From Matthew’s Gospel:
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Matthew 21:1-11 (NRSV) – June 28, 2014)
Is it merely fortuitous that this turns out to be the Gospel lesson for the Daily Office today? Today we went to the Mount of Olives, to Gethsemane, to the place were Jesus was questioned by Caiaphas the High Priest.
We started, as we started yesterday, with that Middle Eastern breakfast of cucumbers and olives, pita and cheeses, yogurt and pickled eggplant. It was an early start, too. A short bus ride to the Garden of Gethsemane where we were the only people present! Walking around (not in) the Garden, seeing the ancient (though not 2,000 year old) olive trees, smelling the garden flowers in the early morning . . . it was (as my wife said) exactly as one would have envisioned it. And, of course, it’s designed that way. This Garden is a relatively modern iteration of the old reality, a modern version whose creation was guided by those spiritual and artistic sensitivities of centuries of Christian devotion. It’s emotional impact is not less real for all of that. Modern garden or not, this is the place where Jesus spent his last free moments of life.
The Garden is dominated by the Church of All Nations, a 1924 structure built by an Italian architect, Antonio Barluzzi. Heavy, dark, and foreboding as befits the story of Maundy Thursday, it is an impressive structure. It houses what is called the stone of agony: “Going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him.” (Mark 14:35) By tradition, this stone is the “ground” on which Jesus prayed for an alternative outcome. Kneeling before the altar, placing one’s hands and forehead on the stone, and giving up one’s will to God’s will is deeply profound experience.
After Gethsemane, we went up the Mount of Olives and back a few days in the Holy Week story, to Palm Sunday. We went to the Church of Bethphage at the place where Jesus is said to have stopped on his way into the city:
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’ ” (Mark 11:1-3)
Another Barluzzi church (actually his restoration of a pre-existing church), Church of Bethphage is quite small, but was wonderful accoustics. Mark Stanger and Keith Owen blessed small olive branches for us to carry, and we sang All Glory, Laud, and Honor (“Valet will ich der geben”). That was glorious! Great to be with people who clearly love to sing and in a place where that singing is enhanced.
Then we cheated a bit . . . we took a bus part of the way down the Mount, disembarked, and walked to the church called Dominus Flevit, “The Lord Wept.” Again, a Barluzzi building built in the 1950s. At the corners of the building, at roof level, are representations of urns supposed to be vials for collecting tears, inspired by the psalm verse, “You have noted my lamentation;put my tears into your bottle; are they not recorded in your book?” (Ps. 56:8, BCP version) The reference to Jesus weeping is not to the death of Lazarus, but to Jesus weeping over the city of Jerusalem which is said to have occurred at this spot.
This was the most moving part of the day for me, and I will return to it in a minute.
From there we walked on to Gethsemane, where we had already been, then board the bus for a drive through the Kidron Valley and up the slopes to an old part of Jerusalem outside the current walls, but not before a small detour to learn more about the state of things in modern Israel and Palestine.
At the top of the highway is Mount Scopus, or Mount of the Lookout. Hebrew University has a campus here and we stopped at a scenic viewpoint and terrace owned by the university on the Jerusalem side of the mountain. Visible from there was the Hecht Synagogue on the campus, which was built in honor of US Senator (from Nevada) Chic Hecht; Chic had been a good friend of my father when I was child in Las Vegas! From there, we went to a similar viewpoint on the other side of the mountain. Visible from there was the desert landscape of occupied West Bank . . . and the “settlements” Israel is building there.
“Settlement” has always suggested to me a small group of temporary houses or perhaps mobile homes occupied by a few crazy Zionist families. That’s not what they are at all. They are massive planned communities housing hundreds of thousands of people. Israel is surrounding Arab East Jerusalem (which is in the West Bank – geography here is confusing) with a ring of settlements so that, eventually, 200,000 Palestinian Arabs will be surrounded by nearly half a million Jewish “settlers.” This is not a bunch of fanatics breaking the law — this is a nation breaking international law and stealthily, steadily taking over and conquering occupied territory!
After that eye-opener about the modern state of Israel, we returned to the First Century, making our way to what is believed to have been the location of the High Priest Caiaphus’s house where Jesus was taken after his arrest and where Peter denied knowing him. A Byzantine church was built on the site many centuries ago. That was replaced in the 1990s by a modern French Benedictine church called St. Peter in Gallicantu which means “St. Peter at Cock Crow.”
Below the church is a dungeon where it is believed Christ was questioned and spent the night before his crucifixion. Here, in the pit, we gathered and recited Psalm 87. Outside the church is an ancient stone stairway leading up from the Kidron Valley into the old city. Our guides tell us that we can be certain that Christ walked these steps when he went to and from Jerusalem from and to the home of his friend’s Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany.
After that . . . lunch in a local restaurant (a variety of salty Middle Eastern “salads,” followed by baked chicken with rice, carrots, and peas) and then a return to St. George’s Guest House where, after freshening up and napping, we heard a presentation on Islam, enjoyed a lovely dinner of fish, and then read Compline together.
As I mentioned above, the most moving part of the day for me was at the Church Dominus Flevit. I entered the church and found a congregation gathered for Holy Communion. The Franciscans were setting the altar and preparing to say the Mass, and I noted that the altar window frames the Dome of the Rock. Christians celebrating our most holy sacrament would look out at two of the most holy sites of the other two Abrahamic faiths: Judaism’s temple mount and Islam’s Dome of the Rock. It occurred to me that our holiest site is not a geographically fixed place. As holy and moving as all the places we have visited (and those we will visit) are, none of them is our faith’s holiest place. Our holiest place is a table. It may be the altar or communion table of our local church; it may be a table in our own homes; it may be a folding table set up at summer camp. Wherever the elements of bread and wine are offered, blessed, broken and shared as the Body and Blood of Christ, that is our holiest place.
I had to come half-way around the world to this land of the Holy One to discover that the holiest place is back home, wherever home may be.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.
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