Saturday, August 13, 2011

Forgetting Jerusalem

The Jerusalem Cross - The four crosses represent 
spreading the Gospel to the four corners of the world.

If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand wither. - Psalm 137:5

Since it was established by King David 3,000 years ago, Jerusalem has been the center of the faith of the Jewish people. Because Christianity descends from Judaism, we inherit this reverence for the city of Jerusalem, particularly because it is the place that Jesus chose to lay down his life for our sins.

In the Old Testament, Jerusalem is referred to 669 times. I am not sure how many of those times are in the Psalms but I have noticed, in morning and evening prayer, the repeated references to this famed city of God. But I never really understood the focus on Jerusalem for Jews or Christians, until I visited this holy city.

Many people, when speaking of Jerusalem, speak of the clash between Jews, Muslims and Christians. With this in mind, I expected to enter a city full of tension and animosity. But upon entering the gates of Jerusalem, especially the Old City, I immediately noticed people of different faiths who live their faith in a way that in other cities would seem radical. The air of the city is permeated with the scent of God - the God of the Jews, Christians and Muslims. So many people in Jerusalem are focused on God, He is the center of their lives. I immediately felt at home among the people of this city, even though many of them were not of my faith, (I have said this before but I immediately feel a connection to anyone of any faith who puts God in the center of their lives. I feel that they are truly my brothers and sisters in the radical life of following God).

Graffiti on the walls surrounding Bethlehem
Of course beneath the surface beauty of lives centered on God, I did feel tension and longing in the people of Jerusalem. One of our tour guides was a Palestinian Christian who was working on his PhD, researching why Christians are leaving the Holy Land. He was full of frustration at the way Palestinian Muslims and Christians are treated by Israelis. When we went to Bethlehem, we saw a city surrounded by high walls. The people inside, many of them Christian, are prevented from travelling freely to the places where they might find work. Instead, many of them depend on tourism and unfortunately not all tourist groups go to Palestinian controlled areas. They are struggling to survive.

On the other hand, I felt the longing of the Jewish people when I visited the Temple Mount, the area where the ruins of their Temple lie beneath a Muslim mosque. Many religious Jews long for the Temple to be rebuilt a third time but even though Israel controls Jerusalem, they do not control the Temple Mount area. It is controlled by Muslims and a mosque called the Dome of the Rock is built on top of the place where the Ark of the Covenant was most likely kept in the Temple's Holy of Holies, (Muslims believe that Muhammad ascended from this area). Because Jews are not sure of the exact location of the Holy of Holies, many avoid the Temple area completely, in fear that they might enter a sacred space reserved for priests and violate the Torah. Instead, many Jews visit the Western Wall of the Temple, also called the Wailing Wall, behind which many believe the Ark of the Covenant is buried.

Men praying at the Western Wall
When our group visited this area, I was very moved by the prayerful longing of many of the Jewish people I saw. As they prayed, many of them shed tears. I felt empathy for them. If I lost the one place where God was truly present, I would mourn and long for the day that the Temple would be rebuilt. I approached the wall and prayed for my Jewish friends, slipping a paper in between the cracks, as many people do. When I touched the wall, I felt a shiver go down my spine and I felt the presence of God, perhaps in the Ark of the Covenant buried somewhere beyond the thick wall. As I left, I walked backward, as many of the Jewish people did, because they do not want to turn their back on God. I often see this in adoration of Jesus in the Eucharist; as people leave the chapel they walk backward. This simple similarity made me feel even more empathy with the Jewish people, especially because I believe I am able to be in the real presence of God every day because I believe that God is present in the tabernacle of all Catholic churches in the same way He was present in the Temple.

I left Jerusalem with stereotypes shattered but no concrete feelings about the political situation. It was clear to me that the situation there is much more complicated than perhaps any human mind can comprehend and my heart went out to everyone - Jews, Muslims and Christians - all trying to retain what they believe is sacred and to live their lives centered on the God they know.

As my memories of the Holy Land fade, I keep the memory of Jerusalem in my heart and pray that God will remind me to always keep the people of the sacred city close to me in prayer.

 The best song ever - 
Have fun at the concert Sarah! I wish I could be there...

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