Keep calm and carry on?

There are so many mugs and tea towels around with that declaration which so pithily describes much of the stoic British attitude – ‘Keep calm and carry on’.

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It didn’t quite feel like that when I got to Tesco in the afternoon after we had arrived back from our pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  In large sections the shelves were empty.  I had been prepared, of course, for this by seeing pictures of panic buying taking place as the effects of Coronavirus, Covid-19, began to be felt.  There were no toilet rolls to be bought (fortunately as a bit of a ‘wise virgin’ I have some at home and there is always newspaper that my grandma cut up in her day and hung on a peg in the outside loo) and there was no anti-bacterial soap.  It took a while to find a packet of Cheerios which some guests who were arriving had requested (obviously they must have an anti-viral quality of which I was unaware) but eventually I found the final packet.  It felt as though something frightening was happening.

Since arriving back we have been meeting often in the cathedral to put into effect the different bits of advice and the guidelines that have been coming through.  But it has not been easy to make that moderate and considered response that I believe we have to make.  Panic doesn’t make us effective.

Whilst we were in the Holy Land if began to feel as though we were keeping just one step ahead of the virus, like in some action thriller – ‘Earthquake’, or ‘Inferno’ – or one of those one-word entitled movie where the heroes are driving frantically whilst the disaster is bearing down on them in their rear view mirror! Day One began as normal, the view across the city and the walk down the Mount of Olives, St Peter in Gallicantu and Mass at Emmaus.  Day Two was Stations of the Cross – all very normal but quite quiet on the Via Dolorosa, Mass in Holy Redeemer Church, lunch and then Mount Sion.  Day Three – that is where it began to fall apart.  We were meant to be in the Shepherds’ Fields for the Eucharist and then in Bethlehem and all after we had visited L’Arche in Bethlehem and the Convent of the Comboni Sisters in Bethany.

A message came through – Bethlehem was closed.  There were cases of the Coronavirus there.  Then we heard the whole of the West Bank was closed.  Our plans needed to change.  It was a dreadful disappointment, not least for those for whom this was their first time in the Holy Land and who were looking forward to their visit to Bethlehem, obviously one of the high points of any pilgrimage.  But it was also deeply disappointing for those who were to visit L’Arche.  After the shocking revelations about the founder, Jean Vanier, which had emerged just a few weeks before, we were wanting to give our full support to the community there and, indeed, support of that particular L’Arche community is part of this year’s Bishop’s Lent Call to the Diocese of Southwark.

But the Comboni Sisters’ convent was actually, technically, in Jerusalem, it was on the Israel side of the Separation Wall and so we could go there.  So instead of 32 pilgrims descending on them they had 67 and they opened up their house to us and gave us the use of their chapel as well as a wonderful, warm welcome.  Instead of a Mass in the open air in the fields above which thronged angels sang we gathered in their chapel – and it was wonderful.  In fact the whole visit was wonderful.

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Sister Alicia explains their situation

Sister Alicia spoke to us after the service.  She took us onto the roof of the convent and showed us the view from up there.  The Israeli security wall surrounds the convent, you feel as though you could lean across and touch it and you can certainly do that in their grounds.  They live alongside this ugly, inhuman barrier and it has separated them from the community and the children to whom they were ministering. Their kindergarten, scarred by the effect of ‘Molotov Cocktails’ thrown across the wall into their grounds, has children’s friendly pictures painted, Banksy style, onto the cruel concrete. But the sisters represent that stoic attitude, they are there, they are calm, they carry on.  Children now have to travel 18 km to get to the kindergarten.  The ‘door’, more like a window in the wall, through which the children used to be passed from their hands of their mothers into the hands of the sisters has been closed by the Israeli government.  But the sisters stay calm and carry on.

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The kindergarten

Bethany was there before us, we couldn’t enter.  It was now not just the wall but the virus that was keeping us out.  Yet this was the place of hospitality, the town that Jesus called home when he was in Jerusalem, the place where his dear friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived.  This town, the name of which means ‘House of the Poor’, is now called in Arabic Al-Eizariya ‘The place of Lazarus’.  The one who Jesus brought back from the dead is the one who gives a name to the town, and we know that it too will have new life, at some time – and the sisters persistent, calm presence is testament to that.

