“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” The Gospel According to St. Matthew 23:37 (KJV).
This was the very passage that came to mind as I entered Jaffa Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem for Holy Week as the first thing I saw to my left were the money changers. What was thought to be a journey towards spiritual fulfillment quickly turned into a test of faith as the Holy City encompasses some of the most unholy people.
Every step closer to the Church of the Holy Sepluchre street vendors try their best to lure you into their shops for the best prices on religious iconography, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslims items. Each person betraying their faith and being whatever religion you were in order to purchase anything from crosses and head coverings to havdalah sets and menorahs.
At the Western Wall, a man instantly noticed I was American, decided to take my hand and start praying for me. At the end of his prayer, he showed me 50 shekels, which apparently was his required “donation.” for his services. I said to him, “Look, I got two shekels and a credit card. Unless you got a cube, you’re not getting anything close to that out of me.” He was miffed as I walked away, but I’m used to televangelists conning people with their prosperity theology, so this guy selling out Judaism for a few bucks at the holiest place for Jews to pray in Israel wasn’t much of a surprise. It was better than a Muslim vendor telling me I worshiped a false deity and that I would be punished for it in the afterlife, then being angered that I refused to be an icon of the Holy Family after the insult.
One thing the people of Jerusalem know is that God is big business.
It is easy to prey on foreigners during a religious pilgrimage seeking to connect more with their faith by marking up the price of items during the holiday season, after all the Middle East invented supply and demand.
My journeys took me throughout all of the Holy Land. Bethlehem, Bethany, Jericho, the Sea of Galilee, Hebron, etc. Roughly 12 years ago, a dispute broke out between the connecting Synagogue and Mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah are entombed. Once, Jews and Muslims could crossover to venerate the founders of both faiths, now can only do so only 10 days out of the year on their holiest of holidays. Christians, however can go anytime, which still wasn’t that pleasing when a soldier points a gun at your head as you walk from the Mosque to the Synagogue shouting, “Hey, you Muslim?”
I pulled out my cross, easing the soldier’s nerves, went over to the tomb where Jacob was and thought, “Poor Jacob, even in death he can’t be with the wife (Rachel) that he loved.”
At the Church of the Annunciation, the spot where the Angel of God told the Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary that she would bore the Son of God, you instantly walk into a gift shop not owned by the Greek Orthodox Church, but rather the museum adjacent to one of the holiest of place in all of Christendom.
Just when one would think all hope was lost, a chance wrong turn landed my small group at St. Mark Syriac Orthodox Church in the Old City. The Aramean flag was hung over the gates of the monastery and there I found a 76-year-old nun named Sister Josephine, a person some would called, “A Fool for Christ.”
St. Mark is built over the house where Sts. Mark and Peter found the room that would be used for the Last Supper and later Pentecost. There is even one of the three original icons written by St. Luke the Evangelist, who was not only the Gospel writer, but the first iconographer.
Something happened in St. Mark’s that opened my eyes to not just all the unscrupulous behavior within Jerusalem, but to seek out truly Christian behavior. For every Eritrean who refused to follow directions, every Egyptian that trying to make themselves as significant as the holy places we visited and every fake pious Russian that would elbow you out of the way to get to Golgotha while praying, there was hope in humanity.
Dealing with all those negatives, there were Georgians giving water to an elderly woman while standing in the hot sun waiting to enter the Church of the Holy Sepluchre on eve of the resurrection. Assyrians willing to exchange e-mails so you could trade photos from your trip and Armenians cracking jokes to help ease the tensions among the ethnic groups while being kept out of the church by the Israeli military.
I even received another sign that I was on the right track while climbing the mountain to reach the Monastery of Temptation in Jericho, not surprisingly from another member of the Syriac Orthodox Church. A deacon from Sweden, who’s name I cannot recall at this moment. Halfway up to mountain to venerate where Christ was tempted by Satan for 40 days I turned to my friend and huffed, “That’s it! I’m becoming a Protestant! I want to be lazy and pretend to understand suffering.”
Out of no where the deacon turned the corner and said, “Don’t ever say that again! God rewards us in our suffering. How will you ever know what is good if you didn’t have to suffer to get there?” To which, I agree nodded; it also didn’t hurt that an elderly Egyptian man on crutches was hot on my tail going up the mountain. If he could do it at his age, my fat behind with two bad knees could continue on.
A couple of days later, we returned to the Church of the Holy Sepluchre for Lazarus Saturday, the day before Palm Sunday in the Orthodox Churches. We were late to the Greek Orthodox services so we joined the Syriac Orthodox in the Tomb of Sts. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, where the entire service was conducted in Aramaic, the lingua franca at the time of Christ.
The service was presided over by the Patriarchal Vicar of Jerusalem and Jordan, Mor Severios Malke Mourad, who I was lucky enough to meet just an hour before hand. His Eminence gave us a blessing and as we followed him and the other faithful through the streets of the Old Jerusalem to the cave, we felt something special, something vibrant, something…holy.
He also did something I had never seen before; usually, when blessing the olive tree the clergy would bring in some reeds or branches, nope, they brought in an entire olive tree to the cave with 200 plus people and zero ventilation for a service that normally takes about two hours. Even as the Romanians, Greeks, Armenians and Ethiopians marched through during the service to bless the tomb of the saints, no one passed out, no one complained and the entire service felt illuminated with the Holy Spirit.
A tsunami of emotions took over me at prison where Caiaphas the High Priest kept Jesus, which is now under St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Jerusalem. In the cell where Christ was held, you can read Psalm 88 (Psalm 87 in the LXX). We took turns reading the Psalm in various languages from Korean, to Spanish and English and each person who read aloud was over come with great emotion to stand in the same spot where their Creator was help captive.
There was something I learned on this trip after all my years of studying and teaching theology. Miracles aren’t always some giant grandiose gesture from God that need to come with the sounding of trumpets. They are some of the smallest things that can calm a crowd instantly and unifying people in prayer even with denominational divides as they chant together in various languages, CHRIST IS RISEN!