This morning I celebrated Palm Sunday liturgy here at the Dominican Church with the Dominican friars, the students and scholars here and a local French speaking congregation. About 100 of gathered in front of the monastery for the first gospel and blessing palms. A few pictures are on Twitter. The liturgy was simple, beautiful and very French. The French have a way of celebration the liturgy which has no frills, but is simple, dignified and inspiring. Because I know the liturgy so well it was easy to imagine that my French is better than it is.
After lunch about thirty of us met again to go to Bethphage–the village on the other side of Mount of Olives where the Palm Sunday procession was to begin. The temperature was in the 80s with a clear blue sky. I was hoping there would be transportation to Bethphage, but it turned out that we were walking both ways. So I headed out with the rest of the gang–Dominican friars, visiting priests and scholars and my American friend, Father Leo who is a Dominican here to complete a doctorate. The walk to Bethphage meant walking halfway around the old city walls. The priory is just outside the walls by the Damascus Gate so we went around, then down the Kidron Valley and up a steep flight of stairs to the top of the Mount of Olives. The climb made me realize how young I am not! Once at the top we went down the other side to Bethphage where the crowds were gathering. A half hour later the gates of the Bethphage church courtyard opened and the procession began. First came troops of cub scouts, boy scouts and senior scouts all in uniform with flags and drums. Next they said the folks were Jewish Catholic Christians and that this group of converts is growing in Israel. We all then trooped in behind them. What an amazing sight! Fellow Christians from all over the world! Next to me was a pilgrimage group of Vietnamese, Here some Italians, there a band of singing and dancing Africans (picture on Twitter) Mother Teresa nuns–habits of every kind of religious order: Dominicans, Franciscans, Benedictines, Some Brigittine nuns and many more I could not identify. Most encouraging was the age of the crowd. I would say half of the thousands I saw were under thirty.
One of the most encouraging things about this visit so far has been to put the problems of America and the American Catholic Church in perspective. Here the faith is strong. It is not troubled by “woke-ness” or the crazy liberalism we see in America and the West. Here the faith is simple, historic and alive. This is why, if you get the chance you should go on pilgrimage–to get out of your bubble and realize just how universal, magnificent and beautifl our Catholic faith can be.
The hike ended at the Church of Saint Anne–reputed to be the birthplace of the Blessed Virgin–and just inside the Lions Gate. I was exhausted by then, but found a stall selling cold drinks and got a bottle of Coke to keep me going. Leo and I hiked the rest of the way through the Old City to the Damascus Gate and home. On the way Leo told me that the Dominican House is called St Stephen’s not only because his relics were once kept here, but also, according to the most ancient traditions this is the site of his martyrdom. This is what it is like to be in Jerusalem. Wherever you turn another link with the history of the faith–and a constant reminder that God’s plan of salvation is intertwined with the realities of human history–place and time. Thus in the creed we say all this happened sub Pontio Pilato…under Pontius Pilate–a real person in a real place serving a real human emperor. God is not separated from his world, but active in it. Rocks and stones, flesh and blood.
As a reminder of this reality here is a poem I wrote for the annunciation:
Here in a bright alchemy, history
collides and combines with eternal things.
The mundane is infused with mystery,
and the dust and mud and blood have wings.
Here every moment of time is pregnant
with meaning, every tick of the clock fecund
with potential, and every tock significant—
eternity bulging in every second.
And so in this one afternoon in Spring
as the light infuses the golden stone,
the girl startled looks up from her weaving,
and gasps in fear. She thought she was alone.
But another being, as high and clear
as the cosmos hovers there. All awhirl,
the spirit spirals down from another sphere
to magnify with light the little girl.
Here the seen and unseen began to dance.
The timeless took the time to enter time.
Here all things gained a new significance,
and the divine and human began to rhyme.
Here flight was grounded— here the spiritual
and the physical began to enmesh.
And here omnipotence began to wrestle
with the bloody reality of human flesh.