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Challenge of Peace in the Holy Land: Jesus must Weep over Jerusalem

Brother Mark Gruenke is one of the founding members of the holy hour for peace held at the Rice University Catholic Student Center each Tuesday night at 7:00 p.m.

My pilgrimage to the Holy Land has helped me to realize how much my own spirituality is sacramental and incarnational.

One of the things that most struck me when I first arrived in the Holy Land was how everything was built with stone. It is not easy to determine how old a structure is by looking at it. What was built thousands of years ago could have been built yesterday and what was built yesterday could have been built long ago. There is a certain sense of timelessness about the place. How much of what I was seeing was also seen by Jesus? At times I had the impression that Jesus was walking alongside of me on the cobbled streets of Jerusalem and on the southern streets of Jerusalem and on the southern steps of the Temple Mount. At any rate, his people, Jews and Palestinians, as well as pilgrims from all over the world, were certainly there walking alongside me.

Unfortunately, the social, political and religious troubles of this land seem to be just as timeless! It strikes me that the context of Jesus’ life and mission was not so very different from the reality found in the Holy Land today. Just as it was in Jesus’ day, there is an occupying army in the land and deadly divisions and conflict between ethnic, religious and political groups dominate social interactions. Yet somehow it seemed appropriate for me to have been a pilgrim in Bethlehem during the Second Intifada. Gospel stories were no longer stories of another era, but they had become today’s stories as well. Certainly, the story of the Holy Innocents became more real when I saw armed soldiers patrolling the roads and when I awoke to hear gun battles in the middle of the night. I knew then that once again mothers were weeping for sons violently struck down. Senseless slaughter is timeless. It goes on and on.

Jesus told Peter to put his sword away at the hour of his arrest. It is clear that Jesus rejected the way of the Sicari, the terrorist assassins of his day who were so quick with their knives. I suspect that Jesus would recognize Sicari methodology in the suicide bombers of today. Yet Jesus himself knew he was destined to be a victim of terrorism, though not the terrorism of the Sicari. He would suffer instead from the terrorism of the state. That cold and calculated type of terrorism that is called justified execution. A sanitized terrorism in which those who are judged to be guilty of opposing the state are executed. Today’s modern state replaces execution on the cross using instead missiles fired from BlackHawk helicopters which serve the same gruesome purpose, terrorizing entire populations.

During my days of pilgrimage I asked myself over and over again what makes a land holy? What makes a church or shrine holy? Is there some holy essence that has permeated into the ground or into certain object, buildings or places? Did this happen because Jesus passed by or because he touched those places or rivers and rivers of blood that have flowed so freely during the countless wars that the Holy Land has suffered? Or again, perhaps the reason it is holy is because of the endless stream of pilgrims that comes to pray and to venerate the ground that Jesus trod?

I suspect that the nature of something holy comes from the fact that it serves as a remembrance of God’s presence here and now. For example, the witness of God’s loving presence shining forth in the lives and personalities of people who have been recognized as holy down through the centuries is easy enough for me to understand. Traditionally artists have captured this by painting saints with halos or with light radiating about their bodies. But I find that places themselves are less compelling to me as signs of God’s presence. I especially find that certain churches and shrines which have ostentatious displays of wealth are actually counter signs for me.

No, it was not the churches of the Holy Land that inspired me. I was inspired rather by the people whom I met and by the fact that I was forced to reflect and pray over the conflict that was so all pervasive. It was those people and that context that helped me feel closer to Jesus and to what he must have experienced growing up and living out his mission in the same reality.

My most favorite site was the Mount of Olives. Near the top of the mount is the Dominus Flevit Church. It is the site where Jesus wept as he gazed upon Jerusalem. I too felt great sadness as I looked out over the city. The city that is supposed to be a light to all nations, a place where all peoples can come to worship their God, has instead become a place that symbolizes all the worst in religious intolerance! Jerusalem is the focal point of conflict and hate between Jew, Moslem and Christian. How Jesus must weep yet today over Jerusalem!

At the bottom of the Mount of Olives there is another church, the Church of All Nations. In its sanctuary is the rock where Jesus prayed asking the Father that the chalice might be taken from him. Jesus, the Innocent One, the Lamb of God, was to be sacrificed. Jesus’ prayer was a terrible inner struggle to accept God’s will. The world’s salvation lay in his giving himself in nonviolent self-sacrifice, in not returning evil for evil. This is God’s way. It is the glory of God. Jesus entered into that glory by being faithful even to the ultimate consequence when he was lifted up on the cross. This is the great sacrament that we commemorate every time we celebrate Mass. Yet, do we really embrace the greatest of all sacraments? Do we believe that our salvation is truly found in Jesus’ nonviolent self-sacrifice? “Do this in memory of me” was Jesus’ command to us, his followers. In our world today where the powers tell us that our safety and salvation are to be found in military might and through violent retaliation do we, Christians, deny the lie and proclaim the truth that salvation is rather to be found in the sacrament of salvation? Do we faithfully follow Jesus’ example? Do we pray as Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemani that we might have the strength to embrace God’s will for us? Are we obedient to Jesus’ command to join with him as his body is broken and his blood spilled out?

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXII, No. 2, March-April 2002.