On January 13-17, I went to Jerusalem with Katia and the kids, in addition to a friar and three nuns who run a retreat center next to our house here in Loreto. I had been to the Holy Land one time about 15 years ago with a group out of Atlanta, and we did the standard 10-day “Footsteps of Jesus” pilgrimage. This time, however, we were on our own. We had no set schedules, itineraries, or guides telling us what to do. We could do whatever I wanted. We would be pilgrims in the land of Christ and go wherever we felt moved to go. I was also there to meet some local guides, a pilgrimage agency, and some Franciscan friars who lead tours there, as we are in the process of expanding our pilgrimages beyond Italy to include the Holy Land.
Extraordinary, fantastic, spectacular, incredible, magnificent. I felt like my kids when we went to Orlando a few years ago – full of excitement, amazement, and wonder. Yes, the Holy Land is like Disney Land for Catholics… Needless to say, they felt like I did at Disneyland – somewhat bored
As we boarded our flight on EasyJet (a low-cost European carrier modeled after Southwest airlines) from Rome direct to Tel Aviv, I felt like the pilgrims of old who set out to the Holy Land from Rome. From the early Middle Ages onwards, pilgrims came from all over Europe first to Rome, then on to the Holy Land. Of course they walked to Rome, then continued on foot along the ancient Via Appia down to Brindisi, then by ship to Greece, then to the Holy Land. Of course, our flight from Rome to Tel Aviv took three hours, while they would have taken several months to make the journey. However, I still felt like a pilgrim of old, as our modern “ship” was still full of pilgrims – priests, nuns, lay faithful.
I arranged a private coach transfer from Tel Aviv airport to Jerusalem, taking about 45 minutes. As we drove the short distance, unfortunately it was dark, but that didn’t dampen my enthusiasm as the driver gave us our first lesson in bible history as we drove by the region of the Maccabees, Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives. He dropped us off near the Jaffa Gate and we walked five minutes to our hotel. We learned about the three classifications of license plates in Israel: A, B, and C. C is Jewish Israelis (they can only stay in Zone C and cannot go into Zone A); A is Arab West Bank Palestinians (Palestinians can only come into Zone C via public transportation); Zone B is for Arab Israelis (they can go into Zone A or C).
The hotel where we stayed is called Casa Nova (New House) -- a simple religious hotel managed by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. It is a type “Little Italy” within Jerusalem; virtually everyone staying there was Italian and, in fact, a lot of them were on our same flight from Rome. Unfortunately, we arrived too late for dinner, so we walked down to nearby Arab restaurant for our first meal. Italians are notoriously sensitive to any food other than Italian food, and two of the nuns began practicing penance right away that evening.
After dinner, we walked another hundred yards or so (along crisscrossing, cobblestone streets) and arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. At that hour -- 9:00pm -- the streets were deserted (at dark everyone in the Old City goes indoors) and the church was closed. I began to realize I was in a very foreign place: the strange scents (including the distinctive nard -- the oil used to anoint the body of Christ -- and still used as incense today), the Hebrew and Arabic scripts on street signs, the white stone that was used to build the entire city. Katia said that Jerusalem seemed just like “Bari vecchia” (the ancient city center of Bari, Puglia – built with similar white stones).
The church closes each evening at 7:00pm in a ritual, that I’ll get to soon, so we walked back to the hotel for our first overnight. The next morning I woke up early and walked back down to the church. The same streets that were dead only a few hours earlier were now coming to life in a hustle-bustle bazaar. Most of the residents of the Old City of Jerusalem are Arab even if is it divided into four quarters: Christian, Armenian, Jewish, and Moslem. The “Christian” quarter residents were once mostly Christian, but now they are mostly Muslim. Yet, that didn’t mean there weren’t plenty of stores selling rosaries, crosses, statues of Mary, etc. It reminded me a little of Little Italy in Manhattan (the Italian residents are now gone and Hispanics and Asians are in).
I arrived at the church of the Holy Sepulcher. Wow.
I immediately felt disoriented. I didn’t remember it being so dispersive. I walked around and actually got lost. There are no signs identifying the places or events, you just have to know.
The Holy Sepulcher is nothing like a European-style basilica; it is not symmetrical or linear. There is no piazza in front, no main nave, no side naves, no main altar, no apse, no dome. Instead, it is a hodgepodge of altars, monuments, chapels, labyrinthine corridors, domes, crypts, doorways, and more. It was built organically over 16 centuries. The original basilica was built by Constantine in the fourth century, then it was destroyed on numerous occasions by fire or sacks leading to various reconstructions and its actual state today. It’s also quite dark and appears dirty; the centuries of soot from candles and oil lamps have blackened the walls and roof.
Also disorienting is the fact that it is inhabited by five different groups of monks, each fiercely jealous of their territory within. The Greek Orthodox have the important parts of the church including the Sepulcher itself as well as Calvary; the Catholics (under the Franciscans) have a large area, as do the Armenian Orthodox; the Egyptian Coptics and the Syriac Orthodox are on the roof - literally.
The church is governed by what is known as the “status quo” established in 1853. Historically, the church has always had many divisions among the different groups of monks. Therefore, in 1853, the “status quo” was established: things would remain exactly the way they were at that moment: if anything in the common area needed to be changed, each community would have to agree to it. Due to the status quo, numerous repairs are routinely neglected.
Each group jealously guards their time and space. Limits allotted for things like Mass, liturgy and processions are strictly regulated and cannot be exceeded. Emblematic of this strange reality is a ladder that has been sitting above the main entrance since at least 1852; the communities have never agreed on what to do with it, and so it still sits there infamously.
