I have decided that I am Moses, only instead of miraculously parting water, I am learning to part pilgrims and large, middle-aged women shopping three abreast as we all converge on the small tractor stopped in the middle of the 9-foot wide street with a trailer full of goods packed precariously high that two guys are starting to unload in a dangerously swaying manner as 15 of us try to file through the twelve inches between the tractor/trailer and the shopkeeper’s breakables while stepping over the six-pack of liter water bottles stacked outside. That we and the goods all made it through unscathed seems nearly as miraculous as the parting of the Red Sea.

The Muslim shopkeepers near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are well-stocked with rosaries of every size, color and material as well as the candle bundles pilgrims buy to light in the Church and then blow out quickly, taking them home to pass out as souvenirs. The police barricades for crowd control are also increasing daily near the city gates and in the streets leading up to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Jerusalem under Roman occupation at the time of Jesus probably looked very similar as it prepared for Passover, substituting animals for the Temple sacrifice for today’s rosaries.

Many churches are doing major cleaning. The Russian convent on the Mount of Olives was hard at it while John did his weekly weed pulling today. Yesterday, the Ethiopian church outside the city walls, that has never been open when we were there, was a beehive of vacuuming, scrubbing, and airing out in preparation for this weekend. The drums they use in worship are large and each decorated in a different pattern.










I also have never seen so much pink paint in a church!













Meanwhile, it is also Passover. Yesterday, the Jaffa road commercial area was like a ghost town. No buses, no trains, a couple of side street cafes open but very few people out. Today, the Jewish quarter was like a carnival with hundreds of Jewish families dressed in their best and/or religious attire, four to six kids in tow, enjoying the day or heading to the Wall. Jaffa Road was 80% open, though all the bakeries were closed. We were able to get well-stocked up for the  next several days. We are not sure what to expect but between what we have been told, the heightened police and soldier presence, and the proliferation of crowd control devices, we are trying to be prepared as we anticipate the beginning of Triduum, the Three Days, tomorrow evening.

Shalom and good night!


On this Monday in Holy Week, we took public transportation to the Palestinian Christian town of Taybeh (pronounced tie-bay) in the West Bank, 12 km NE of Ramallah. We went with an Australian friend we have met while here and his friend visiting from the Philippines. Not only did we want to go to the Taybeh Brewery, the first micro-brewery in Palestine, but we went to see a friend-of-a-friend. She was born in Greece, grew up in Denver, educated at Harvard, and with her Palestinian husband, raised a family in both the USA and Taybeh, started the brewery, built the Golden hotel, and recently began a winery.

We had had the beer in Jerusalem (it is fabulous beer and just this week begins to be sold in the US–Boston–for the first time). The wine we tasted today is also wonderful.

Taybeh is the only Christian village left in Israel/Palestine . It is small (1300 people), rural, and with great views since it is on the top of the “spine” of the mountain range that runs north and south in Israel. There are about five churches in the town as well.

The family, some of whom live in America, are trying to promote the town and create jobs in a very depressed economy. We heard what life was like in the West Bank: restrictions as to where you can go depending on the kind of permit you have; being the target of radical Islamists in 2005 who burnt 14 houses in the village while Israel did not give permission for the fire department to go in for six hours (see http://www.saintgeorgetaybeh.org/maria_khourys_page/maria_khourys_archive/mk_article_sep05.html); not having water for five days at a time while the Jewish settlement nearby gets water 24/7 and other difficulties.

The mother prepared a wonderful lunch for us (we were the only guests in the hotel, though they have a group coming in tomorrow) and showed us the hotel and winery. The niece gave us a tour of the brewery, which was a five minute walk down the hill. It was a lovely, spring day and we could see all the way over to Jordan. At night, from the upper floors of the hotel, they can see the lights of Amman, even planes landing at the airport at times. The four of us felt the hotel and town would be a great place to do a quiet retreat.