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Bethany is the other side of the wall

When Jesus was in Bethany there was a great deal of frantic activity going on in the kitchen.  Pots were clanging as poor Martha tried to get dinner ready whilst her sister was sitting at Jesus feet, listening, as though there was nothing to be done.

‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’ (Luke 10.41-42)

The sisters at the convent modeled this for me, the better part.  We waved goodbye at the end of our visit, better for it.  I had never been there before and in my quest for the ‘Hidden and Holy’ in the Holy Land, this was an amazing place to add to my list.

We were constantly adjusting the rest of the pilgrimage as places were closed down around us.  Our flight was cancelled and we had to leave earlier but that allowed me to get to the ransacked supermarket – so into all bad.  But as I was about to go to sleep on the final evening I looked out across the Sea of Galilee and the full moon shining across its still waters.

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Sister Moon

Beautiful.  Whatever tomorrow holds I will remember the sisters and that moon.

God,
in the midst of so much uncertainty,
anxiety
and fear,
help me to keep calm
and carry on.
Amen.

You’ll have to be patient

Patience is a virtue, so we are told. So could you be virtuous please and wait for me to get back from the pilgrimage to the Holy Land that I am on? I will then write a blog telling you all about it. Thanks. Until then pray for us as we will pray for you.

Southwark pilgrims on the Via Dolorosa

God of our pilgrimage, bless all our journeys and bring us at the last to our heavenly home where all our journeys end. Amen.

Opening the door

There is something very intriguing about closed doors – we often find ourselves wondering what is behind them. That is the premise of course of books like ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. Open the door and a whole new world lies beyond; you never know what treasures await you.

This weekend I am in Jerusalem attending the Centenary Celebrations of St George’s College. The College was founded 100 years ago to train priests for the church out here. But over the years it moved from doing that to providing study pilgrimages for individuals and groups from across the Anglican Communion. The College is in the Anglican Cathedral close and so part of the wider community that exists here. I first experienced the welcome and the facilities and the opportunities that the place provides when I spent half of my sabbatical here in 2016. I came out here with the intention of finding places that pilgrims to the Holy Land and particularly to Jerusalem seldom, if ever, visit. I have since been back on a number of occasions.

So it is great to be part of the celebrations. Canon Richard Sewell is the Dean of the College and the Course Director is Canon Mary June Nestler. With other staff here they form a terrific team.

As part of the celebrations we were treated to a morning out doing precisely what I had been doing on my sabbatical, going to two places that are not visited by many people and it meant going through two doors that are usually locked!

The first gate

There is a great deal of archeology going on in the Holy Land at all times and visitors will often see digs happening. Some of these are highly controversial, such as the ones around the old City of David that lies under the Palestinian village of Silwan. Not far from there, continuing up the road that skirts the walls of the city, and opposite the catholic cemetery where Oscar Schindler is buried, is one of these archaeological sites.

An unprepossessing temporary gate set in a concrete wall was opened and we went through into an archaeological site. This is where a gate that no longer exists used to be. The line of the present walls of Jerusalem which pilgrims see is not what it was at the time of Jesus. What is being discovered here is what is known as the Essene Gate. We were shown the line of the Bronze Age wall and then the later walls built upon it, the line of the Roman road that came through the gate and then the level of the Byzantine gate and houses. There was so much to see. This gate, looking towards the Valley of Hinnom or Gehenna, would have been known by Jesus and it is named after the sect, the Essenes, of which John the Baptist might have been a member, the group that lived at Qumran. It was a privilege to see.

The remains of the wall and gate

From there we walked to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was a beautiful day, crisp, cold but with a wonderful clear blue sky. The courtyard was full of pilgrim groups and the church was as packed as it always seems to be nowadays. But we turned right on entering and headed down to the Armenian Chapel. There we were met by Fr Samuel, one of the Armenian clergy who look after the chapel.