A less humorous consequence of the “status quo” are the fistfights that break out every few years between the groups of monks. Actions or gestures – intended or not – by one group are sometimes interpreted by the others as hostile or disrespectful. So if a Copt moves his chair from the sunlight into the shade, a Franciscan leaves the door to the chapel open, or the Greeks exceed their time limit for procession – watch out. In the past fifteen years, there have been at least three bloody brawls leading to arrests, serious injuries and hospitalizations.
Another result of the confusion and the status quo is the owner of the key to the church: a Muslim. In 1192, the Muslim Sultan, Saladin, assigned the door keeping responsibilities to a Muslim family whose descendants still ritually open and close the door today. Each day a small crowd gathers to watch. We did, too.
The next morning, our small group was blessed with an intimate guided tour led by a gentle Franciscan friar. Originally from the Philippines, Fr. Angel Isom, has been living in the Holy Land for 25 years. Fluent in 11 languages, he was once the former secretary of the Custody, and thus possessed various "keys" around the basilica -- both figuratively and literally. He was able to open doors for us and show us places virtually no pilgrims go to. One of the most striking things we saw was a 4th century writing on a wall down a stairwell (in the jurisdiction of the Armenians) with the Latin words, "Domine ibimus" (Lord, we came). Yes, Lord, we, too, came.
Honestly, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher felt more like the crucifixion than the resurrection. In the beginning, I found it quite difficult to pray. However, towards the end of my stay in Jerusalem, I was able to look beyond the deficiencies of the people and focus on Jesus’ death, burial and Resurrection. And that is what the church stands for: Easter Sunday. Despite our sins (and those of others), He is Risen. Alleluia.
Jerusalem is full of contradictions as well. One late afternoon, I was eating falafel in a place owned by a very nice Arabic man named Sal (his falafel is known to be the best and most economical in Jerusalem; we went there several times). In walked two kids speaking what I thought was Arabic to each other and Sal. After I said a few words to Sal, one of the kids said to me with a perfect Brooklyn accent, “So, where ya from?” They informed me they were Jewish - one was from New York, the other from Florida; I guess they were speaking Hebrew.
Jerusalem’s name in Hebrew means, “City of Peace.” And it is a city of peace for the three monotheistic religions: it is the most important city for Jews as it is the city of King David and the site of two Temples (both destroyed); it is the third most important city for Muslims (behind Mecca and Medina) as it is the site of the Dome of the Rock whence the prophet, Mohammad, is believed to have ascended to Heaven on his horse, as well as the place they believe Abraham attempted to sacrifice Ishmael (in the Jewish/Christian Bible Abraham almost sacrifices Isaac [Sarah’s son, not Hagar’s]); and it is probably the most important city for Christians as it is the site of the Resurrection of Jesus. However, the presence of armed Israeli soldiers (always in groups of three) every hundred yards or so is a continual reminder that currently there is not peace in Jerusalem. In fact, while we were there (and I was wandering around the western wall area), I was completely oblivious to the fact that Muslims were burning French flags in the Dome of the Rock on Friday prayer in protest of the Charlie Hebdo publication of images of their prophet; I heard it on the news as we were coming home.
What a blessing it was to walk in Jesus’ footsteps descending from the Mount of Olives, passing by the churches down into the valley, then going back up into Jerusalem through the Lion’s Gate, also known as St. Stephen’s gate (as St. Stephen was believed to have been stoned here). Then I walked the Via Dolorosa – the 14 Stations of the Cross – commemorating the final events in Jesus’ life from Pontius Pilate’s palace to the Hill of Golgotha where he was crucified.
Next, we took a taxi to Bethlehem, which name means, “House of Bread.” The city of the nativity of our Savior is only about 10 miles away but is within the Palestinian West Bank. I found Bethlehem to be both joyful as well as tragic. Joyful, as it is the birthplace of our Lord and we visited the basilica over the cave where Jesus was born. Tragic, because the city is now enclosed entirely within a 40-foot cement wall. I had heard about walls being built to monitor the flow of people coming out of the West Bank and thus protect Israel from terrorists; however, I did not know they were actually enclosing the West Bank cities. In fact, Bethlehem is still a fairly Christian city at about 25%, and has never been a hotbed of terrorism. Yet, there are only two checkpoints in or out of the city of our Lord’s birth. The Israelis have plans to enclose each Palestinian city within such walls.
Honestly, I never felt at home in Israel, despite it being the home of our Savior. Israel is mostly Jewish today at 70% of the population. Muslims make up about 25% of the population while the rest is a scattering of Druze, Bahai, non-affiliated, and Christians at a mere 2%. Despite the fact that our Lord lived and died in the Holy Land (and only left the confines of modern Israel twice when he went into Egypt), Christians are today a small minority. The Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land does its best to safeguard the churches and Christian population. (The Franciscans have been in the Holy Land since the Sultan gave St. Francis custody of the Christian sites in 1220.) Yet, the Christian population continues to decline, as Christians leave seeking better lives elsewhere.
The Holy Land is a place where religions, continents, cultures, languages, and civilizations come together. The mix is often violent, as attested to by the constant threat of terrorism and consequential checkpoints, soldiers, police, and walls. However, it will always be the site of our Savior’s birth, death, and resurrection. In an ironic way, it is a land of heart-wrenching and tragic violence that co-exists together with the greatest peace. The ironic thing is that this is precisely what our Lord himself encountered in Jerusalem: his crucifixion and resurrection. What our Lord said so many years ago holds true today, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you” (John 14:27).
Bret and family