Friday, May 4, 2012

The Burnt House: Remembering Jerusalem's Destruction

Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, "You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down." (Mat 24:1-2)

During the excavations that took place in the Jewish Quarter after the Six Day War in 1967, archaeologists discovered the ruins of a house that had collapsed and been burnt by a fierce fire.

Welcome to Beit Katros - the home of an important family of priests who served in the Second Temple and are mentioned in the Talmud. Visitors to the restored ancient site are in for a unique experience: a gripping multimedia, sound and light show dramatically recreates the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Second Temple against the backdrop of the social strife and fraternal division that undermined the foundations of the Jewish nation.

The drama makes every visitor a part of the Katros family and of Jerusalem during those last tragic days of the city that Jesus knew and loved.

Entering the small museum, as one walks down towards the remains of the house, panels along the stairs bear sobering inscriptions from the Talmud and from the First Century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius attempting to explain the destruction of the city and its sanctuary:

"Why was Jerusalem destroyed? The first time because of idol worship; the second time because of unqualified hatred."

"Woe to the children because of whose sins I destroyed my home and burnt down my sanctuary and cast them into exile among the nations of the world."

The excavations have uncovered the full fury of the catastrophe: collapsed walls, stones seared by fire, charred wooden beams, soot, and shattered household utensils beneath heaps of fallen stones.

The Burnt House

An iron spearhead found leaning against the wall in a corner of a room and the bones of a young woman's arm found in the kitchen are further evidence of the fierce battle that took place here.

Numerous stones vessels remain in the various chambers, as well as stone tables, basalt mortars, cooking pots, measuring cups, weights and containers. As is the case in the houses of the Herodian Quarter, the predominance of stone items is explained by the Jewish laws of ritual purity, which state that stone vessels cannot become ritually impure.

An engraving found on one of the weights says "(de) Bar Katros." The House of Katros is known to have been one of the priestly families serving in the Second Temple.

In an instant, the scene of destruction comes back to life as a film is projected on a screen lowered over the ruins and we are transported nearly 2,000 years back into the villa of the Katros family.

The story, narrated by a young man by the name of Zadok, begins with a festive Passover meal in the Katros home. Pinchas, Zadok's father, is the head of the family and a priest. As the family and their guests commemorate the Exodus and their freedom from Egyptian slavery, they are clearly preoccupied by the immediate danger of the siege of Jerusalem by the Roman army. The Jewish revolt that had begun four years earlier has taken a disastrous turn. Like most priests, Pinchas tends to favor conciliation with the Romans. But Zadok is distressed that people are being killed by the Romans down in the lower city while the Jewish zealots are leading active resistance against them.

A scene from the Katros house on the eve of the Temple's destruction

Pinchas reassures those present: "We have nothing to worry about: we are a family of priests. Who would touch a family of priests?"

He even dismisses his wife's worries and her suggestion that they leave the city: if worse comes to worse, says Pinchas, they will find refuge in the Temple. When she suggests that even the Temple could be destroyed - as it had already happened in the past - Pinchas is outraged: "The Temple... destroyed? Unthinkable!"

Then Pinchas finds out something about his son Zadok's role in the resistance against the Romans that makes him livid with anger. He is just about to throw his son out of the house when the housemaid intervenes: "the Temple will not survive if you continue to hate each other!"

As the Romans break into the city, tragedy strikes - first the Temple, and then the Katros family. When Zadok returns home, in the midst of his grief he exclaims: "something tells me that we will one day return here, and that we will again inhabit the streets of Jerusalem."

These words of hope are echoed by the words of the prophet Zechariah as the film transitions into images of lively families and children in the rebuilt Jewish Quarter of today:

"Thus says the LORD of hosts: Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets... Thus says the LORD of hosts: behold, I will save my people from the east and from the west country, and I will bring them to dwell in the midst of Jerusalem. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God, in faithfulness and in righteousness" (Zec 8:4-8).

Revisit and experience the last days of Second Temple Jerusalem with a visit to the Burnt House!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

From the March of the Living to the March for Life

On the evening of Yom Ha’Atsmaut, Israel Independence Day, I went with a friend to the closing event of the 2012 "March of the Living" in the Latrun amphitheatre, located between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

The March of the Living is an educational program that brings Jewish teens from all over the world to Poland on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. They march from Auschwitz to Birkenau, the largest concentration camp complex built during World War II, and then to Israel to observe Yom HaZikaron (Israel Memorial Day) and Yom Ha'Atzmaut.

According to its website, the March of the Living divides its goals into “universal” and “Jewish” goals.

The universal goals include remembering those who perished in the Holocaust, paying tribute to survivors, recognizing and learning from the actions of the “righteous among the nations,” honoring the veterans of World War II, fighting anti-Semitism and racial discrimination, and inspiring the participants to build a world free of oppression and intolerance, founded upon “freedom, democracy and justice, for all members of the human family.”

The “Jewish goals” of the march include bolstering the Jewish identity of the next generation through learning about the Jewish heritage of pre-war Eastern Europe, understanding the importance of the existence of Israel as spiritual center and homeland of the Jewish people, fostering Jewish unity, and promoting tikkun olam ("repairing the world") and the Jewish people’s responsibility to be a light onto the nations.

All very worthy and noble goals.  Even though I did not participate in the March, at the spectacular closing evening in Latrun I could indeed feel that the participants were bound by what had been a very deep and meaningful time spent together. Beyond the extraordinary performance which combined engaging songs, professional dances and choreographies, impressive pyrotechnics and fireworks, and moving speeches, movie clips and testimonies, there was a graspable sense of unity and purpose among the thousands of young Jewish people who had no doubt experienced an unforgettable two weeks.

One could sense that the shaping of the Jewish nation out of the calamity of the Shoah, through the rebirth and growth of the State of Israel thanks to the sacrifice of so many, was a call to responsibility for the future generations, encapsulated by the evening’s slogan of “embrace the past, grasp the future.”

As I sat there enjoying the show, many thoughts went through my mind.

First, I was struck by the strength that comes from this incredible sense of purpose, dedication and self-sacrifice born out of the Jewish people’s struggle for survival throughout the ages. It’s no wonder, I thought, that Israel has won all the wars launched against them by their Arab enemies - who not only totally lack any sense of common purpose but are often bitter rivals among themselves.

At the same time, it was clear to me how a greater Hand of protection had been upon the people of Israel in protecting them from the foes that have risen and continue to rise against them.

For this reason, I thought it unfortunate and rather sad that the One who is primarily responsible for the survival of the Jewish People, the Shomer Israel who neither slumbers nor sleeps, was more or less left on the sidelines of the evening. With hardly any verbal acknowledgement made to the enduring providence and protection of the God of Israel over His people, I felt that the event left at times a bit of an awkward feeling of self-congratulation – as if the survival and thriving of the Jewish people through history were due to their own tenacity and determination alone.

While aware that the March of the Living is not a “religious event” per se, I could not help but wish that some thanksgiving and praise would have been given to God for His faithfulness to His people – especially now that the dark clouds of new and greater threats are gathering on the horizon of the Jewish nation.

Fortunately, this uneasy feeling was partially relieved with the uplifting performances of some traditional religious Jewish songs, such as Adon Olam (Lord of the Ages), Mashiach (Messiah) and Ein lanu al mi lehisha’en (“We have no one else to lean on but our Father who is in heaven”) – which were my personal highlights of the evening.