I had always known that chapel as being dedicated to St Helena, who discovered the True Cross on the site and whose son Constantine had the first basilica on the site built. But he told us that for the Armenians it is the chapel of St Gregory, the founder of the Armenian Church back in the very early 4th century. Then he took us to a black wrought iron door. One of our group was allowed to open it and we all went through.

Spot the door!

A number of years ago, about forty in fact, the Armenians decided to discover what lay behind their walls. What they found, when they removed all the dirt that was there, were the retaining walls built by Hadrian to create a platform on which his pagan temple could be built. This was destroyed by Constantine to build the basilica which, in a complex set of buildings, enshrined Calvary as well as the tomb of Jesus. But in addition to this the Armenians also discovered the bed rock and the lowest level of the quarry that occupied this site, the quarry above which the crucifixion occurred and the quarry alongside which Jesus was buried. We were deep below the level of the chapel and it was good to be there.

Behind the door

One other thing they had discovered was a stone on which had been inscribed a picture of a boat. A pilgrim, presumably had done this in the very early days of Christians coming to this place. And beneath the boat the words were written ‘O Lord, we have arrived.’ It is moving to see such evidence of the pilgrims who have trodden the path before you, who made the often perilous journey, by land and sea, to be here.

‘O Lord, we have arrived.’

We went back out and the door was locked. I was reminded of that lovely Epiphany anthem that we hear sung at this time. The music is by Herbert Howells, the words by Frances Chesterton

Here is the little door, 
lift up the latch, oh lift! 
We need not wander more, 
but enter with our gift;
Our gift of finest gold. 
Gold that was never bought or sold;
Myrrh to be strewn about his bed;
Incense in clouds about His head;
All for the child that stirs not in His sleep,
But holy slumber hold with ass and sheep.

‘We need not wander more’, O Lord, we have arrived. The door is opened and we enter in and what treasures we find.

Lord, may we be door openers to others, that they too may find your treasures. Amen.

Settling

I wasn’t really a big fan of ‘Little House on the Prairie’; I preferred ‘Children on the Oregon Trail’ by Anna Rutgers van der Loeff.  It’s a story based on the remarkable journey made by the Sager children through the north-west of America in the pioneering days of 1844. John Sager is 13 when his family leave Mississippi for the Far West. When tragedy strikes and John’s parents die, he’s left to look after his six younger siblings. It was all wagons and ‘Red Indians’ (it was quite an old book when I read it as a child) and full of adventures.  But both of those stories, and others like them, put into our minds the idea of those intrepid people who headed west, into an unknown land, to settle what, with a colonial mindset, they believed to be their land. But the wagons and the log cabins and the gingham aprons, and cowboys on horseback are only one idea of what it means to be a settler.

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Settlers

It was disturbing to hear last week the news that the USA administration has declared that the Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank are no longer illegal but legal.  Until now even the USA with its pro-Israeli agenda had defined the settlements as illegal developments on land held against international law.  Whilst the UN and other nations hold firm in their opinion we have to recognise that in this, as in many things, the expressed opinion of the USA has an effect.

I have written before on this blog about the reality of the settlements that pilgrims see when they’re in the Holy Land.  Forget the Sager children and their covered wagon; forget the Ingalls family and Michael Landon in the TV series of ‘Little House’; when you see these settlements what you see is urbanization, small cities that are sprouting, like mushrooms, at an alarming rate.

Jesus said ‘A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.’ (Matthew 5.14)  Settlements are generally built on hills, like defensive emplacements looking down on the Palestinian villages and towns that have been there for ever.  Take Bethany for instance.  This town of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, the bolt hole of Jesus, is now divided by the Separation Wall – Jesus couldn’t make the Palm Sunday journey he made any longer and neither can pilgrims travelling in his wake – and the whole town is looked down on, literally, by a huge sprawling settlement.