While a brewery and winery tour might not seem like a “spiritual” activity for Holy Week, Taybeh is Biblical Ephraim, the town Jesus went to after raising Lazarus from the dead and before his final descent into Jerusalem to die. We have more specific ways to pray now for Palestinian Christians.

It took us about four hours to go the 42 km back to Jerusalem as there was a minor accident that snarled heavy traffic going through Ramallah. Also, it took a while for the bus to get through the checkpoint as Passover was beginning and security is heavy every where around Jerusalem. Related imageA full Passover moon accompanied our walk back to the guest house from the Damascus Gate bus station.

We have much to reflect on tonight as we return from the  day and a place where we could still see undeveloped land and hills that Jesus would have seen.

Shalom and goodnight!

And so it begins: the whole reason for this trip at this time period. With Lazarus Saturday and Palm/Passion Sunday, we are in the thick of the Story. Not many miles away, Syria has been bombed by the US and churches in Egypt have been bombed during worship. Both Eastern and Western Churches celebrate Holy Week this week and Passover begins tomorrow night. As the pilgrims increase, so do the soldiers. The noise, chaos, heightened tensions and security again made today’s readings in worship more alive, relevant, and radical.

Yesterday, we watched the entrance of the Syrian,Image result for free photo syriac orthodox patriarch at Church of the Holy Sepulchre

the Armenian, Image result for free photos priests entering church of the holy sepulchreImage result for free photo coptic patriarch at Church of the Holy Sepulchreand the Coptic clergy Image result for free photos coptic procession church of the holy sepulchrehierarchy process into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,










led by Fez-wearing Muslim guards Image result for free photos muslim guards church of the holy sepulchrewho clacked their walking sticks on the stones in rhythm. Crowds were held behind police barricades by regular police and “Temple guards,” aided by soldiers (IDF). The Muslims have the key to the Church because along with the FranciscansRelated image and Greeks, Image result for free photos greek orthodox priests church of the holy sepulchrenone of the Christian groups who have chapel space in the church compound can get along. The Ethiopians are relegated to the roof and even though they were lined up in vestments, calf-skin drum ready to go, they  were not included in the official processions. Of course, I don’t understand all the centuries of in-fighting, jockeying for power, and intrigue but clearly, the groups do not model Jesus’s prayer for unity.

By a complete miracle, John and I ended up in a position that allowed us to get into the church after standing outside in a tight crowd for well over an hour. People had been pleading with the police to let them in for various reasons; some got in, some didn’t. We were herded into the side Chapel where one can view the traditional site where the rock split at the moment of Jesus’s death while the Franciscans did their daily procession around the interior, this time with Cardinal, full vestments, and enough incense to cloud the massive structure.

As John and I were walking around, I found an abandoned candle, which I picked up. As we came around the corner, there was the end of the Franciscan procession! We lit the candle and joined in, circling the tomb three times, past the waiting Syrians, and hearing, for the first time, the organ which was used for the hymn (mostly, they process with unaccompanied Gregorian chant). It was glorious! Image result for free photos priests entering church of the holy sepulchreAs soon as the Franciscan procession went by the third time, the Syriac patriarch launched his congregation into their liturgy, going the opposite direction the Franciscans were walking. Meanwhile, the organ and singing in Latin were going strong. What a joyful noise! Charles Ives would have had a field day.

After working our way out through the crowds, who were now being let in, we headed up to the roof where the Ethiopian community has swelled in numbers and visibility over the last several days. We were too late to see whatever it was we had heard them doing up there earlier but this morning after worship, we saw them worshipping in a tent newly erected on the roof for Holy Week.  There were lots of people draped in the traditional white gauze clothing they wear, weaving headbands, rings, and other decorative forms out of the palm reeds. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Yesterday morning, John and I had done some exploring in a section of the Old City we hadn’t walked before. (The walled part of Jerusalem is amazingly extensive with little side streets and nooks-and-crannies everywhere!) We saw woven baskets made from palm fronds and flags hanging above the streets in certain areas. There also continues to be beautiful Easter candy, even in the Muslim sections, sometimes next to foil wrapped chocolates from Christmas. (We are astounded at the amount of candy for sale and purchased in this town!)

This morning, I played for the English-speaking service at Redeemer Lutheran church. John read “Jesus ” in the dramatic Passion Gospel. After the tower bells quit ringing, we processed around both levels of the Church compound’s courtyard with palm branches cut on the Mount of Olives yesterday. Some of the ones decorating the front of the St. John’s chapel where we meet were 7′ tall!

Our Armenian Catholic neighbors here at the guest house are having a big family gathering. A peek in the Armenian Catholic Church that the courtyard of the guest house connects to showed branches from olive trees ready to give worshippers. The Russian Christians also seem to carry olive branches when walking the Via Dolorosa. We have seen a lot of variations of palm branches but most are very different from what we are used to in the USA.

Walking back this afternoon from our weekly newspaper reading at the American Colony Hotel, we were wished “Happy Palm Day” by a Muslim shopkeeper. We wish you the same.

Shalom and good-night.

We saw a Palestinian Sunbird in the church courtyard after practicing today! What a thrilling sight:

It looked like a hummingbird but it had a curved beak, black body, turquoise head, and purple throat. It sat in the fig tree for a long time.

On Sunday, Holy Week for both Eastern and Western Churches begins and Passover begins at sundown. I know people who are leaving town for Easter weekend as apparently the crowds are so dense, it can be dangerous. A couple of activities I had hoped to do during The Three Days (Triduum) will not happen as I have been advised against putting my life in jeopardy (and this is not an exaggeration).

The markets are gearing up for Passover. Several bakeries were low on yeast bread as they are stopping production for the eight days of Passover, a variety of matzo is for sale, and a large selection of cookies in bulk can be purchased by the kilo. We will be relying on the markets in the Muslim Quarter next week for more of our shopping.

In the Christian Quarter of the Old City, there is a blessed lack of Easter bunny stuff. There are beautifully wrapped Easter baskets and candies but very little of the Hallmark trivia one sees in America around this holiday.

While walking to the library of the Rockefeller museum a few minutes ago, a place we go to read a couple of times a week, we saw a Jewish family moving into an apartment in the Muslim Quarter. Three soldiers were guarding them as this is a very provocative thing to do. It is like the Israeli settlements only instead of encroaching on Palestinian villages, it is taking over Muslim properties in the Old City itself in ways that will, over time, reduce the Muslim presence in the Old City.

We have learned a lot about the use of language and ways to deal with others, especially those perceived to be one’s enemies, while we have been here. Twice, we have been caught in a crowd waiting to get into the Old City. Each time, the soldiers had shot someone who had tried to stab them or other Jews with scissors or a knife. Not something I have experienced up close and personal before coming here. Definitely makes the message of Jesus more radical!

To end on a better note, we saw the tiles in the courtyard of the North African Judaism Center on a walk yesterday. Artists were brought in from Morrocco to refurbish the interior about six years ago. It was closed that day but we are hoping to see the inside soon. In the midst of great complexity, there is beauty.


Shalom and good night.

Songs From the Places In Between
(after Rory Stewart)

by Valerie E. Hess

Part IV

“Sealed by the Holy Spirit and
marked with the Cross of Christ forever!”
The words, intoned
as the cross is traced in
water and oil on my forehead,
reverberate through the years,
informing my life in incarnational ways.

Now, black ink traces it
on my inner right wrist:
an icon to me and
a declaration of faith
to the world.
No denying the fresh yet ancient symbol.
No hiding behind a  past rite.
My right wrist will forever be
a statement of faith
and a witness to pilgrimage.

I am marked
with the Cross of Christ
body and soul.
May the ink bear witness to my soul
and my soul give meaning to the ink,
now and ever,
unto the ages of ages.

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