I also wished that a dimension of reconciliation would have been better integrated into the event, such as the work done by the much smaller Yad b’Yad initiative, which sends groups of Israelis and Germans together to Germany, Auschwitz, and Israel with the goal of fostering reconciliation, healing and friendships between them. As much as I appreciate the mission of the March of the Living, I felt that its implicit message of “we survived even though everyone is against us, and we want to make sure it doesn’t happen again” fell quite a bit short of Yad b’Yad’s vision of bringing together Germans and Israelis, calling the former to repentance and the latter to forgiveness, healing their respective wounds of guilt and victimization, and leading them to true friendship and unity between Jew and Gentile.

Of course, since such a vision of the “one new man” is grounded in the work of reconciliation accomplished by Yeshua the Messiah of Israel and Prince of Peace, it is probably unrealistic to expect it from a Jewish organization that does not accept Him as Messiah and Savior. Still, one may hope for this vision of true reconciliation to come to pass in the future, since it is an integral part of Israel's calling and vocation as announced by the ancient prophets.

Finally, while admiring the March of the Living event, I could not help but think of its quasi-namesake the “March for Life” - the annual pro-life rally that draws some 250,000 participants in Washington D.C. every year with the goal of overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in America.

The March of the Living and March for Life.  I thought of the “Great Disconnect” between Israel and the Church: How many Jews at the event in Latrun even know what is the March for Life?  How many of my Catholic friends in the U.S. even know what is the March of the Living?

The March of the Living and March for Life.  Two holocausts.  6 millions Jews in Europe from 1941 to 1945 (average 1.5 million a year).  Over 54 million unborn - in America alone - from 1973 to 2011 (average 1.4 million a year).

The March of the Living and March for Life.  Two celebrations of life. One group marching to celebrate the life that came out of the ashes of the Shoah seventy years ago, having survived a mad criminal regime and a nation that had killed its own conscience. One group marching to protect the life of future generations, threatened today by a culture of selfishness that has also killed its conscience in tolerating the legal wholesale slaughter of millions of innocents for the sake of “choice.”

The March of the Living and March for Life...  and a chilling question: of all those Jews who take pride in celebrating the victory of life over death at the March of the Living, how many simultaneously choose the side of death when it comes to today's silent genocide of the unborn?  After all, it is known that a majority of Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and secular Jews are aligned with the so-called "reproductive choice" camp, with not a few Jews being even leaders in the pro-abortion movement.  Survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants, and at the same time accomplices in the greatest modern-day Holocaust.  A chilling thought indeed.

May the people at the March for Life in Washington D.C. be inspired by the heritage, memory and mission of the March of the Living. But more importantly, may those participants in the March of the Living also fight for life in the battle that is taking place before their very eyes today. God forbid that those whose ancestors survived a Holocaust become accomplices of another. May they "embrace the past and grasp the future" by joining the cause of the March for Life.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Memory and Independence: From Death to Life

Just a week after the siren sounded throughout Israel to mark Holocaust Memorial day, it sounded again twice on Tuesday April 25 at 8 PM and the following morning at 11 AM to commemorate Yom Hazikaron, Remembrance Day.  During these two moments of silence and throughout the day, Israelis remembered the 22,293 men and women who died defending the land of Israel since 1860, when the first Jewish settlers began to build new neighborhoods outside of the old city of Jerusalem.  In the past year alone, 126 members of the security forces were killed.

In his message to the bereaved families of Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who lost his brother Yonatan in 1976 in the Entebbe rescue operation in Uganda – said the following words:

“After Remembrance Day, the State of Israel will celebrate its 64th birthday. The unbreakable bond between Remembrance Day and Independence Day underscores the fact that our dear ones who fell in Israel's wars did not fall in vain. Thanks to them, the State arose. Thanks to them, the State of Israel will continue to develop and prosper, and thanks to them the members of the younger generation will also be able to live their lives in security and tranquility.”

On the afternoon of Memorial Day my friend Shosha invited me to come to the national cemetery on Mount Herzl and join the tributes to her brother, the late Yehudah Greenfield, who was killed in action in the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

In a recollected and sad, yet peaceful atmosphere, families and friends gather around the graves of the fallen, reciting psalms and singing songs.  Warm handshakes or hugs are exchanged, along with words of encouragement and light conversation.  Some stand or sit in silence, quietly weeping in front of the tomb of their loved ones.

I walk around in silence, reading the inscriptions in Hebrew on the tombstones, all marked with the emblem of the IDF.  20 years old, killed in Gaza.  23 years old, killed in Lebanon.  19 years old, killed in a bombing attack in Jerusalem.  21 years old, killed while performing her duty.

Just a few steps away, a fresh heap of earth covered with flowers marks the grave of the most recent victim, Lieutenant Hila Betzaleli, who was killed a week earlier when a lighting structure collapsed onto the stage at Mount Herzl during a rehearsal for the Independence Day opening ceremony.

At sunset, mourning turns into dancing as Memorial Day turns into the eve of Yom HaAtsma’ut – Israeli Independence Day and the nation’s 64th birthday.  In Jerusalem, the city comes alive with evening concerts, celebrations, parties, and a mix of traditional Jewish and modern dancing at Safra Square.

For me, such a personal experience of Memorial Day drove home the words of the Prime Minister:  spending the day with a bereaved friend and her family at the Mount Herzl cemetery certainly gives a very different meaning to the celebrations of Independence Day.  In the wake of the extermination of six million Jews in Europe, followed by countless wars and two intifadas, the price paid for the birth and survival of the State of Israel in these past 64 years has indeed been a heavy one, marked with much blood and tears and thanks to the sacrifice of many young men and women.

I cannot help but think at the deep interconnection between the mystery of Israel and mystery of Christ.  Death and resurrection.  Sacrifice for the sake of new life.  Thank you to the brave young men and women who gave their lives for their nation.  You have given your people a reason to be proud, and a reason to cherish Israel’s independence with special gratefulness. May their memory be blessed. And happy birthday Israel!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Israeli Students Talk about the Holocaust

It’s 10 AM on Thursday, April 19, and sirens are sounding all over Israel.   It’s not an air raid drill, but the nation-wide commemoration of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day.  For two minutes, the country comes to a standstill as people interrupt their activities and stand in silence while the sirens wail.  It’s an eerie sight to see the traffic completely stopped on the roads and highways, with drivers coming out of their cars and standing in silent reverence to remember the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.

Headlines in the Hebrew newspapers on Yom Hashoah

On the eve of Yom HaShoah, the main commemoration ceremony took place at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, attended by President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  During the ceremony, six holocaust survivors lit six torches representing the six million victims.  In his speech, Netanyahu emphasized the need to learn from the past in order to secure the nation’s future:

“Our enemies tried to bury the Jewish future but our future was born again in the land of our forefathers.  Here we built a base, and a new beginning of freedom, and hope and action.”

Netanyahu also issued a sobering reminder that the Jewish people still faces an existential threat today in Iran’s repeated calls to “exterminate the Jewish State.”  The Prime Minister said that the Iranian threat is a danger not only to Israel but also to world peace:  "It is the world’s responsibility to stop Iran securing nuclear weapons" said Netanyahu.

For me as a Christian, it’s always a bit surreal to experience Yom Hashoah in Israel.  For the younger generations in the West who grew up in an unprecedented time of peace, the Second World War and the Holocaust seem to belong to the distant past – terrible days now relegated to the history books.  But for the Jewish people and nation of Israel, the Holocaust is still an open wound and a call to vigilance.

I was present on Thursday at a brief but moving Holocaust commemoration service on the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, attended by several hundred students, faculty and staff.  The function began with a recitation of the “Yizkor” prayer (“may [God] remember”), followed by speeches, memorial songs and poems.  The ceremony ended with everyone singing accapella the Israeli national anthem, “HaTikvah” (“The Hope”).