You can spot a settlement.  New buildings, green watered lawns, security on the roads entering them, served by a new fast road network on which Palestinian drivers and cars are not allowed to travel. When I was in the Holy Land last year helping on a course from St George’s College we spent part of a day visiting the 70 year old Palestinian Refugee Camp run by UNHCR in Bethlehem and then the more recently built Settlement outside of the city.  In both we met local people living in very different situations, mere miles apart, yet worlds apart.  The resident of the refugee camp was living with that identity, waiting for the return his ancestral home and land lost in 1948 and the settler was living with that identity, defiant, with a sense of biblical entitlement, with a pioneering spirit and intolerance to match.

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The view from the Shepherds’ Fields

As, just a few days ago, we sat at the Shepherds’ Fields looking across the valley from the hill that we were on to the one opposite, we reflected on the growth of the settlements that we could see.  Those who’d been pilgrims ten years ago remembered those hills as bare.  Now they are anything but and as you can see from this photograph the buildings are moving relentlessly to the east and into the wilderness.  But this was not land that was waiting to be settled, this was ancestral land, olive groves, grazing land, land that Boaz had farmed, that shepherds had watched their flocks on, that angels had hovered over as they sang of the birth of the Prince of Peace.

The reality that we have to face is that Palestinian towns are being encircled by settlements and that this will make a Two-State Solution almost impossible to achieve in a few years time.  It is sad, and more than sad.

God of justice,
we hold before you
the land through which your Son walked,
the fields in which he sat,
the towns that he knew.
May there be justice and peace for all.
Amen.

Back home

We had a great pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  But what a shock coming home! Ten days in the heat had made me unprepared for the drop in temperature that met us as we left Heathrow airport.  But I’m sure I’ll get used to it fairly quickly. The other shock, of course, was the number of emails that were waiting in the Inbox.  I try to monitor it as far as I can but leading a pilgrimage is a full-time privilege so I was unable to keep those emails turned over.  But the Inbox is back to manageable levels, and the washing has almost be done and the bags almost unpacked, so re-entry into normal life has all but happened.

I’m a great one for looking back, however, in the ‘This time last week I was doing this’ kind of way.  So I have been thinking back over the things we did.  Rather unfairly I was asking fellow pilgrims what their highlights had been as we were beginning our journey home and maybe that was a bit too early for them to answer properly.  But I have been asking myself that same question since returning.

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Street art in Hebron

To be honest, I think the highlight for me was being able to spend a day in Hebron.  The current advice on the Foreign Office website says this about visiting the city.

There is a closed military zone in the H2 area of Hebron (around Ash-Shuhada Street and the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs), where there is a risk of a hostile reaction from members of extremist groups.

Well, we walked down that street and we visited the mosque and the synagogue in the Tomb.  In fact it was Layla from the Hebron Women’s Cooperative who escorted us down the street and showed us what the effect of the arrival of the Settlers on the local population had been. Former shops and homes on what was once a busy street are now locked and boarded up.  Soldiers are on duty to make sure that people don’t stray where tehy shouldn’t – someone had been shot in the legs the week before for doing just that, we were told. Layla then led us through the souk and past the shop which sold the work by the women who are members of the cooperative and to her home.

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Ash-Shuhada Street

She had prepared Maghluba for us, a traditional Palestinian dish.  The word literally means “upside down” in Arabic and it is impressively turned out onto a large dish so that the whole family can dig in.  There was chicken and rice and onion, cauliflower, carrot, all perfectly cooked and gently and beautifully flavoured.  It was real home cooking and, as nice as hotel food is, you can’t beat what the family eats.

Waiting for lunch

Waiting for the Maghluba to be turned out

We sat there, some on cushions on the floor, others of us (the less supple) on chairs and simply enjoyed Layla’s lovely and generous hospitality.  It was calm inside her home and the tension on the streets seemed like another world.  Here we were, being looked after in the city where hospitality was given by our father Abraham and our mother Sarah to the three angels.  They didn’t have Maghluba, as far as we know, but the spirit of generosity was the same, and God was made known.

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13.2)

Sometimes angels entertain us as well!

Loving God,
thank you for those
who open their homes to others.
Amen.

