Fr Robert Christo is the Vicar of Communications and while on sabbatical, he joined a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Holy Week. He writes about experiencing Holy Week at a time in the history of Israel when simultaneously Muslims celebrated Ramadan, Jews celebrated the Passover, and Christians celebrated Easter in the same sacred space. Locals in the Holy Land believe that 2023 marks a significant anniversary in our 2000-year history, since Holy Week falls on the same calendar days as it did in Jesus’ time.
Incense of various scents swirled within the temple. Its stinging fragrance hung in the air long after the Greek Orthodox (Coptics) Palm Sunday cavalcade clashed with the Christian Easter procession. The priests’ gaudy liturgical vestments swept the uneven cobbled stone floors and exploded in yards of layered black silk, bejewelled with precious and ancient stones. They glided with finesse and piety, like hooded crows on Carnival floats that glistened in black gold.
Outside in the marketplace, the call-and-response singing that mingled with whistles seemed to drown the bong of the bells of the Easter church service inside. There, the Gregorian chants and sung Alleluias competed with the shrieking of the Coptics’ during their Palm Sunday procession. My ear followed the louder ritual, while my nose galloped after the more pungent scent.
The mystique of Jerusalem just jibes with me. Of all the places in the world, that’s where I most want to return. I never imagined that the fabric of my life would include this truth: I would celebrate Holy Week and the Triduum on the sites and spots where it is believed to have actually happened.
For me, the gospel will never be the same again. This lived experience of Holy Week and the Paschal Mystery, demystifies that mystery. And the mysteries of the Holy Rosary will no longer be a figment of the imagination.
Threaded through the fabric that is my life, I now wear the garment of experience, of celebrating the three liturgies of the one Christ-event – the Triduum in the Holy Land.
On Holy Thursday, I was in the Upper Room. On Good Friday, I was at the foot of the cross at Calvary, meditating and awed at the stark crack on the rock which remained after the earthquake on that first Good Friday.
Later, during the grand Easter morning Mass, I stood tearful at the site of the empty tomb –unworthy yet ecstatic.
For those three days, I operated on pure adrenaline. I attempted to find space for reflection amongst thousands of worshippers and at the same time, sneak an opportunity to hoist our national flag at the liturgies to plead for the intentions of my country.
It was so chaotic that at the Easter Sunday Mass one could hear the trampling on the ground of palm trees around the same Empty Tomb – the site of the Resurrection – because members of the Greek Orthodox Church were in procession for their Palm Sunday Liturgy.
When we challenged the Patriarch for order in scheduling a different time for their activities, he chided: “Order is for the Western world.” Perhaps the Patriarch is right. Life is neither linear nor orderly. The site demonstrated this. There was no end to conflicts, crowds, events, fetes and bartering there.
I’d been intentional about trying to be sane in this old city – bustling with so much trade amidst all this religiosity. It reminded me of our own Siparee Mai Holy Thursday celebrations in Siparia, where different religious worlds converge and share the same sacred space.
Yet that space is not fully utilised for ecumenical or religious dialogue. Perhaps we are not able, or ready or sufficiently open to accept and celebrate our diversity, whilst embracing our unity to the fulfilment of God’s purpose but as both Arabic and Hebrew speakers frequently say in Israel, “Yalla”, a word that means “let’s go on”.
Roped by the pull of both the secular and the sacred, it was hard to reflect on my pilgrimage experience, let alone prepare myself for the spiritual gravity of Holy Week.
I struggled to enter the spirituality of Holy Week as a pilgrim while I sought to simultaneously explore the other sites of the mysteries of Christ – the Annunciation, Visitation, Transfiguration – as a tourist.
Each day, I deliberately sought opportunities for both, receiving double portions of grace to balance that tightrope.
The Patriarch’s words regarding order and chaos is stitched in my memory, quilted into the patchwork of my life. Yes, we may strive for order, but we are created to thrive in chaos. Life is chaotic.
Here, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where six religious denominations share the same sacred space, order is desirable, but life is more than worrying about little logistics and scheduling. Isn’t it much better to be present in the moment, able to thrive amidst the chaos, remembering where I am, what happened in this place 2000 years before, and what a privilege it is to be here while on sabbatical?
“Order is for the Western world?” Yalla!
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