The memorial ceremony at Hebrew University

I asked a few students what were their thoughts and feelings on this day.

“When I was in high school, I travelled to Poland,” says Avigal, “but from year to year I feel less connected to those tragic events.  This makes me a bit sad, but it’s good that we have these kinds of memorial services; they help you to understand the importance of every day.”

Yonatan agrees: “it’s still very hard to grasp these things and speak about them.  Even when I was in Poland and in Auschwitz, it was hard to grasp what happened there, so it’s even harder here.”

I asked Yonathan what he thought is the role of Israel and the Jewish people today to prevent such events from happening again.

“First of all, we need to ensure that our own behavior and actions are right,” he said, “and then we must make sure that those who suffer from anti-Semitism in the world have a safe place and refuge here in Israel if they want to come here.”

Noga Cohen feels a close connection to the Holocaust, as well as a moral obligation to be learnt from it: “It really shaped my own identity, because I am the granddaughter of a survivor and my mother is a Holocaust scholar.  I’m glad that this day spurs us on to reflect on how to build a better future, and on the importance of fighting against racism in Israeli society.”

Her friend Tom adds: “There are many lessons to learn beyond our own identity as Jews.  On the one hand, it’s not the only genocide that occurred in history; on the other hand, for us we experience its meaning as a people, with implications on the existence of the State of Israel.  There are differences and similarities between the holocaust and other tragic events that happened in history, and I think we need to keep in mind both aspects.”

Noga and Tom

A few steps away, two religious students provided a different perspective.  Rafi tells me that he is troubled at the recent politicization of the Holocaust:

“In recent years, the society has been instrumentalizing the Holocaust for different purposes: the right has used it to warn us against Iran, and the left relates it to the racism of some Jews against Ethiopians and Arabs.  These are important topics, but I don’t agree in relating them to the Shoah, because it was a unique event in history.  I think we need to separate the commemoration from the lessons that need to be learned.  The Shoah is a sacred topic that used to be apolitical and unifying, but now it has become political and divisive.”

Benny and Rafi

Rafi’s friend Benny then explains his own personal connection to the Shoah:

“Both grandparents on my father’s side survived the Holocaust in Auschwitz and Mauthausen, and all members of their families were killed.  This past remained with us in our family, and so you could say that this day is half sacred for us.  On a national level, it’s something ungraspable, both in the scope and amplitude of the evil that was behind it.”

But why did this happen precisely to the Jewish people?

“I think the Jewish people have a certain calling that no other nation has, and this really bothered the Nazis.  I think the Jewish people brought a certain morality to the world that Hitler didn’t want.

And how should we relate to the Shoah today? “First, by remembering this day” says Benny.  “Second, by perpetuating the characteristics and calling of the Jewish people, precisely in the places where they were not wanted – being a light to the gentiles in a moral way – and for this we still have much work to do.  It’s a good day for us to do some soul searching, to improve ourselves for next year, to perpetuate and justify our existence.

The Yizkor Prayer for Martyrs

May the L-rd remember
the souls of the holy and pure ones
who were killed, murdered, slaughtered, burned, drowned, and strangled
for the sanctification of the Name,
because, without making a vow, I shall give to charity on their behalf.
As reward for this,
may their souls be bound in the Bond of Life,
together with the souls of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob;
Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah;
and together with the other righteous men and women in the Garden of Eden.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Christian Tourism in the Holy Land: A Background Briefing in Preparation for Holy Week

In advance of the coming Holy Week, the Religious Tourism Desk of the Israeli Tourism Ministry invited members of the foreign media to a background briefing on Christian tourism and the events of Holy Week, offering some unique interview opportunities with leaders of the Catholic communities in Jerusalem.

The meeting, which took place on March 28 around the Christian Quarter of the Old City, was led by Uri Sharon of the Religious Tourism Desk.  He began with a general briefing on Christian tourism in Israel, followed by a short tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Uri Sharon speaking with the group of journalists in the Christian Quarter

Sharon underlined the importance of pilgrimages to Israel, pointing out that tourism in the Holy Land had peaked in the last two years with some 3.4 million visitors in 2010 and 2011, 60% of which being Christians, and half of these coming as pilgrims or spiritual travelers.  He emphasized how a pilgrimage to the Holy Land truly enables pilgrims to encounter and discover the “Fifth Gospel,” learning the geography of the Bible, experiencing its landscape and nature, and in this process getting better acquainted with the human side of Jesus who lived, died and resurrected here in this land.

During the tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Sharon led the group of journalists up the hill of Golgotha, where a Greek Orthodox liturgy was taking place, and then to the “Chapel of Adam” just below it, believed to be the tomb of Adam and Eve in Christian tradition.   He explained how the fact that Christ’s blood poured down onto the tomb of the first parents of the human race illustrated His redemption of all humanity from the very beginning, including all those who lived before the coming of the Savior.

After a brief historical overview of the Sepulchre, the group walked to the Latin Patriarchate, where they were received by Fr. David Neuhaus, Patriarchal Vicar for the Hebrew-speaking Catholic communities in Israel.

Fr. Neuhaus gave a fascinating overview of the complex historical and pastoral reality of the Church in the Holy Land: from the restoration of the Latin Patriarchate in the mid-19th century to the establishment of the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community in 1955, to the pastoral challenge of the waves of Catholic immigrants settling in Israel in every generation – such as the thousands of Filipinos who came in the 1990s and most recently some tens of thousands of Eritreans.

Fr. David Neuhaus addressing the journalists

The Patriarchal Vicar also spoke about his own Hebrew-speaking community and the particularities of a Catholic community in Israel praying the Church’s liturgy in the Hebrew language.  He underlined the points of contact between the Jewish and Christian liturgy, such as the link between the Passover Seder and Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, and the solemn fasting on Good Friday as reminiscent of Yom Kippur.

He also discussed some details of the coming program of Holy Week in Jerusalem, as well as some of the issues affecting the coexistence between the different Christian confessions in the Holy City.  If the sharing of the holy sites sometimes causes difficulties and tensions, he said, there is also hope for greater cooperation and coming closer together in the future.  For example, he indicated that there is a strong likelihood of adopting a common date for the celebration of Easter between the Catholic and Orthodox communities, beginning as early as next year.

The next stop was the Notre Dame Center just outside of the New Gate, where the group was welcomed by Fr. Juan Solana, Chargé of the Holy See.  From the rooftop, with a stunning view of the city in the background, Fr. Juan told the group how despite the recent unrest in many countries of the Middle East, interest for the Holy Land remains high and tourism continues to thrive.  He also mentioned a growing interest for the Jewish roots of the Christian faith, noting how he frequently receives requests from Christians who wish to participate in a Jewish Passover meal.  This interest for the connection between Passover and Easter is especially relevant this year as the two feasts coincide – as in the Gospels – with Passover Eve falling on Good Friday.

Fr. Juan Solana and the group on the roof of Notre Dame Center

The morning concluded when Fr. Eamon Kelly, Vice- Chargé of the Notre Dame Center, addressed the group.  “Many pilgrims coming to the Holy Land feel that they can make the words of Psalm 87 their own: ‘every man was born here’ – he said.  “They feel that somehow their origins are here.”

Fr. Kelly explained how Notre Dame Center, located in a place that used to be right in “no man’s land,” at the dividing line between the conflicting parties from 1948 to 1967, strives to be a place of peace and encounter for people from all sides.