On the road again

I celebrated my birthday just before heading off on a road trip through California in August.  Some close friends brought me a lovely gift – some stars and stripes socks, a very posh car air freshener, a three-CD set of ‘Road Anthems’ and a copy of Jack Kerouac’s book, ‘On the Road’.  It’s the archetypal road novel and in it one of the heroes Dean exclaims, with delight in the whole business of journey, in his passion for the road and expresses that passion as he says, ‘we gotta go and never stop going till we get there.’ The socks I wore to the wedding we were going to, the air freshener made even more delightful the huge Mitsubishi SUV we were driving, the music became the soundtrack for the road and the book remains a journey icon.

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On the road in California

People often comment that I’m always going somewhere.  I can’t deny it.  What is amazing is that when I went for my ACCM (what is now called a BAP, the discenment process for going forward for ordination) one of those interviewing me was startled when, asking where I’d been, discovered that at 21 the furthest I had been was the Isle of Wight.  So when the Bishop of Leicester received the letter from ACCM telling him that I was conditionally recommended it was no surprise that a condition on being ordained was that I travel! I kid you not.  Those who have access to my ‘Blue File’ (the file that travels though ministry alongside we clergy) can check it for themselves.  So in obedience to Mother Church I have been travelling ever since.

But that Selector (as they were then called) was right.  People say that ‘travelling broadens the mind’, it does, and it increases so much awareness of people and places.  So a fortnight ago I was having a few days in Sofia in Bulgaria.  I had a few days off marked in the diary and having not been there and thinking of taking a pilgrimage to Bulgaria in a few years time I thought I’d go to see what it was like.

It was wonderful.  The ex-eastern bloc countries share many things in common and Bulgaria certainly shows the signs of its Soviet past, as Armenia and Georgia do.  But one thing it retained through those years, though diminished of course, was the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.  Our hotel was very close to the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.  I had been told that Vespers on a Saturday evening was a ‘must do’.  I can concur with that.  We arrived at 6.30pm as the liturgy began, a single priest in the semi darkness chanting from a lectern facing the iconostasis.  Then the choir began and the lights came on, the holy doors opened and deacons and priests emerged.  It was wonderful.  But what was most wonderful was the choir.  Many of the singers come from the national opera we were told and the quality is incredible. If you are in Sofia on a Saturday make sure you go – 45 minutes of being transported to heaven.

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The beautiful Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia

That was a high-point for me of this particular visit, that and finding the Museum of Socialist art.  It’s way out of the city centre, behind a rather uninspiring office building.  There in the open space, set into the grass, are statues from former times, Lenin, Stalin, Dimitriov all those huge figures from their 20th century life, statues that would have dominated the city.  Inside is an amazing collection of art from that period, realist, brutalist, ordinary faces, heroes of the age.  It was fascinating.  And at the entrance stands the star removed after the fall of the Berlin Wall from the top of the tower that stands at the front of what was the Communist Party Building.

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The dislodged star

There’s a great deal more to see, monasteries out in the woods and forests, a huge collection of the remains of the Roman occupation of the country, signs of their Ottoman past.  I look forward to returning there.

But this week I return to the Holy Land.  21 of us are going, mainly from the Cathedral, on a pilgrimage designed for those who have been on pilgrimage there before and want to walk another path, travel a slightly different road.  You can follow the particular blog for our journey here.

‘We gotta go and never stop going till we get there.’ Dean’s words are applicable to people of faith as well.  The journey motif, like the pilgrimage motif, is so important for us.  Jesus and his disciples travel from place to place, from community to community.  He sends them out two by two to make mission journeys and ‘he sets his face towards Jerusalem’ (Luke 9.51).  We follow in his footsteps, catching up with Alexander Nevsky again in the convent close to the Holy Sepulchre and following the never displaced star, that brought travellers to the place where they caught first sight of the God of the incarnation.

God, bless all our journeys
wherever they may take us.
Amen.

Living God in Jerusalem – Abram’s gate

I was very much looking forward to discovering new places on this visit to the Holy Land and I was able to do so when we visited Nablus in the West Bank.  It is always an exciting visit whenever you go.  A church stands over the well, Jacob’s Well, the one well that served the town and so it would have been the place known by Jacob and, most importantly for Christians, the well at which Jesus encountered the Samaritan woman in John 4.

