Pope Francis, Obama and the streets of Jerusalem...

This Cross is from St Sabba's monastery just outside Bethlehem, and the olive branch is from Jerusalem, blessed on Palm Sunday.

Hope is a rare and precious commodity, especially so where life is acute and the blessings of life seem in short supply. In his homily for Palm Sunday Pope Francis said Jesus "awakened so many hopes in the heart, above all among humble, simple, poor, forgotten people, those who don't matter in the eyes of the world". He was alluding to the rapturous reception Jesus received upon His entry into Jerusalem. As the pope also said, “A Christian can never be sad. Never give way to discouragement,” with Jesus, “we are never alone, even at difficult moments, even at difficult moments when our life’s journey comes up against problems and obstacles that seem insurmountable, and there are so many of them.”


While the Pope was celebrating in Rome I was in Jerusalem, walking with tens of thousands of pilgrims along much the same route as Jesus took that first Palm Sunday, beginning from the church in Bethpage. Since the time of Egeria in the 4th century, pilgrims have followed this route down the Mount of Olives and up through St Anne's Gate into the Old City.

Here is the account:
Then, on Palm Sunday itself begins the Paschal week...at the seventh hour all the people go up to the Mount of Olives, that is, to Eleona, and the bishop with them, to the church, where hymns and antiphons suitable to the day and to the place are said, and lessons in like manner. And when the ninth hour approaches they go up with hymns to the Imbomon, that is, to the place whence the Lord ascended into heaven, and there they sit down, for all the people are always bidden to sit when the bishop is present; the deacons alone always stand.

Hymns and antiphons suitable to the day and to the place are said, interspersed with lections and prayers. And as the eleventh hour approaches, the passage from the Gospel is read, where the children, carrying branches and palms, met the Lord, saying; Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord, and the bishop immediately rises, and all the people with him, and they all go on foot from the top of the Mount of Olives, all the people going before him with hymns and antiphons, answering one to another: Blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord.

And all the children in the neighbourhood, even those who are too young to walk, are carried by their parents on their shoulders, all of them bearing branches, some of palms and some of olives, and thus the bishop is escorted in the same manner as the Lord was of old. For all, even those of rank, both matrons and men, accompany the bishop all the way on foot in this manner, making these responses, from the top of the mount to the city, and thence through the whole city to the Anastasis, going very slowly lest the poeple should be wearied; and thus they arrive at the Anastasis at a late hour. And on arriving, although it is late, lucernare takes place, with prayer at the Cross; after which the people are dismissed."

On the Saturday preceding Palm Sunday another procession was held, this time from Bethany into the City:

"And when the morning of the Sabbath begins to dawn, the bishop offers the oblation. And at the dismissal the archdeacon lifts his voice and says: "Let us all be ready to-day at the seventh hour in the Lazarium." And so, as the seventh hour approaches, all go to the Lazarium, that is, Bethany, situated at about the second milestone from the city. And as they go from Jerusalem to the Lazarium, there is, about five hundred paces from the latter place, a church in the street on that spot where Mary the sister of Lazarus met with the Lord. Here, when the bishop arrives, all the monks meet him, and the people enter the church, and one hymn and one antiphon are said, and that passage is read in the Gospel where the sister of Lazarus meets the Lord. Then, after prayer has been made, and when all have been blessed, they go thence with hymns to the Lazarium. And on arriving at the Lazarium, so great a multitude assembles that not only the place itself, but also the fields around, are full of people. Hymns and antiphons suitable to the day and to the place are said, and likewise all the lessons are read... Then all return to the city direct to the Anastasis, and lucernare takes place according to custom."
Still today in the eastern rite churches the Saturday prior to Palm Sunday is called Lazarus Saturday and begins the special period of fasting leading up to Easter. This connection between the raising of Lazarus and the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem, between Bethany and Bethphage, is still clear in the Liturgy of the Eastern Churches, though not so in the Latin West.  We see it here in the Troparion for Palm Sunday:
O Christ Our God,
When Thou didst raise Lazarus from the dead before Thy Passion,
Thou didst confirm the resurrection of the universe.
Wherefore, we like children,
carry the banner of triumph and victory,
and we cry to Thee, O Conqueror of love,
Hosanna in the highest!
Blessed is He that cometh
in the Name of the Lord.