This will also be the goal of the Magdala Center, currently being developed on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in the north of the country: to replicate the experience of Notre Dame as a place of encounter and peace.  Fr. Kelly spoke of the hand of divine Providence as he told of the sensational discovery of a first-century synagogue right on the site where the construction of an ecumenical chapel had been planned.

With the culmination of the Church’s liturgical year upon us, it is indeed time to rediscover the “Fifth Gospel” and to return to the place of our origins, following Christ through the last events of his earthly life in the very sites where they took place.  A blessed Holy Week, and happy Passover and Easter to all!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Rediscovering the Holy Temple of Jerusalem

During Lent, one great way to gain new insights into Christ’s life, passion, death and resurrection – and also into our own Christian liturgy – is to get to know the place that was at the center of Jesus’ own spiritual life: the Temple.  The Jerusalem Temple was the holy seat of the Divine Presence and the heart and soul of Judaism in Jesus’ days.  So it’s no surprise that the Gospels present Jesus’ life and ministry as revolving around the Temple:

Soon after He was born, Joseph and Mary presented Jesus in the Temple (Lk 2:27). 

He taught in the Temple at age twelve (Lk 46) and then throughout his life (Mt 21:23; Mk 12:35; 14:49; Lk 19:47; 21:38; Jn 7:14; 8:2; 18:20); He also healed in the Temple (Mt 21:14). 

He viewed the Temple as his “Father’s House” and drove out the money changers from it out of concern for its sanctity (Mt 21:12; Mk 11:15; Lk 19:45; Jn 2:14). 

Finally, Jesus said that He is Himself greater than the Temple (Mt 12:6) announcing that His own body would be a new Temple (Mt 26:61; Mk 14:58; Jn 2:19-21). 

There have been two Temples in the history of Israel: The first was built by King Solomon around 970 B.C. (cf. 1 Ki 6), and it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. (2 Ki 25).  The Second Temple was built by Zerubbabel after the return from Babylonian Exile in 516 B.C.; it was renovated and enlarged by King Herod the Great around 19 B.C., and was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.

The Temple as it looked in Jesus' days

Both Temples were built on the Temple Mount, approximately where the Muslim Dome of the Rock stands today.  This is why the Western Wall is the holiest site for the Jews today – because it is the closest spot to where the Holy of Holies used to stand.  There, the Divine Shekhinah rested over the Ark of the Covenant and between the Cherubim as the tangible sign of God’s Presence in the midst of His people.

The Temple Institute

One really interesting way of getting acquainted with the Temple of Jesus’ days is by visiting the Temple Institute in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.  Situated on Misgav LaDach Street, one arrives there by walking down from the main square of the Jewish Quarter towards the Western Wall.  Misgav LaDach is the last street on the left just before going down the stairs leading to the Wall.

The Temple Institute is quite small, consisting of three rooms, a bookshop and small movie screening room.  The bookshop offers a number of superb books on the Temple, as well as Bible Atlases, Temple models, and more.

The guide explaining the role of the priests and of the altar of incense

In the first room, the main showcase features two figures, one of the High Priest and one of a regular priest, standing next to a golden altar of incense just like the one that used to stand in the sanctuary.  Incense was offered daily on this altar, rising towards heaven and symbolizing the prayers of the people rising to God.  The High Priest is wearing his intricate “golden garments,” consisting of ephod, breastplate, robe, tunic, turban, belt, crown, and pants). 

As I walk around the room, a guide explains to a group of religious Israeli school children in Hebrew the role of the different instruments that were used in the Temple service, as well as the significance of the High Priest’s garments.  In other displays around the room, there are musical instruments that were played by the Levites in the Temple service, such as a lyre, harp and trumpets. 

At the center of the second room is a superb model of the Herodian Temple as it would have looked in Jesus’ days.  In the corner stands a small stone altar of sacrifice.  The walls of the room are decorated with several beautiful color paintings of the Temple in its former glory.

Model of the Second Temple

In the screening room, a short animated film explains various aspects of the Temple service and its sacrifices.

Walking down a few steps, we arrive at the third room.  On the right side, there is the large bronze laver which provided water to wash the priests’ hands and feet. 

In the main showcase, there is the table of showbread, with golden racks made to hold twelve large loaves of bread.  The twelve loaves (corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel), that used to be constantly present on the table in the sanctuary and were replaced every Shabbat, represented the material abundance that God provides to the world.  On the left and right, there are vessels for the Temple service and bottles of wine for the drink offerings.

The guide in front of the table of showbread

Absent from the museum is the beautiful golden Menorah that lighted the interior of the sanctuary and symbolized God’s Wisdom and His spiritual blessing on Israel and the world.  (The Menorah is on open display outside, further down on the way to the Western Wall). 

Here also the walls are decorated with several beautiful scenes of both the first (Solomonic) and second (Herodian) Temples, including views of the inner sanctuary and of the High Priest offering incense in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur.

The Temple as Pillar of Creation

The guide asks the group of children: How far back does the Temple go?  Only as far back as Solomon? What are its origins? 

Abraham has a vision of the Temple
As a hint, he points to a picture in the back.  There, we see an image of the Aqedah – of Abraham about to sacrifice His son Isaac.  As he raises his knife to kill his son, Abraham has a mystical vision of the future Temple.  Indeed, the Bible tells us that Abraham’s offering of Isaac took place on Mount Moriah (Gen 22:2), the very place where the Temple would later be built.  This means that Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to God was a foreshadowing of all the future sacrifices that would be later offered in the Temple.

But the Temple even goes further back in time.  In fact, Jewish tradition situates the Temple at the beginning of the creation of the world.  As some midrashic sources tell us, the Temple had been part of God’s design since even before creation, and it was built on the foundation stone of the world, called in Hebrew the Even Shetiyah.  This idea shows how it has always been God’s desire to dwell among His people, even from the beginning of time.

For religious Jews, the furnishings, instruments and garments prepared by the Temple institute are not just artifacts of historical interest.  They have been made according to the strictest requirements set out in the Torah for the purpose of being used in the future Third Temple.  Indeed, religious Jews pray every day for its speedy reconstruction.

Christian Fulfillment

Christians see the Temple differently: for us, a visit to the Temple Institute is first of all a fascinating journey through time.  It’s a unique opportunity to discover the magnificent house of worship that used to be at the heart of Jewish life for nearly 1,000 years.  But we also see the Temple fulfilled in Christ, in the Church’s liturgy, and in our own lives when through faith and baptism we become “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19).

As the Epistle to the Hebrew tells us, Christ is both the sacrificial victim who atoned for our sins and our High Priest who is “seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven” (Heb 8:1).  Now, at Mass, the priest acts in persona Christi (in the person of Christ) and offers incense on our behalf, representing our prayers rising to heaven.

The laver prefigures the priest’s washing of hands at Mass before the Eucharistic prayer; it’s a sign of his need for spiritual purification as he silently says “Lord, wash away my iniquity; cleanse me from my sin”.

The Menorah reminds us of Jesus who is the “light of the world” (Jn 8:12), represented by the lighted candles on the altar at Mass.

The loaves of showbread also prefigure Jesus who is the “bread of life” (Jn 6:35), and the drink offerings of wine foreshadow his turning water in wine at Cana (Jn 2:9).  And Christ now continues to remain present with us in a special way through His Body and Blood, given to us under the form of the Eucharistic bread and wine.

