The next day the large crowd that had come to the Passover Festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Praise God! God bless him who comes in the name of the Lord! God bless the King of Israel!” Jesus found a donkey and rode on it, just as the scripture says, “Do not be afraid, city of Zion! Here comes your king, riding on a young donkey.” His disciples did not understand this at the time; but when Jesus had been raised to glory, they remembered that the scripture said this about him and that they had done this for him. John 12:12-16
The worldwide Easter celebration among Christians begins with the triumphal entry of the Prince of Peace into the holy city. Recognizing the true identity of Jesus as Messiah alongside fellow worshippers is a communal act that bolsters unity in the body of Christ. Over my years living in the Holy Land, I have witnessed scenes of global unity in Christ on the streets of Jerusalem. On Palm Sunday, local Palestinian, Israeli, and visiting Christians ascend the Mount of Olives and walk among the Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. Thousands of Christian pilgrims representing countries all over the world wave palm fronds and sing praises in different languages while marching down across the valley and into the Old City of Jerusalem. It is by far one of the most joyful scenes in Jerusalem each year.
However, this year will be very different. With the global COVID-19 pandemic, I have realized that there will likely be no jubilant procession, no palm branches, and, most of all, no beautiful songs of adoration in a tapestry of languages. Palestinian Christians in the West Bank, who are normally able to obtain religious permissions from Israel at this time of year, will not be able to cross the checkpoints to enter Jerusalem for worship. The complete lockdown of Bethlehem will still be in place. With the rest of the West Bank sealed off, the community of Jesus on both sides of the separation wall will be challenged to express its unity. Church communities have been gathering together during Lent online and clergy have broadcast their services on social media platforms. To encourage Christians in the Bethlehem area, local churches have sent trucks around the neighborhoods with recordings of sung prayers floating out over the loudspeakers, young guys in the back wafting copious amounts of burning incense from iron bowls, while holding large icons, complete with surgical masks and gloves on. This show of encouragement is a small attempt at fostering a sense of spiritual unity during such a dark time.
And yet, nothing can take the place of crowds of pilgrims from across the Middle East and all corners of the earth filling up Jerusalem, just as the Passover pilgrims did when Jesus arrived in the city. The celebration of Easter is the celebration of the redemption of humanity, mending all that is broken within us and among us. This global health crisis is revealing what is broken in our humanity today. It has clearly shown that our human-made divisions- national, ethnic, religious, economic, and more- are not protecting us after all.
In neighboring Egypt, there is a very special Coptic Orthodox retreat center called Anafora. The Egyptian priest Bishop Thomas founded the center and is a person of peace with a visionary calling for unity among his people. On a recent visit there he shared about his dream for his community, the Middle East, and the whole world:
I dream that this would spread among the people:
I hope for people to be able to kneel down to lift people up.
This includes the concept of ‘no foreigners.’
Who makes you a foreigner to me? Who makes me a foreigner to you?
After all, we are human. If we are able to see that, it will resolve the conflicts around us.
There is me, there is you, there is us, and the big US.
God, nature, creation, animals, living things, the seen and the unseen, is the BIG US. We all influence each other. When we get out of ‘me and you,’ we will understand how connected we are.
The air I am breathing will be inside of you after a few minutes. The breath inside you will eventually be inside me.
We are witnessing now more than ever that the air we breathe, the spaces we inhabit, the choices we make, all affect one another in profound, life-changing ways, even across oceans. As the weeks roll on under lockdowns, sheltering in place, and social distancing, it is clear that by Good Friday, one thing we will all be able to understand is what collective grief feels like, as a global community of faith, some more acutely than others.
Perhaps instead of going through the typical Lenten and Easter celebrations, this year is offering us a serious and sacred time to sit, just as we are, in our homes, and recognize the magnitude of Jesus’ identity, the suffering of Jesus in body and spirit, and how the BIG US is intertwined in that story even today. We may be afraid of the breath of our neighbors, but it is our God-breathed life each moment that sustains us and ultimately connects us with each and every created body in our earthly community.
The arrival of Jesus to Jerusalem was a short-lived celebration. His entry upon a symbol of peace, a donkey, preceded the ultimate grief over premature and painful death. This week, let us celebrate Jesus’ true nature, and then sit in the grief, recognize the reality of what is, and look to the Prince of Peace as the ultimate one who stood firm in sorrow, endured the breaking of his body, and gave God’s breath away to the world. Jesus embraces the heartbreak of our current reality fully and is gathering those faithful to his way, to do the same.
Lord, God of the Universe: You made each of us as we are. Our form is of your breath. In you, we have our very being, full of that breath, inhaling, exhaling, on and on as we live our earthly lives. May the example of Christ Jesus on his humble, celebrated entrance to your holy city and his final week in earthly form, ground us in this knowledge that we each come from you. We are the same as our next-door sister or brother, and our bodies will walk the path of life towards death, with each bodily breath connecting us to the pulse of true life, bringing us closer to you. Thank you for the treasure of breath. Please help us to walk our paths of life in the way of Jesus. Amen.
Written by a CMEP volunteer.