Bethany is just a few metres from Bethphage, yet today the connection between the two is brutally severed. The ugly concrete separation wall snakes its way through the two villages, severing them so that no procession from Bethany into the City of Jerusalem is possible, violating not only these communities, but the theological connection between the two as well. This wall literally desecrates the liturgical commencement of Holy Week

In 2010 I painted an icon of the Mother of God on the wall near to the Rachel's Tomb checkpoint. The inspiration for this was the homily of Pope Benedict to the bishops of the Middle East about the challenges which Christians across the region currently face, and in particular the tiny remnant of Christians left in the Holy Land itself. In a discussion with a couple of Israeli anthropologists about its significance, they saw this image as a challenge to the wall, as an act of political defiance. I agreed it was a direct challenge, but to all that the wall stood for in the deepest sense, not as a cheap political gesture. You only build walls when politics has failed, when human beings are afraid of their neighbour, when there is a failure of love for the person beside me. Walls deepen prejudice, alienate those on one side from the other, and allow pernicious stereotypes to develop and for populist politicians to exploit this prejudice and ignorance for their own dubious ends. It is harder to love you neighbour when you cannot see them, hear them, speak with them. 'Out of sight is out of mind', and leads to a cold indifference where the humanity of your neighbour is lost. This was the truth about the Berlin Wall, and the walls built between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and it is very much the truth about this pernicious wall that violates even the sacred liturgy of the Church.

In other words, the icon on the Wall is there to bring joy in the face of a great evil, to be a sign and inspirer of hope despite what seems an impenetrable wall of injustice, intolerance, violence and hostility. This is, I think, the joy which Jesus inspired in those poor and beleaguered people who lined the streets of Jerusalem 2000 years ago.

In contrast, President Obama was in Jerusalem last week, and returned to his soaring oratorial skills which arguably won him not only the American presidency but also the Noble Prize for Peace. He has the ability to use words to inspire, to give people the audacity to hope that life can be better, that evil can be overcome, that goodness can triumph. It was a skill he had employed on his first journey to the Middle East when he addressed the Muslim world in his speech in Cairo, and during which made it clear that he understood the Palestinian situation, and what needed to be changed. He had the Arab world, and Palestinians included, believing that in this man things really could and would change.

Yet this man of fine and moving words has not been a man of deeds, and in the wake of so many who had dared to hope he has left a wasteland of cynicism and a sense of hopelessness. This is the diabolic inversion of true inspirational leadership, one which raises hopes to soaring heights only to dash them on rocks of indifference and inaction. So many who began to dare to dream of a better future, believing that they were doing more than dreaming but preparing to embrace a new and better future, and prepared to make sacrifices to make that possible, now litter not just the United States but the whole world, and in particular the people of Palestine.

So, as he launched yet another soaring speech, this time to young Israelis urging them to seek peace with their Palestinian neighbours, it rang bitterly hollow with the Palestinian community. Why? Because they had dared to believe, only to have been catastrophically been let down. On the ground, not only had an already acute situation which the President addressed not got better, in fact it had got decidedly worse and largely because of the United States government failing to see through on its demands, including a halt on settlement building as agreed numerous times since the Oslo Peace accords. The President had been humiliated, his bluff called and his words left blowing in the air for all to see as vacuous platitudes to which the President was in no way himself committed. So how on earth could he expect to be taken seriously, and for his words to carry any weight? Interestingly the speech was welcomed by the Jewish community in Israel, but then they had only low expectations of him in the first place. The Palestinians, in contrast, responded with a range of responses ranging from contempt to indifference.

 The peace process is in meltdown, the settlements are expanding to the point that a Two State solution will be impossible, according the British Foreign Secretary, by the end of this year. In other words, having dared to inspire people to find the audacity to hope, the singular failure to deliver anything at all has left hearts and minds verging on despair, thus further entrenching those forces of sadness which seep into so many aspects of life in the Holy Land.

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