Christians who believe that Jesus’ resurrected body is the New Temple, and that this New Temple of the Holy Spirit is perpetuated in the Church and in the Body of every baptized believer, cannot share the same desire of our Jewish friends to see the physical Temple building reconstructed.  But we can pray with them for God to “return His Shekhinah to Zion” so that His presence and the power of his love and salvation may again come to dwell in its fullness, both in Jerusalem and in the entire world.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Discovering the Jerusalem from the Time of Jesus

What did Jerusalem look like in Jesus’ days?  For most of Christian history, this question remained shrouded in mystery.

When the Temple and city were destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D., the ruins remained buried for nearly two millennia - even after the Jewish People began to return to the Land of Israel at the end of the nineteenth century.  During the war of Independence (1948), the Jewish Quarter of the Old City was largely destroyed by the Jordanians and it remained off limits to Jews for 19 years, until Israel retook the Old City during the Six Day War (1967).

After the Six Day War, during the renovation of the Jewish Quarter (1967-82), the ancient site was uncovered, revealing spectacular finds: a luxurious Second Temple period residential quarter in the Upper City of Jerusalem.  Because of its grandeur and opulence, it was renamed the Herodian Quarter, also known today as the Wohl Museum of Archeology.

In the days when Jesus came up to Jerusalem every year to celebrate the Jewish festivals, the wealthy aristocratic and priestly families lived in the magnificent houses of the Herodian Quarter.  It is easy to see why this area, built on a hillside overlooking the nearby Temple Mount, would have been particularly attractive to priests who ministered in the Temple every day.

Today, this is the largest and most important site from Second Temple times that can still be seen in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter.  Perhaps even some of the priests and Sadducees whom the Gospels recall as disputing with Jesus, lived in these houses.

Descending three meters below the present ground level, we go back 2,000 years in time, to the upper city of Jerusalem in the Herodian period.

One of the houses in the Herodian Quarter

The archeological remains of the cellars of six luxurious homes - probably then two stories in height - provide a vivid picture of the inhabitants’ wealth.  Numerous storage rooms, reservoirs, bathhouses and ritual baths, ovens, colorful mosaics, frescoes, elegant household items and other decorative adornments led archaeologists to conclude that the residents enjoyed a very high standard of living.

One unique find is the seven-branched menorah (candelabra) carved on one of the walls. This is the oldest explicit depiction of the menorah, and it was probably carved by a person who had actually seen the original menorah, still at use at that time in the Temple.

Throughout the museum there are displays of terra cotta tableware, imported amphorae for wine and delicate flasks.  The presence of several ritual baths and many stone vessels are an indication that the residents were priests who strictly adhered to the Jewish laws of ritual purity, because stone vessels were not subjected to ritual impurity.

Comparative pictures in the museum show how the site developed over the years, with illustrations of the Jewish Quarter in the 1940s (before it was destroyed in the War of Independence), during the excavations in the 1970s, and the rebuilt Jewish Quarter in the 1990s.

On the eastern side of the site, we arrive at a row of columns that belonged to a “peristyle” – a colonnade surrounding an open court – which formed part of an especially fine mansion.  The Peristyle Building testifies to the wealth of the neighborhood and to how the inhabitants designed their homes meticulously in the Greco-Roman style that was popular in those times. From here the residents would have had a splendid view of the Temple esplanade where Jesus spent much of his time when he was in Jerusalem.

The Columns of the Peristyle Building

A little further down, there is a beautiful mosaic floor found in the reception hall of another elegant Jewish residence.  Then, we come to the “palatial mansion”, the largest and most splendid of the houses uncovered on the site, probably inhabited by one of the families of the High Priest.

As one nears the end of the tour, a burnt room provides a glimpse of the tragic and violent end of the neighborhood and its inhabitants: The charred wooden beams that collapsed from the ceiling and the burnt mosaic stones testify to the great fire that raged in the city and to the destruction wrought by the Romans –the last moments of Jerusalem in its glory.

The Herodian Quarter as it would have looked in the days of Jesus

The Wohl Museum is situated just off the main square in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.  Guided tours and private tours are available, as well as MP3 recorded tours.  For reservations, call 02-626-5922 or visit 

Monday, January 23, 2012

German-Israeli Reconciliation... in Yad Vashem and Auschwitz

Recently I covered for Travelujah in collaboration with Catholics for Israel the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference, organized by the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.  Following the moving wreath-laying ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, I interviewed a unique pair of friends just outside the Hall of Remembrance.

Maren Steege is a young Christian woman from Stuttgart in Germany, and Eliel Fos is a young Israeli Messianic believer from Haifa. As leaders of the "Yad b’Yad" program, they regularly take teams of German and Israeli youth on reconciliation missions to Auschwitz.

"Yad b’Yad," which means "Hand in Hand" in Hebrew, expresses the organization’s goal to lead Israeli, German and Polish youth to walk hand in hand through Auschwitz, overcoming their pain and shame with the love of God. By guiding young people on a cultural, social, spiritual and historical journey to God’s grace, forgiveness, and power of reconciliation, Yad b’Yad teaches them to overcome the dark history of the past and create hope for future generations.

In the midst of the sober ceremony remembering Wannsee’s “Final Solution,” the smiling faces of Maren and Eliel in the brisk January wind were in themselves a living testimony that their commitment for reconciliation is working.

Maren, what brings you here today?

Maren: I came here from Germany with a delegation of 70 people representing Christian organizations. We have a heart not just for Israel in general but also for the individual persons here.

Eliel, how does it feel to see all these German and Austrian pastors here?

Eliel: It's very special to be with this group because they represent such a major part of Germany. They are making a strong statement in saying: "we will stand with Israel." This is something that is really encouraging to see as an Israeli and as a Jew. It’s also very special to be here together with Maren because we went to Auschwitz together as part of the “Yad b’Yad” program.

How did it feel to go and lay a wreath together, as a German and an Israeli?

Maren: For me, it was a real honor. In my heart, there are two sides beating together: on the one hand, even though I don't look like it, I have Jewish blood in my ancestry line. On the other hand, I also have a great-grandmother who had quite a high position in the Nazi regime. It took us a long time - many years - for us as a family to overcome that.

I just met her once, when I was 1 1/2 year old. When she saw that my brother and I were the only ones in the family who were blonde with blue eyes, somehow we had the feeling that she wanted to pick us out in a sort of idolatrous furthering of the ancestry line. Somehow I was a "chosen one" for her. But I decided to do the opposite in my own life, and to really stand with Israel. And so I'm very honored to stand here… it's something that words cannot express.

It’s also a privilege to be able to organize these youth exchanges, because it's not just with words but also with deeds that we can really change something.

What do you think is the most important thing for young people in the future, and how is all of this connected to your faith?

Eliel: I think there’s an important lesson to be learned in this place – and the young people really have to learn it. It’s our history, our past, but these kinds of things can also happen today. The problem is that people don't learn... they forget. And it's hard for young people to relate to what happened because your mind cannot contain it.

For Israel, the Holocaust is a national wound, and it’s a wound for every Israeli. I think there is no way out of it apart from the cross and Jesus. He is the one who can take this burden from us and bring healing into our heart, with true reconciliation based on true love between our two nations.

Can you tell us more about the trips you lead to Auschwitz?

Eliel: We first took the Israeli kids – all believers in Yeshua – to Maren's church in Stuttgart.  Then we went together to Auschwitz, and it was a very deep time.

Maren: When we go there, every Jewish teenager has a German partner. So the Israelis don't go there saying in a general way "these are the Germans who did this" because you cannot deal with such a large mass of people. But at that moment you have your German partner with you, one person who is an individual. In the first week of the program, they already build good friendships, and then finally they come to Auschwitz.

