Maundy Thursday at the Church of the Redeemer plus a walk to the mount of Olives, or the garden of Gethsemane plus a new insight.

It is no coincidence that I am in Jerusalem this week.  Once in my life I had to be here, where it all started, and see it with my own eyes.  How often are you in a church on Maundy Thursday and the priest can say after handing out communion – which after all is celebrated in remembrance of Christ’s Last Supper, which after all originated just a few hundred feet from the church somewhere in that famous ‘upper room’:  “Let’s go to the Mount of Olives.”  That’s where Christ went right after his Last Supper and there you are, in Jerusalem, and within 20 minutes, you are there, too!  It’s just too much.  I am glad I brought enough tissues along… And I am not even religious!

Of course, it would be great to be in the Holy Sepulcher for the next three days.  But people who get that close literally have reservations through their various congregations and spend all day there – standing, in some cases from the morning until night, like the Ethiopian Christians who wait for the arrival of a miraculous fire coming out of the tomb of Christ, and who have been coming for generations on this day.  Many of them stay in the Kaplan Hotel where I am, wrapped in white linens over their colorful or white dresses.  Quite stunning!

I had to find a much more modest option and decided to go with the German speaking Protestants at the Church of the Redeemer just around the corner from the Holy Sepulcher.  For Maundy Thursday they put on an international service.  Everything was going on in at least three languages:  Arabic, English, and German.  That gave me a conscious reminder that not all Arabs are Muslims.  Many, in fact, are Christians.  But prayers were also split up into Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish!  Curiously, French and Spanish were absent.  They must have their own church.  Everyone got the notes for the service and the songs in their own language.   Each song and prayer sounded like a gathering after the destruction of the Tower of Babel!

After the service the entire congregation walked singing (in four different languages), procession style to the Mount of Olives (or the Garden of Gethsemane), right through the Muslim quarter of the Old City.  Only in Jerusalem!  This town is so charged, particularly now, where the holy week of Passover and the holy week between Palm Sunday and Easter overlap exactly – this does not happen that often because the Jewish calendar is based on the lunar cycle.  Every other person is frocked, fringed, side-locked, capped, bearded, hooded, or hijabed.  Crosses, yarmulkes, vestments, and wagon-wheel-like fur hats dominate the landscape.  I can’t help but be in awe over this massive outpour of sincere devotion.

The agnostic I am, I feel like an intruder, but I am there with emotions going back all the way to my childhood.  Growing up in a devout Christian household, I have many memories of going to the Easter Sunday service with my father before sunrise, standing freezing out in the church cemetery for the service celebrating the empty tomb.  I will do my best to be up two days in a row to see the “real thing”:  6 AM tomorrow, 5 AM on Sunday…

I am also there with a genuine interest in the cultural and historical implications of all these rituals and celebrations.  I don’t expect much from the sermons, but today, I was positively surprised and profoundly touched by the German vicar’s message:  First, he appropriately for time and place addressed the fact that Christ’s Last Supper really was a Passover Seder meal.  He also addressed the unfortunate debate within Christendom over matters such as should leavened or unleavened bread be used for the Eucharist – an issue, as silly as it seems – that contributed to the permanent split of the Eastern and the Western church!  He then addressed the Last Supper and the famous statement Christ put before his disciples:  “One of you will betray me.”

And he put a fantastic spin on this scene:  “Is it I” – was the answer of each and every of the disciples.  None of them blamed anyone else.  They all first searched for the possibility that they could be the one who was capable of betrayal.  Just think of all the “good Germans” who for whatever reason turned and became the perpetrators of the Holocaust.  Think of all the “good Muslims” who for whatever reason turn to become suicide bombers.  Think of all the “good Jews” who under recent circumstances become fanatics and on and on.  We are all capable of indescribable atrocities given the right circumstances.  These disciples were as fallible and vulnerable as we all are.  But they did the one thing we all could learn to do:  They were looking for the blame first and foremost within themselves!  They were not pointing fingers.  What a cool lesson is that?!  Apply this globally, and the implications are mind-boggling.

And with this wonderful thought to ponder, I will call it a day.  It will be an early morning tomorrow.

Good night.

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  1. I would have loved to have been at the service with all of the languages in song at the same time. If only countries would work at doing things together instead of dwelling on faults and pointing fingers of blame. I heard an excellent lecture on the golden years in Spain where the Jews, Christians and Muslims all lived in peace together. Will it ever be possible again? I fear not.

  2. We headed north and I missed your blog the most for the last few days and I headed here as soon as things were unpacked and dog settled in her yard.

    I just had the most wonderful time looking at the pictures and reading your thoughts about everything. your so inspiring!

    “It is I ” What a powerful message right there in the most spirtual place ever. I had chills thinking about all the languages and the Mount of Olives.

    I dearly loved the vicars message you shared … they began looking first and formost in themselfs for fault. it is a thought to ponder today…as sit and watch the sun go down.

    Thanks for your wonderful words today…Peace