But when we arrived the church was closed and wasn’t going to be open for a short while.  So rather than waste the time the coach took us around the corner (almost literally) to Tell Balata.  This is what remains of  the ancient city of Shechem.  Founded in the 19th century BC, so before the Iron Age, it is a monumental structure, huge walls, a temple mount and the remains of other buildings.  But this was the place that Abram arrived at according to the Book of Genesis.

Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. (Genesis 12.4-7)

I was imagining this patriarch, this nomad, having left the splendours of Ur and then travelling as the Lord had instructed and coming to this place.  We walked through the remains of the massive gatehouse and I wondered if Abram had walked that way. Did they let this stranger through those gates?

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The massive gate and wall of Shechem

But the significant thing that Genesis tells us that it was here, somewhere, that Abram built an altar and named God.  This was a pagan city, they weren’t worshiping the God of Israel, that God who was known to Abram and under whose direction the patriarch and his family were travelling.  But here God was worshiped and an offering was made.

It is remarkable what treasures lie just around the corner in this Holy Land, timeless and sacred places.

Loving God,
nameless and named,
formless and formed,
may we know you
and worship you
in Jesus. Amen.

Living God in Jerusalem – ‘Lord, we came’

Today was the day when we got up early and headed down to the Via Dolorosa to walk the Stations of the Cross, the Way of the Cross. It was a good move, we were on our own when we began, the shops along the way were not quite open and as we got to the Coptic monastery on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre there were just the monks sitting there, reading their daily office.  It was lovely and peaceful … until we got into the church itself.  The now restored Edicule (or Aedicule), the tomb of Jesus that stands beneath the great rotunda, was already encircled by pilgrims waiting for their 20 seconds in the tomb at the place where the body was laid, at the place where only the linen wrappings were found on that first Easter Day.

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The squint into the Edicule

When I was staying at St George’s College back in 2016 some of the work of restoration was ongoing and I remember the closure of the whole church as the slab above the stone on which Jesus was laid was removed after 500 years and the church leaders and the experts could see what was there.  Then it was all replaced.  The rather ugly, but effective, scaffolding that the British had put up around the tomb to stabilize it during the Mandate period, had been removed and the stones all cleaned.  Now it looks amazing.

In truth it doesn’t matter how long you wait in line in this church.  This is the most important holy site in the whole of Christendom.  But as you stand there, especially on the first occasion, especially if you have had no one to explain it all to you, you wonder – so where is Calvary, where did the ‘green hill’ of our hymns go, where is the garden, where is the rock hewn tomb? You can see nothing, at first sight, of any of these things.

Behind the Edicule (the posh name for the tomb) is a Coptic chapel and you can begin your discovery there.  Enter the little chapel and kneel down and get under the altar – reach out and you can touch the rock of the tomb.  First contact.  As you continue round look through the spy hole that exists, a squint such as found in many of our medieval churches and you catch a first glimpse inside. Second contact.  Then enter, first the outer chamber where the body was prepared and the inner chamber where the body was laid, kneel and kiss the stone.  Third contact.

All these people from all around the world.  There was a Roman Catholic sister from near Michigan in front of us, there was a Nigerian group behind us, Filipinos next to them.  It was wonderful.  But on pilgrimage we only ever tread where others have trod.

What is remarkable is that something has been discovered in the lower parts of the church that tells us that Christian pilgrims were coming to this place in the 2nd century AD when on the site where the church now stands stood a huge temple built by Emperor Hadrian, who had rebuilt the city after its destruction in AD 70.  Some Christians came there long before there was a church because they had heard that this now pagan site was where Jesus was buried.  Indeed, when St Helena, the mother of Constantine arrived in 326 and asked the Bishop of Jerusalem, Bishop Macarius, where Jesus was buried he took her to the site of the Roman temple.  The community knew it was there and pilgrims had already come there.

