Palm Sunday

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
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Palm Hostel

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Thousands of pilgrims from Africa, the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Oceana gathered on top of the Mount of Olives, walking the path of Jesus as he rode a donkey into Jerusalem as prophesied, knowing that he would die. The pilgrims carried palm leaves as ancient symbols of the red carpet: people laid their cloaks and branches before him. As the palm boughs symbolized spiritual victory over materialism, people cut the palm branches for the Sunday festival.

Groups each had their songs, sung in their language, with their own hats or costumes. Some groups had megaphones, guitars, clarinets, and drums as the palm branches waved overhead. Palestinian Chistian Scouts led the procession from the Mount of Olives to Bethany, where the Patriarch of Jerusalem spoke of peace between Israel and Palestine, echoing what the Pope said of the violence in Iraq: "Enough!"

In the morning, I walked the Palm Sunday route on my own, passing tens of thousands of Jewish graves, who were buried here, waiting for the prophets' words about the coming Messiah to happen. I walked this after an early service at Bethesda, where the Virgin Mary was born and where Jesus healed the sick in the healing center. The pools are one place amongst the many Biblical places where the actual site seems authentic:

"Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie-the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.

When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, "Do you want to get well?"

"Sir," the invalid replied, "I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me."

Then Jesus said to him, "Get up! Pick up your mat and walk." At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked."
John 5: 1-9.

Of course we all want to be healthy and well. And Jesus, like Buddha and many other spiritual leaders, understood the mind-body-spirit connection, often linking sin with afflictions of the body. Of course none are without sin, so we all have problems, sooner or later.

About this time, my mother told me she needed surgery, so the place was fitting. Today, she is recovering well; this entry is dedicated to her good health and spirit.

After the morning service, I helped a group of Nigerian seminaries move the benches in preparation for the patriarch. Victor, my work partner, told me about the history of the site as we walked: "the Ottoman Turks gave this sacred site as a gift to the French after their Crimean War victory over Russia." He knew his history well and indeed a French flag flew over the St. Anne Church of the French White Fathers.

During the beautiful sunny day, I also visited Gethsemane--the olive press--where Jesus agonized over the sufferings and sins he bore: "take this cup of suffering from me!" (Matthew 26:39).

Around him were olive trees, who were likely very young when they witnessed this event (or at least some relatives were there then). Olive tree rings have been counted to be over 2,000 years old and the ones at Gethsemane were gnarled and old, undoubtedly witnessing millions of pilgrims. Spring flowers grew in the garden, enclosed with a fence and a meaningful sign saying "no entry: sacred ground."

Somehow my feet kept moving around the Old Town, so I passed the Western Wall, entered King David's tomb, and visited the room of the Last Supper. Of course the burial place of the Kings as frequently mentioned by the prophets has never been found, and the true room for the Last Supper is nowhere to be found. These places are old, so that's to be expected, given that thousands of years of civilization has been built on top of them. Still, humans like something tangible.

I also visited the Tomb of the Virgin Mary. Stairs descended into the solemn place, where an attendant read from the Bible.  Lanterns and icons decorated the ceiling and walls around the altar and tomb.  Most of the day was crowded with devotees, who were excited about each spot, with tour groups talking, despite signs pleading for quiet and to the chagrin of the overwhelmed priests.

At the end of this Palm Sunday, marked with bagpiping scouts, the bottom of my feet were battered and bruised. They didn't want to stop walking. After a long journey to get to Jerusalem for Holy Week, they were a little excited. And no matter what you believe, Jerusalem is fascinating and full of seekers, whether its an invitation to a Purim rave party in the desert or something not of this world.
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