The Joy of learning about God in Jerusalem

Author: Cletus Atindana

Truly, I rejoiced greatly when I received my appointment to study Theology in the Holy Land where the mysteries of my Christian faith all begun. I longed to see the walls of Jerusalem, walk my feet on its streets and worship in its holy places. Time flew and for four years now, what hitherto seemed to me a dream is now a passing reality. My feet are standing within the walls of Jerusalem.

My eyes are seeing her holy places and my heart is reaping her blessings. At the same time bewilderment never leaves my mind as I watch with deep sorrow, the unfolding drama of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As clear as my eyes can see and as much as my mind can discern, Jerusalem is the rotunda of the world. It retains its unparalleled status as the mountain of the Lord where all the tribes go up to worship the Holy One of humanity. On this mountain, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from every corner of the world pour in to visit. Her streets are rarely empty of visitors who look with curiosity and touch whatever is worth it with innocence and a sense of fulfilment. Candles never cease to burn in her churches and holy shrines. At the sound of the shofar, her synagogues are well attended and her mosques are filled up as soon as the Muezzin calls the azan. Indeed, on this mountain of the Lord, the three Abrahamic religions inescapably meet. People from all walks of life meet. Cultures meet. In fact, one can even assert that the world meets itself in Jerusalem or rather, in the Holy Land.

I consider myself really fortunate to learn to speak of God and about Him in the very land in which Jesus himself lived and revealed God. Indeed, the feeling and understanding are never the same when a biblical passage is read and meditated in the very place and close context where that particular biblical story is said to have taken place. Surely, the sentiments are higher and the comprehension much enhanced. I understand much better and my intellectual appetite stirs me to deeper faith when in the very place, my whole person stands and hears or reads the Gospel passages of the annunciation to Mary in Nazareth or the transfiguration of the Lord on mount Tabor or the agony of the Lord in the garden of Gethsemane or the Crucifixion of Jesus on Calvary or the healing of the paralytic in the pool of Bethesda which even through my window, I see clearly. On Calvary or rather in the Holy Sepulcher as the place is simply known, praying, reading or hearing the resurrection narratives while seeing the Cross and touching the empty tomb soaks my being with hope, blessings and peace.

Doubtlessly, reading the ancient story of David and Goliath while standing somewhere on Tel Sochoh and seeing Tel Azekah on the other side with the valley of Elah in between, makes it much easier to visualize, to understand and to savour the sweetness of the story. Qumran and its rich archaeological discoveries pertinent to my faith is within reach. At the sight of the Judean wilderness, my mind often quickly recalls Mary’s ardent journey to visit her cousin Elizabeth. The same geographical reality reminds me vividly of the crying voice of John the Baptist. How could one not stand in awe when one finds oneself standing on Mt Moriah, now called the Temple Mount, the most contested place for Jews and Muslims? On this Mount, Abraham accepted in faith to sacrifice Isaac to God. Isaac was the sacrificial victim but now it is the Temple Mount itself that has become the sacrificial victim. What is obvious is that, there is no Abraham to offer it. Neither Jews nor Muslims are ready to sacrifice this place, one for the other. There is a perpetual tug of war resulting in sporadic unrests. In the midst of this one can hardly think of any possibility of obtaining peace. Such an idea may simply be an illusion.

When it comes to the celebration of the great Christian and Jewish feasts in Jerusalem, there is much to see, much to participate in, much to rejoice at, much to learn about and much to contemplate on. On Christmas Eve, while one has the greatest pleasure to attend mass in the Nativity Church in Bethlehem, there are also chances to celebrate it within the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. Palm Sunday seems to me the most attended of the Christian celebrations. Held every year starting from Bethphage on the other side of the Mt of Olives, the often thick and long animated procession usually ends in the compound of the White Fathers in St Anne’s Basilica in the Old City.

The Patriarch of Jerusalem often gives a short message and concludes the ceremony with a solemn blessing. On this day, Christians in Jerusalem and those who come from other places show their greatest signs of solidarity and unity. Judging from the manner they often pray, sing, and dance and make noise, I could almost always see them asserting firmly, their hard-earned place in Jerusalem as a minority group among the dominant Jews and Muslims inhabitants. This year (2017), due to bad weather, the turnout was comparatively low. Nonetheless, the event retained its impulse and significance as it has always accomplished.

The Easter Triduum is often celebrated rather solemnly in Christian religious communities and in the respective parishes with the Holy Sepulcher remaining the mega point. Three communities including St Anne’s co-organise the Paschal Triduum. The solemn Mass of Holy Thursday is often celebrated in the community of St Peter in Gallicantu located close to the Upper Room on Mt Zion. After the mass, we somberly walk down across the Kidron valley and up to the Garden of Gethsemane to join the procession of the Franciscans and the rest of the Christian family to relive the principal events of Christ’s prediction of Peter’s denial, the fleeing of his disciples, his agony in the garden and his consequent arrest.

On Good Friday, while many gather in the Holy Sepulcher for the Lord’s Passion and others in their appointed places, I often participate in this painful salvific event in the Lithostrotos (the significant place of reverence of the Lord’s Passion) in the Ecce Hommo Pilgrim House. On Holy Saturday, we gather in our community in St Anne’s Basilica for the Easter Vigil Mass. Often well attended, we joyfully sing at the top of our voices and the special echo in the St Anne’s Basilica ripples our voices to make the Easter Glory resound and fill the sky. Early in the next morning, on Easter Sunday, we continue to resound the glories of Easter by having a solemn mass on the terrace of the Ecce Homo community.

Interestingly, those who are zealous and strong enough to walk, make the Emmaus experience by partaking in a ten-hour walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus Nicopolis. I underwent this journey too but while Cleopas and his fellow disciple had heavy hearts as they walked and discussed their disappointment in the events of Christ death, I had a burning feet as I walked along and contemplated the events of Good Friday.

The previous year’s walk was particularly hectic and required only daring hearts since we were lashed by rain and wind during more than half of the whole journey. Most of us were discouraged and our hopes went dim. But, as we managed to reach Emmaus, at the breaking of bread, the blessing was the same; we too had our eyes opened and our hearts warmed. We returned to Jerusalem renewed and ready to testify that the Lord Jesus is alive and in our midst!
Since Jewish life is well punctuated by several feasts, one can hardly miss seeing Jewish feast celebrated in Jerusalem. At the sight of tents, one quickly realizes that the feast of sukkot is being celebrated.

On the feast of Purim celebrated on the 14th of March every year, one has the joy to see Jewish youngsters adorn themselves with unusual paintings and dressing styles to mock their ancient adversaries who sought to exterminate their ancestors while they sojourned in Persia. A month later after Purim, the great Passover feast is celebrated in commemoration of the Exodus event.

As a foreigner, the celebration of the feast of Yom Kippur has been one of the rare occasions I receive open hearted Shalom greetings from some Jews.
I am able to enjoy my studies and lived experiences in the Holy Land thanks to the gracious support of the St Anne’s Community. In it God gives me the strength and the tranquility to discover Him.

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