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Lord, we came

One group left their mark, on a stone that was just reused in Constantine’s amazing church, an image of a 1st or 2nd century boat and the simple message in Latin, “Domine, Ivimus” which may be translated as, “Lord, we came.” It’s a powerful message, simple and true for every pilgrim since “Lord, we came.” You don’t need to say more than that.

Lord, we came.
Amen.

Living God in Jerusalem – Disputed territory

It has not been an easy day, but then entering into anyone’s disputes is never easy or comfortable.  We began with a visit to the Dheisheh Palestinian Refugee Camp in Bethlehem.  We then moved on to the Efrata Israeli Settlement which is just outside Bethlehem.  Then we concluded the day by visiting the National Holocaust Memorial and Museum, Yad Vashem.  It is almost impossible to take in all of that.

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Martyrs of the Dheisheh Camp

In both the Refugee Camp and the Settlement we met passionate men who told us the truth from their perspectives.  The displaced Palestinians had a right to their land even though it was a full seventy years since they were forced to move as the State of Israel was first created.  They were waiting for the restitution of what is rightly theirs.  The settlers, on the other hand, knew that it was their God given right to be on this land.  The international community may condemn them for their illegal act but they do not care.  This land belonged to no one but them.  They are here and here to stay we were told very clearly.

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The calm beauty of the synagogue at Efrata Settlement

Then we saw what can happen when antisemitism becomes part of a distortion of a national psyche, becomes part of a political agenda.  The horrors of the Holocaust are never diminished however many times you listen to the testimonies, however many times you see the piles of discarded shoes and the yellow stars waiting to be sewn on to clothing.  It seems impossible that this happened in such recent history – yet it did.

Some one commented to me that it was like putting a frog in a kettle.  Put the frog into boiling water and it will leap out; put it in tepid water and bring it slowly to the boil … it’s a famous metaphor for how we are sometimes unaware of what is creeping up on us, incrementally destroying, until you wake up and find that it is too late. Was that what it was like under the Nazi regime?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that whilst people speak about wanting peace their passions do not allow them to make peace, because peace will involve talking and ultimately compromise and recognising in some ways the rights of the other person, not just to have what they need, but to have a right to exist.

The Psalmist describes the problem so clearly.

Too long have I had my dwelling
   among those who hate peace. 
I am for peace;
   but when I speak,
   they are for war. (Psalm 120.6-7)

There were no winners among those we met today – but there were a great many losers.  Standing in the Hall of Names in Yad Vashem I was overwhelmed by the images in the dome that surrounded me – all those lovely, innocent faces, and among them all those children.  One and a half million Jewish children died as part of the six million Jews who were slaughtered in the Holocaust.  Each of them was innocent.  Palestinian children suffer every day and experience deprivations that they should never have to suffer.  Each of them is innocent.

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The faces of the innocent in the Hall of Names

The land may be disputed but our children must never be the victims of our disputes – yet all too often they are, and they pay the price for the rest of their lives.

Lord, may this Holy Land be truly holy,
for all its children.
Amen.

Living God in Jerusalem – By the fire

It’s not something I need to think about here where it’s very warm and very humid but normally at this time of the year I’m thinking about keeping warm – and there’s nothing like a real fire for that.  To be honest I don’t have one.  I could – the Deanery has two lovely fireplaces and my predecessor often had a real fire.  But I remember too well my mum getting up early when we were children in order to get the fire lit before we got dressed in front of it to go off to school, covering the fireplace with sheets of newspaper (when newspapers were a proper size that enabled them to be used to do this job) so that the fire would draw.  She would hang our clothes on a clothes horse so that the chill would go off them.  Jack Frost would have played on the inside of the windows overnight but as the fire warmed the living room his traces disappeared.  Then at the end of the day she would have to clean out the grate, getting the ash swept up, build a fire, or ‘bank up’ one that was burning slowly so that it would last.  It was hard work – but it was lovely.

We have spent today on Mount Zion visiting first of all the Dormition Abbey and then the Cenacle, the Upper Room, the Room of the Last Supper.  We then went to Oskar Schindler’s grave and remembered this righteous man.  Finally, we went to the Church of St Peter-in-Gallicantu.  It is the church which stands on the traditional site of the house of the High Priest, Caiaphas, and the place to which Jesus was brought after his arrest for questioning before the Sanhedrin before being imprisoned overnight.  It was the place where the cock crowed twice (hence the name Gallicantu) and Peter denied Jesus three times.

