,
Jerusalem, my Destiny!
Though I cannot see the end for me,
I cannot turn away.
We have set our hearts for the way;
this journey is our destiny.
Let no one walk alone.
The journey makes us one.
“Jerusalem, My Destiny,” Rory Cooney (1989)
Easter is upon us. Christ is risen from the dead to save us all. There is a God and there is hope. I am betting my soul on hope. In my first installment about the Holy Land, our pilgrimage had reached the outskirts of Jerusalem. Our last week in Israel was spent in the city where Christ died and rose from the dead.
As we approached Jerusalem late in the afternoon, we stopped at a church above the Mount of Olives called Dominus Flevit. That is Latin for “Jesus wept,” which is the shortest verse in the Bible. Jesus wept as he approached Jerusalem for Palm Sunday in part because he knew what lay ahead for him with the triumph of Palm Sunday to the pain, suffering and death of the cross. It was a beautiful sight for us as the sun set over the city across the valley from the church. We were about to depart and an old Franciscan priest approached us, and asked one of the two Bishops with us if we wanted to walk on the path that Jesus walked on Palm Sunday nearly two thousand years ago. We readily agreed, and he pulled a skeleton key from his pocket and opened the iron gate that led to the ancient path. It had been closed for several decades because it was being worn out by pilgrims. As we descended into the valley, we all prayed and imagined what is was like for Christ to take the same steps so long ago.
At the base of the path are the Church of All Nations and the Garden of Gethsemane. This site is surrounded by the Mount of Olives, which in Christ’s time was covered with olive trees. Now it is a very large Jewish cemetery with only a few ancient olive trees (1500-2000 years old) in the Garden itself. The rock upon which Christ prayed with his disciples in the Garden is the centerpiece of the church. When Christ went with Peter, James and John to pray, it is believed that he went into a cavern behind and below the Garden. There is a chapel there today, and that is where Christ prayed just before he was arrested and taken to the house of Caiaphas, the high priest. Once again we prayed at that site for our world and its many problems.
The next day we met the Bishop of Jerusalem, who is called a Patriarch, at his residence and were given pilgrim shells for traveling to Jerusalem. We had lunch in the Armenian Quarter and then went to see the Dome of the Rock and the remains of the Temple. Since it was a Jewish feast, all signs of Christianity were taken from us by the security guards to be returned when we exited the Temple grounds. The west wall of the Temple was filled with orthodox Jews with their Torahs who prayed the prayers of Sukkot (Feast of the Tabernacles) and inserted their intentions into the cracks of the wall. We could only see the Dome of the Rock from a distance on the Temple grounds. It is the site where Abraham almost sacrificed his son, Isaac. Today it is an active Muslim mosque. The Temple grounds comprise almost one third of the old city of Jerusalem. A devout Jew was expected to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem at least once a year to offer sacrifices in the Temple.
We later toured the Upper Room where Christ and his disciples celebrated the Last Supper. It was not what I expected. It is owned by the Israeli government and is devoid of any beautiful Christian symbols or artwork like so many holy places. Evidently, the government of Spain is negotiating with the Israeli government to trade the Upper Room for an ancient synagogue in Madrid. If that occurs, it will be given to the Franciscans so that it can be restored as a Christian holy site. We walked outside of the old city walls to Caiaphas’s House, which is now the Church of St. Peter Gallicantu. There you can walk in the courtyard where Peter denied Christ three times and enter the dungeon that held Christ before he was taken to Pontius Pilate to be crucified.
Early the next morning we traced the steps of Christ (Via Doloroso) as He made His way to the crucifixion. We prayed at every stop and imagined what it must have been like to be treated so cruelly by the same people who welcomed Him to their city just one week before on Palm Sunday. That night we were sung into the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre by the Franciscan priests who live there. It was a special event, and we were led by two bishops and twelve Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulchre in full regalia. The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre is a pontifical order that is charged with preserving a Christian presence in the Holy Land. Recently the percentage of Christians in the Israel has been reduced to 2% of the total population. Most of the Christians in the Holy Land are Palestinian and face discrimination from the Muslim Palestinians as well as the Israelis. It is a difficult problem, which cannot be resolved easily. It would be tragedy if someday there were no Christians left in the Holy Land.
In any event, the Basilica was closed for our entrance, and the simple Franciscan priests sang beautiful Latin hymns honoring the sacred places we were about to see with our own eyes. If you recall, Christ was buried a short distance from where he was crucified by the Romans. When Christians built a church to commemorate these events, the large church encompassed both the sites of the crucifixion and resurrection. We processed to the tomb of Christ and were allowed to enter the tomb and kneel and pray at the place where Christ rose from the dead. At the other end of the church, we ascended a staircase to two chapels – one managed by the Franciscans where Christ was nailed to the cross and the second where the Eastern Orthodox altar covers the place of the crucifixion. Under the altar is an opening that held the cross of Christ, and pilgrims lined up to kneel and pray. As a Christian, it was a moving experience to place your hand in the place that held the Cross of Christ and realize that the places you have read about all of your life actually exist and survive to this day.
The Holy Land is a sacred place for three major religions of the world. Christians, Muslims and Jews attempt to live together. It can be an inspirational experience to be there with a sense of sadness regarding the strife and uncertainty of the future. We can only pray that the climate will change someday. I thought I would feel unsafe in Jerusalem but that was not the case. If you have the chance to visit the Holy Land, you should go. Be not afraid. It might change your life; it certainly did mine.