When we talk with the youth and ask them: "what is your biggest fear, what are you most afraid of?" they often answer: "that the experience in Auschwitz changes our friendship, that it breaks something."  And the Germans kids say: "maybe my Israeli friend will not be able to look at me anymore."

I remember a situation last time, when we were standing there in the gas chamber. There was a boy - he was about 16 years old… at that very moment, he took a picture out of his pocket. It was a picture of his grandmother, and he said: "it was here where she took her last breath."

Then we had a ceremony, and I must admit that seeing the young teenagers, my mind could not really grasp what happened there. But I know that it's really worth it to invest in friendships with Israel – not just superficial friendships but deep ones, because friendships will be like a bridge between us.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

70 Years Later: German Christian Leaders Remember the Wannsee Conference

On January 19 and 20, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem hosted a delegation of German and Austrian Christian leaders to mark the seventieth anniversary of the Wannsee Conference.  I was sent by Travelujah to cover the event.

On that fateful day of January 20, 1942, 15 high-ranking Nazi officials, convened by Reinhard Heydrich, assistant to deputy Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler, met at a lakeside villa outside Berlin to decide on the implementation of the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question,” setting in motion their systematic plan to annihilate all Jews in Europe.

Seventy years later, on the evening of Thursday, January 19, the ICEJ (in partnership with Helping Hands Coalition) invited the Christian representatives together with leaders of various Holocaust survivor communities in Israel to a special reception at the Konrad Adenauer Center in Jerusalem in honor of the victims and survivors.

Jewish and Christian Visitors at the Konrad Adenauer Center

Dr. Susanna Kokkonen, Director of the Christian Friends of Yad Vashem, commented on the event:

“The fact that German Christian leaders of all denominations have come here to commemorate and acknowledge this event and express their solidarity with the State of Israel sends a strong message to Israelis.”

Kokkonen wished that Christians take stronger action by coming to Israel and to Yad Vashem for solidarity missions in order to learn how to prevent such an event from happening again.  Asked about how to stem the tide of modern anti-Semitism, she underlined the importance of education: “It’s important to study and learn more about what is anti-Semitism. You can’t heal something if you don’t even understand the mechanism behind it.”

Shaya Ben Yehuda, Managing Director of Yad Vashem’s International Relations Division, contrasted the situation today with that of seventy years ago:

“I think that this event is very meaningful and symbolic: seventy years ago, we were on different sides of the war: we were in the ghettos, tortured, trapped, and those on the other side persecuted us, tortured us and tried to murder us.  This event symbolizes the change that has happened along the years.  It shows that when you come back to the fundamental story of the Bible, you realize that we come from the same origins and we have a common destiny.”

“It’s the proof that we as human beings can build something together,” he added.  “I think our German friends have come to Yad Vashem not only for atonement or repentance, but also to say: ‘we have come to build something together for the future’ – and the future is not just for the Jews but also for all of humanity.”

As to the foundation for building a common future together, Ben Yehuda stressed the importance of biblical formation: “the most important thing is to educate the youth of today about the dignity and right to exist for every human being.  As it is written in the Bible, we were all created in the image of God.”

Dr. Jürgen Bühler
Dr. Jürgen Bühler, the Executive Director of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, reminded his guests of the dire consequences of forgetting the biblical view of the equal dignity of every human being, even for an educated and cultivated nation such as Germany:

“The Nazi officials who deliberated at Villa Wannsee over their ghastly plans for exterminating European Jewry were all well-educated, with at least half of them holding doctorate degrees.  Some were also the sons of Protestant ministers, yet not one of them raised any moral objections to this heinous plot.”

Five German Christian leaders then gave speeches revolving around several common themes: one of them was that Christians today must not only remember the past, but also pass on this memory to the next generation.  Some told the story of how they had personally passed from having a detached knowledge of the facts of the Holocaust to a heartfelt personal repentance.  They underlined how Christian leaders bear a special responsibility in continuing to express this ongoing repentance in words and deeds:

"We came here to continue the repentance of our nation for the enormous crime of mass murder of Jews committed in the name of a wicked ideology," said Bühler. "The Church in Germany still has so much more to do to amend for our deafening silence in those dark days."

The speeches were followed by a moving concert performed by a string and oboe ensemble from the German Christian Music Academy of Stuttgart.

The next day, a wreath laying ceremony was held at 11:30 at the Warsaw Ghetto Square in Yad Vashem.  Ingolf Ellssel, Chairman of the Pentecostal European Fellowship, said that even today, 70 years after Wannsee, the call for Christians to repent and reorient themselves remains as needed as ever, and he underlined the power of faith in bringing healing, reconciliation, and new life.

Ellssel recalled how his own father had joined Hitler’s army, and after having spent 5 years in Russia as a prisoner of war, he returned to Germany a broken man.  Someone then shared his Christian faith with him, and in Christ, he found forgiveness, hope, and the strength to begin a new life.  Ellssel concluded: “God blesses those who change their lives.”

The German and Austrian Christian leaders, representing 5 million Protestant and Evangelical Christians, then silently laid their wreaths in front of the bronze statue of “The Last March” depicting the deportation of the Jews to the death camps.

Wreaths at the Warsaw Ghetto Square at Yad Vashem

The leaders were then invited into the Hall of Remembrance, where the eternal flame was rekindled, another wreath was laid, and a cantor poignantly sang the Hebrew funeral prayer “El Maleh Rachamim” (God full of mercy) in memory of the victims of the Holocaust.

In the Hall of Remembrance

"Wannsee was one of the darkest days in the history of the German people," said Gottfried Bühler, National Director of ICEJ-Germany and the initiator of the event. "Seventy years after, we bow down in deep sorrow. And we also promise to keep this remembrance alive.”

Bühler added that this was the reason why many of the Christian leaders brought their children along, so the next generation could witness these ceremonies. “Yet remembrance alone is not enough; it must go hand-in-hand with responsible deeds of goodness."

Dan Diker, Secretary General of the World Jewish Congress, then addressed the delegation.  While expressing his gratitude to the Christian representatives for their support for the Jewish people, he also warned of how the Wannsee Conference was not an isolated event but rather tended to repeat itself throughout history. He recalled how, long ago, in Persia, a man called Haman plotted to annihilate the Jewish people, and how in our own day, a new Haman is rising in modern Persia - calling again for the destruction of the Jewish people.

The call to vigilance and action was clear:  "Today's ceremonies at Yad Vashem are the answer to Wannsee," Diker stated. "The lesson is to be vigilant. This is about preventing the next Wannsee, which is already here in the Iranian threat to eradicate Israel."

At a time where conflict is increasing in the world, where mutual blame and accusation are the order of the day between opposing individuals, factions and nations, it was refreshing to witness leaders following the example of both humility and courage that they learned from their own Jewish Messiah: the humility to take responsibility for the sins committed in the past by their forefathers, and the courage to act so that they don’t happen again.  Two virtues which, along with mutual forgiveness, seem to be the pillars upholding the warm friendship between Jews and Christians at the event.

It is to be hoped that the same virtues will continue to be expressed and promoted at the upcoming International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27.  May our Christian leaders take the opportunity to bring the same message back home - and share it with the nations of the world.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Celebrating the Baptism of Jesus with the Franciscans of the Holy Land

On January 8, Travelujah arranged for me to to accompany the Franciscans of the Holy Land on their annual pilgrimage to the Jordan River. This “annual” trip was rather unique, because the same event was celebrated at the same place… less than three months ago.  The reason: Until recently, the Baptismal Site known as “Qasr al Yahud” was a closed military zone, and pilgrims were allowed to go there only once a year, on the last Thursday of October.  But last summer the Israeli authorities opened the site all year-round.  With the site now much more accessible, the Franciscans decided to move the date of their annual pilgrimage to the most appropriate liturgical time for it, on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, celebrated on the first Sunday after Epiphany (January 6).

On the way to the Jordan River
The busload of friars left Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem shortly after 8 AM, with a festive atmosphere on board.  The attempts of Fr. Artemio Vitores, the Custodial Vicar, to announce the order of the day on the microphone were periodically interrupted by various jokes and songs.  After only a half-hour ride, we made a brief first stop at the Parish of the Good Shepherd in Jericho, where the friars and faithful were welcomed by the local civil authorities.  Fifteen minutes later, we were back on the bus and heading for the Jordan River.

At the Jordan River

As soon as we arrived, the Franciscans lined up for their ceremonial procession, starting from an abandoned monastery next to the parking lot.  The friars led the procession towards the river, walking through the rocky ground in two orderly rows while singing Latin hymns such as “Lauda Ierusalem Dominum” and “Christus vincit”.  They were followed by the Custos of the Holy Land, Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, accompanied by religious, civil and military dignitaries, and with the faithful closing ranks just behind them.

The Franciscan Procession to the Jordan River

Once arrived at the shore of the Jordan, the Mass began promptly, celebrated by the Custos. The setting was ideal as we sat in balmy weather under the palm trees, just a few feet away from the water in which Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.  The reading from the Gospel of Matthew reminded us that this is the place where Jesus’ calling and mission were revealed by the Father, when after coming out of the water the heavens were opened, the Spirit of God descended like a dove upon Him, and a voice from heaven said "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (Mat 3:17).

Holy Mass Celebrated at the Jordan River

When the Custos walked around the crowd, sprinkling the people as a reminder of our baptismal promises, it felt like a unique privilege to be blessed with a few drops of water from the Jordan on this Feast of the Baptism of Jesus.  As Fr. Ibrahim, the parish priest of Jericho, reminded us in the homily, our baptism signifies a dying with Christ and rising to new life with Him.  The moment was surely especially moving for the parents of the five children who were then baptized by Fr. Ibrahim.

In contrast to the deserted Jordanian shore of the river facing us, just a stone’s throw away, the large joyful crowd on our side left no doubt that a festive event was being celebrated.

“It’s great to be here, a real privilege” said Brother Maurizius, a Benedictine seminarian who joined the Franciscans for the day.  “It was a very nice celebration at the Jordan River, on the day of Jesus’ baptism at the place of his baptism.”

Fr. Paul, a young Indian priest studying in Jerusalem, echoed him: “I really enjoyed this day, it was really wonderful to see five children being baptized at the same place where Jesus was baptized.”

The Mount of Temptation

On the way up to the Mount of Temptation
After Mass, we got back on the bus and headed for the Mount of Temptation, traditionally believed to be the place where Jesus went into the desert after His baptism to be tempted by Satan for 40 days.  The hike up to the Greek Monastery, protruding from the rock high above Jericho, was not as daunting as it looked from below – a mere 20 minute walk from the parking lot.  At the entrance of the monastery, a Franciscan deacon read the account of Jesus’ temptation before we entered for a short visit. We walked through the narrow passageway that connects the entire monastery, and were treated to some refreshments and snacks, courtesy of the Orthodox Monks who take care of the monastery.  We then had a quick peek at the few modest chapels and caves carved into the rock in this masterpiece of monastic architecture, before heading back down to the bus towards our last top of the day.

Lunch at the Jericho Parish

Lunch in Jericho
We ended where we began, on the lawn of the parish church of Jericho.  Friars and guests were treated by the local Palestinian Christian community to a fantastic lunch of grilled meats, Arabic salads (including the obligatory hummus and eggplant spread), and various baked goods.  It was a light time of casual conversation, old and new encounters with much good humor and laughter, and the sharing of experiences in many languages:  in addition to the lingue franche of the day, Italian and Arabic, one also heard plenty of Spanish, French, English, Hebrew, and other tongues.

In a time of conflict and turmoil in the Middle East, it was a mini-reversal of the Tower of Babel and actualization of the unity and fraternity of Pentecost.  This was most visible at the end of the day, when some of the Franciscans got together to sing songs in their various languages. The improvised talent show crowned a day well spent celebrating the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and our own participation in the mystery of His life, death and resurrection.

Franciscan Talent Show in Jericho

View the complete photo album of the Franciscan Pilgrimage to the Jordan River

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Patriarch's New Year Message: Elephants Still in the Room

On the morning of January 1st, also traditionally known as the World Day of Peace, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Msgr. Foual Twal presided over the Mass of the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God in the concathedral of the Latin Patriarchate in the Holy City.

In his homily, the Patriarch shared his wishes of hope and peace for all. Echoing recent statements made by the Holy Father, Msgr. Twal expressed the need of "educating young people in justice and peace."  He mentioned the recent interreligious dialogue in Assisi, the "Arab Spring," the situation in the Holy Land, as well as some upcoming Church events, congresses and synods that will take place in 2012.

Despite its generally positive, irenic and friendly tone, the substance of the Patriarch's message was disappointing and disturbing. A few months ago, Catholics for Israel published an open letter to the leaders of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land entitled Elephants in the Room? The Hidden Roots of the Crisis of the Church in the Holy Land. As the title indicates, the piece pointed out some issues of serious concern which, despite having a debilitating effect on the work of the Church in the Holy Land, remain virtually ignored and unaddressed by its  leaders.

Sadly, the Patriarch's New Year message is an indication that these "Elephants" are still roaming about freely in the Church in the Holy Land - still ignored and unadressed by the leadership.  Evidence for each one of the ten "elephants" was manifest in the homily. Obviously, it would not be fair to expect that the Patriarch should have addressed each one of these issues in one homily.  But that fact all of them were ignored is a characteristic illustration of the theological malaise that continues to afflict the local Church.

1. Neo-Marcionism, Replacement Theology and the “Great Disconnect” between Israel and the Church

The homily was characterized by the usual silence regarding the Jewish origins and roots of the Gospel. Despite the occasion of the Solemnity of the Mother of God, there was no mention that Mary was and remains forever a Jewish woman, daughter of Israel and daughter of Zion. No word was said about the vital connection and bond between Israel and the Church, about the role of Jesus and Mary as bridges between Judaism and Christianity, about the debt of gratitude that the Church owes to Judaism, or even about the first reading of the Mass, from the Book of Numbers, on the Aaronic blessing.

2. Anti-Zionism and Anti-Israel Bias

The Patriarch also said that "a generation of young Israelis and Palestinians were born and grew up under occupation and in an atmosphere of violence. They experience the checkpoints and the walls that separate people." As usual, the only problem mentioned by name is the Israeli "occupation," as if it were the only culprit behind the "atmosphere of violence."  No word was said about the ongoing Palestinian refusal to negotiate with Israel, let alone accept the existence of the Jewish State. As usual, "checkpoints," "barbed wires" and "towering concrete walls" just exist for no other reason than to "separate people," with no word said about the constant threat of terrorist and rocket attacks that has made these checkpoints and walls necessary for the sake of saving both Israeli and Palestinian lives.

Moreover, no word of gratitude or appreciation was said about the freedom of religion and worship, and the full security that Christians enjoy in Israel, a privilege that is rather rare in the Middle East.

Of course, there was also no mention of the biblical and theological bond and attachment of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel - and this, despite the increasingly aggressive and strident delegitimization and hatred of Israel, not only from hostile neighboring countries but also from the world at large. The name "Israel" was barely mentioned in the message, as usual replaced by the more politically correct expressions "Holy Land" or "Land of Jesus."

3. Palestinian Liberation Theology

The theme of the homily was justice, reconciliation and peace. While this is indeed an important topic, it has become almost a mantra in the Church of the Holy Land, ceaselessly repeated with a marked accent on socio-political aims rather than on solid biblical and doctrinal catechesis. There was the usual call for the creation of a Palestinian State, and the usual silence about the culture of anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish hatred and incitement in Palestinian society (including, for example the recent praise of Hitler in a PLO youth magazine because he murdered Jews), the Palestinian Authority's rapprochement with Hamas despite the latter's continued avowed goal to work towards the total destruction of Israel, or the PA's praise and glorification of terrorists (illustrated, for example, by  President  Mahmoud Abbas openly meeting with convicted terrorists and appointing them as advisors in his government).

4. Dhimmitude: the Surrender to Islam

The Patriarch called the so-called "Arab Spring" a "reawakening of consciences for democracy, peace and social justice" where "Muslims and Christians took to the street side by side," generating "real enthusiasm and great expectation." His only caviat was a strikingly weak reservation that "doubts arise on the form of government that will be implemented."  It is hard to grasp how an educated spiritual leader can arrive as such delusional conclusions about the violent revolutions that have already claimed thousands of lives (and counting) in numerous countries, causing the rapid rise of radical islamist forces and a widespread increase in Muslim persecution of Christians throughout the Middle East.

Despite his complete silence on the problems generated by the "Arab Spring,"  the Patriarch recalled that "the Pope asked the young and old to stay away from extreme nationalism or exacerbated fundamentalism" - as if the violence and killings in the Middle East were but the fruit of random and generic "fundamentalism" to which everyone is prone - certainly not related to any particular religion at all.

Why the silence on these persecutions? Why, if mentioned at all by Christian clergy, are the persecutions always carried out by nameless perpetrators? And why continue to use the ludicrous term "Arab Spring" when the reality on the ground does not even remotely resemble a "spring" but rather an "Islamic Winter"?

Surely such a combination of misguided statements and conspicuous silence cannot be the result of ignorance or malice. So what is left? Wishful thinking? Or perhaps a fear of openly saying the truth, lest this make things worse? Here we have again the spirit of dhimmitude, the fear of saying anything against Islam lest this causes yet greater violent anti-Christian backlashes on the part of Muslims.

5. Dialogomania and Practical Relativism

Another ever-recurring catch word, supported by the ever-popular "Spirit of Assisi," is "dialogue." The Patriarch invited the faithful to follow St. Francis in engaging in "peaceful dialogue between believers" and creating "bonds of friendship and solidarity."  Although this is a good and noble ideal, almost nothing was said about the Church's mission of evangelization and about the urgent need that Christians pray and work for the conversion of sinners and those who do not know Christ.

Msgr. Twal did say that "peace has its basis in the heart of man, in his conversion and reconciliation with God and family," but there was no word on how to practically arrive at this conversion and reconciliation. He gave the impression that anyone, from any religious tradition, can reach this conversion and reconciliation, with no need at all to believe in Christ or be baptized.

The result is that Christians, once again, are inoculated against giving a clear witness of their faith in words and deeds to non-Christians. They are given the impression that being a Christian essentially consists in being a "nice person" who gets along with everyone - including the Muslims who are persecuting them and driving them out of their homes and countries.  And so, with this underlying practical relativism, the Lord's commission and the Church's mission of making disciples of all nations is given a crippling blow and effectively neutralized.

6. Blurring the Doctrine: The Catechetical Crisis

In his homily, the Patriarch did not talk - even briefly - about the readings from the Word of God that were read during the Liturgy of the Word - not from the first reading, not from the Psalm, not from the second reading, nor from the Gospel. The homily was largely devoid of catechetical or doctrinal content, apart a few sentences exhorting the faithful to look to Mary who in her humility was "peaceful, pure and gentle" and at the same time "strong, vigorous, and full of hope."

Moreover, Jesus was almost entirely absent from the homily.  He was mentioned only three times, and two of these were indirect, passing mentions of the "land of Jesus" and "mother of Jesus." Only in his very last sentence did Msgr. Twal wish that Mary's son, "Jesus, the Prince of Peace give us His peace."

7. Battling Evil: Spiritual Warfare and Dormant Soldiers

With the homily focused on peace, dialogue, and social justice, and with no call or encouragement to share the Gospel with others for the purpose of their conversion and salvation, all appeals to prayer were calls to a generic and amorphous "prayer for peace." The element of prayer as spiritual battle and warfare for the salvation of souls was wholly absent from the message.

8. Lack of Prophetic and Eschatological Vision

The homily was also uninspiring in its complete lack of prophetic and eschatological perspective. Its stated aims and goals were mostly horizontal and humanistic - calling for peace and co-existence here on earth, now in this life. Nothing was said about the risks and dangers of a humanly orchestrated peace that is not based on Jesus Christ. Nothing was said about the eschatological vision of the Scriptures (confirmed by recent prophetic locutions) speaking of the rise of evil in the world, manifested by an increasing hostility of the nations against Israel.

9. The Eery Silence of Political Correctness

All of the above issues demonstrate once again that political correctness reigns supreme in the Church in the Holy Land: silence on the Church's theological and biblical roots and foundations in Israel and Judaism; silence on the anti-Israel bias of the clergy; silence on the Palestinian culture of incitement and shared Palestinian responsibility in the perpetuation of the conflict; silence on the growing Islamic oppression and persecution of Christians; silence on the Lord's commandment and Church's mission to lead all people to Christ; silence on the Church's biblical and doctrinal catechesis; silence on the need to pray for the salvation of the world and against spiritual forces of evil; and silence on the prophetic and eschatological vision of the Bible and of the Church.

10. Ignoring the Messianic and Evangelical Communities

Finally, there was also no mention in the Patriarch's New Year message of the growing impact of the Messianic Jewish communities in Israel - a prophetic movement that deserves not only the attention but also the support, help and encouragement of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land.


For 2012, let us pray that the Lord may grant our leaders and all Christians in the Holy Land the grace, strength and courage to be more faithful to the Lord's calling as expressed in the Sacred Scriptures and in the Church's teachings!  As we pointed out in Elephants in the Room, we suggest that this should include the following:
  1. decisively rejecting neo-Marcionism, replacement theology, and rediscovering the Jewish roots of Catholicism and of the Christian faith;
  2. decisively rejecting anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and fostering among Catholics a true appreciation and love for Israel;
  3. decisively rejecting anti-Israel Palestinian Liberation Theology, and supporting the Palestinian people in a way that is more respectful of Israel’s prophetic calling;
  4. decisively rejecting the dhimmi mentality and stop being silent or in denial about the increasingly aggressive threat of radical Islam;
  5. decisively rejecting religious relativism, and returning the role of dialogue to its proper place as a subset of the Church’s mission of evangelization;
  6. establishing vigorous programs of catechesis and doctrinal formation for the faithful;
  7. raising the awareness of the need for spiritual warfare, and train and equip the clergy to pass on this awareness to the faithful;
  8. restoring the prophetic and eschatological vision in the Church, and translating this vision into action;
  9. decisively rejecting political correctness and describing the reality in the Holy Land as it truly is.
  10. restoring a genuine ecumenical openness in the Church, with a welcoming outreach to Messianic and Evangelical believers.