The church is on a number of levels but in the lower church, which you can easily pass on your way down to see ‘Jesus’ cell’, are three amazing icons which deserve careful examination.  It is these that I wish to share with you – because they are wonderful.

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The first shows Peter, on the left, Jesus on the right. Jesus’ hands are bound.  He is a prisoner.  He is looking at Peter but his feet are turned from him as though he is heading away from him.  His face does not show the gentle look, the compassionate look we so often associate with the Lord’s face.  This is a face of anger, of disappointment, not a face we want to be familiar with.  Peter is looking back at Jesus, he stands upright, still, but we need to look at his hands.  The right hand, the hand of blessing and friendship hangs down limply, useless.  It is his left hand which is held up in a gesture of disdain.  Then as now in this culture the left hand was used for the toilet, for filthy jobs.  You would never eat with your left hand and to turn it on someone, palm turned towards them, is a gesture of real rejection.  Between them a fire burns.  Others are keeping warm around it, those who will challenge Peter and provoke his denials.  At the top of the icon a cock stands on the pillar, it crows.  The Lord’s prophecy has come true.

‘Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’  (Mark 14.72)

Lord Jesus, for the many times I have denied you.  Lord, have mercy.

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In the second icon, Peter sits alone in isolation.  The city walls can be spotted in the distance, but he is outside, in a place of wilderness and abandonment. Behind him an abyss has opened up, ready to swallow him.  He sits on a rock, but Jesus had said that he, Simon, was Peter, the rock on which the church would be built.  But he lacked the stability, the dependability of a rock, he gave way at the first testing.  One side of the rock is red, as though lit by the fires of Hades, ready to consume him. The fire that had warmed them in the courtyard is ready to consume him.  Jesus had once told a story about a poor man called Lazarus and a rich man at whose gate the poor man had sat.

‘The rich man died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.”’ (Luke 16.22-24)

Peter too looks for consolation – but there is no one to offer any, for at this moment his Lord is in chains.

‘And he broke down and wept.’ (Mark 14.72)

Lord Jesus, for those times I have lost all hope. Christ, have mercy.

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In the third icon there is another fire burning.  This is not a fire to warm, nor to consume, but a fire from which to be fed, a fire that speaks of the presence of God, as in the bush that burned, which attracted Moses in the wilderness.  Peter and Jesus are facing each other again but Peter, rather than standing rigid and upright as in the first icon, is bent and inclined towards Jesus.  His left hand is covered, his right hand open and ready to receive.  Jesus is looking with tenderness towards him. For each of those denials around another fire Jesus has asked three times for an affirmation of Peter’s love and commissioned him on each of these three times.  He holds out towards him a shepherd’s crook, for he is to care for the sheep.  In his other hand he holds a scroll, the new law of love that his death and resurrection have brought into being.  Behind them the apostles are on the Sea of Galilee.  They are fishing and we can just make out a mighty catch – 153 fish, someone counted – representing all the peoples of the earth.  They had had an apostolic commission at their first calling on this shore and it is reinforced now as they haul in the catch

‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ (Matthew 4.19)

And between Jesus and Peter we see the breakfast prepared.  There is bread and there is fish and enough and more than enough for all.

Lord, for the many times I have not loved you. Lord, have mercy.

Lord, kindle the fire of your love deep within me;
may it purge away my sin.
Amen.

Holy Land

A pilgrimage for returning pilgrims

My Lent Diary

A journey from ashes to a garden

In the Steps of Martin Luther

A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017

sabbaticalthoughtsblog.wordpress.com/

Canda, Jerusalem, Mucknall

Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage 2016

Hearts on Fire - Pilgrims in the Holy Land

A good city for all

A good city for all

In the Steps of St Paul

Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage June 2015

LIVING GOD

Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

Passion in real time - a retreat for Holy Week

Led by the Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark