Holy Week Thoughts from the Holy Land

March 31, 2021 by

Easter has given me a chance to reflect over the past year that I’ve been privileged to live in Jerusalem. When I set out for Israel from my home Bruderhof in upstate New York, I had no idea how COVID-19 was about to change everyone’s lives. For the whole world it has been a year of uncertainty, fear, anger, pain, and death, and one no one will forget too easily. For many tourism-dependent countries like Israel, the economy has been dealt a heavy blow and will take a long time to recover. With several lockdowns and extensive restrictions, the many holy sites throughout this land have been closed to visitors and left quiet and empty besides the daily ringing of bells from the churches and the call to prayer from the mosques.

IEmbed1Tapers at the underground chapel at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Photo by author.

Yet the people of this Holy Land are resilient, having seen countless difficult times and experienced many situations of fear and unknown, so in a way this is nothing new. But as a foreigner the pandemic has left me with a unique perspective on the land. With no tourists, the streets are only filled with the locals trying to go about their lives, now depending on each other’s business and the government – widely considered corrupt – to keep them alive. I rarely hear English spoken as I walk. When I enter a store, I always have to ask apologetically for English after “Shalom” and a string of Hebrew words have been thrown my way.

Now that much of the adult population has received the COVID vaccine already, the country is opening up again for life, finding a new normal. People are beginning to travel within the country and the businesses that have survived are trying to gain momentum again. Churches and holy sites are open for visitors either by appointment or only during specific hours.

This morning I decided to get up early and take the five-minute walk from where I live in the Old City down the worn market streets to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The brightly painted shop doors were still closed and the streets still quiet and empty besides the few early risers. This church is complicated. It was originally built in the fourth century under the direction of Emperor Constantine and his mother, Saint Helena, who had discovered a rock-cut tomb under what was then a temple to Jupiter or Venus and believed it to be the site of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is shared by six Christian denominations, each owning different parts of the church. There is an understanding in place here known as the Status Quo, where nothing can be changed within the church unless consensus from all six Christian communities is given. A ladder on a balcony above the doors of the church is a symbol of this agreement and hasn’t been moved since the eighteenth century. And the keys to the church have remained in the hands of the same Muslim family since 1192.

As it was Sunday, the complex was alive with all the denominations having services in their parts of the church. It was loud with bells and drums, singing and chanting; many robed monks and priests were walking around amid the aroma of incense in the air. I walked in slowly, observing all the goings on, and turned right down the dimly-lit hall, past different small, unlit chapels and down the stairs. My destination was an empty underground chapel where the ceiling and part of the wall are natural stone, believed to be part of the hill known as Golgotha. As I descended, I marveled at the thousands of crusader crosses carved into the stone walls, and it struck me that this site has been a pilgrimage destination for over a thousand years. Still to this day, thousands of people visit this church every year, but since the pandemic has shut down all international travel to Israel, the halls which are usually packed body-to-body are uniquely deserted.

IEmbed2The author in Jerusalem.

I made my way back up the stairs and around the outside of the main chapel, past a few smaller chapels and several enormous old ladders leaning up against ancient pillars. A Greek Orthodox Divine Liturgy was taking place in the large center chapel and I briefly stopped to observe the many robed figures moving around inside, before I continued on. There were stands of beautiful lit tapers that quietly crackled as they burned. I paused to notice their graceful flickering flames. As I found an empty chapel to sit in for some time, I was filled with mixed emotions. I hummed the song, “There is a Green Hill”:

There is a green hill far away outside the city walls, where our dear Lord was crucified who died to save us all. We may not know, we cannot tell what pain He had to bear. But we believe it was for us He hung and suffered there.

This could be the place where Jesus, obeying his Father, changed the course of human life and history. But instead of a quiet peace that I would have imagined at such a place, the amount of noise, incense, and coinciding services hit me. I have walked through this church before. That Sunday I was struck by the similarity of what I experienced to the situation of our world today, with all its confusion and chaos. If this is the place where Jesus suffered, died, was buried, and triumphantly rose again for us all and for this whole world, I do not know. But that is not important to me right now. My love and dedication to him, thankfulness for what he did for us all, and desire to work for his kingdom to break in again here on earth is more urgent. It is what he commanded us to do. I ask myself, “Am I ready to gladly take up my cross like he did, and to follow him no matter what he has in store for my life?” It is a daily question that takes determination and struggle each hour through my thoughts, my words, and my actions. But living in this Holy Land where the Bible comes alive has given me greater inspiration to take up that fight each day and to make the most of every moment.

Kateri Menz is a member of the Bruderhof living in Jerusalem, Israel.


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