The temperature has been rising in Tiberias this week. A couple of days it has been 30C or above. And with the heat has come the humidity, that dense heaviness that elsewhere would signal a thunderstorm. But over the past couple of days, no rain has appeared. I’ve been popping ibuprofen every few hours to stave off the worst of a bad headache.
It’s Holy Week, after all — not a week to succumb to bodily weakness.
The week started with the joy of Palm Sunday, a Maronite service in Jish in northern Israel. Scouts with drums. Children waving palms. Liturgy partly in Aramaic. And some of the most haunting chanting I’ve ever experienced. Pure joy and celebration.
By the time I got home, news had broken of the first attack on our Christian neighbours in Egypt. Shortly after, we heard of the second. As I sat in a meeting, I learned that a fellow Church of Scotland Mission Partner was in Alexandria at the time and had been at the cathedral that morning, though had left the service early to attend another church.
For our service at St Andrew’s that evening, I had put together a service modelled on a United Methodist liturgy for reading the Passion interspersed with hymns — a kind of Lessons & Carols type service but for Palm Sunday. Going into the church, I wondered how I felt about so much music on a day which had been marred by grief and chaos so close to home.
We were small in number, so we agreed that instead of singing, we’d keep silence. People could read the words to the hymns if they wished, or simply reflect on the passages we’d heard read.
I hadn’t prepared a sermon because I wanted the Passion reading to stand on its own. It turned out silence was the best response anyway.
But then the next day came the joy of the start of Pesach, a beautiful seder set in a gorgeous ceramics studio on a moshav with new friends. They held the perfect balance of making me feel welcome but not a burden. A bilingual Haggadah was handed to me, and as stories were told, poems were read, and games were played, they translated just enough to help me feel a part of it, but not so much that I felt reminded I was an outsider. It was reverent but relaxed, overflowing with hospitality and generosity and humour, and as I drove home after, my heart felt full.
Against that backdrop of on-going celebrations, I turned my attention to preparations for the weekend. Most tourists and pilgrims and international locals head towards Jerusalem, so I keep things simple. Laughter and loud singing filtered in through my open windows as I listened to Good Friday music and wrote short reflections. l wondered how the disciples must have felt as Passover joy turned to Good Friday horror.
The days have passed; and the weather has become more oppressive; and Holy Week stress and emotion have been building; and my kitchen table, lounge floor, and sofa have disappeared under books; and my computer browser has increasing numbers of tabs of liturgies and commentaries open; and I’m nearly drowning in to-do lists; and there’s a whole load of stuff for the Easter Vigil piled next to the front door.
And the spirit of the week has got lost in the midst of it all.
I’ve felt as scattered as the papers and notes and service sheets that surround me. And totally disconnected from the events we are observing this week.
It’s this time of year that I most miss being part of a clergy team. I miss the collegiality of the Chrism Mass at the cathedral. I miss being part of a community that doesn’t just observe Holy Week but embodies it, enacts it. I really, really miss having others who I can rely on to make sure everything we need is precisely where we need it when we need it. (Old Saint Paul’s spoiled me, I confess.)
I thought briefly about going to Jerusalem, where it all began. But the thought of the long drive, the crowds of strangers, the intensity of that place just didn’t sit well.
So I decided to join a community here, one I haven’t visited in far too long, one which has always welcomed me.
As I was getting ready for the Maundy Thursday service at St Paul’s Episcopal Church in Shefr’amr, an Arab town on the way to Haifa, the air grew heavier, the clouds denser, my apartment darkened. And then a shot of lightening lit up the room. A rumble of thunder sounded in the distance. Soft rain began to fall. And then minutes later, sheets of rain pummelled the earth.
When it had eased, I stepped outside into the cool, fresh air and drove with my windows down all the way to the service.
I felt the tension in myself build during the mass; an internal storm was brewing; my head started pounding again.
After communion, the lights dimmed. Candles were lit around the garden of repose. The sacrament was processed. The altar was stripped.
And that was the moment. It always is. I recalled the times I stripped the altar and could smell the vinegar on my hands mingling with the incense that still lingered in the air. The scents of doubt and faith. The scents of betrayal and discipleship. The scents of grief and celebration. The scents of abandonment and holiness. The scents of purification.
I have long loved Maundy Thursday above all other holy days. Because all the emotions that are real in human experience are laid as bare as the hard wood of the altar, the hard wood of the cross that looms before us.
The tension that had been building all week finally broke. Tears started to fall gently. And then became floods, pouring down my cheeks.
I went forward and knelt on the hard marble in front of the garden of repose.
And then, as I left, I wanted to wish my colleague a happy Easter, knowing I wouldn’t see him on the day. But the words wouldn’t come. It’s not yet time. Now is the time for hearts to break. Now is the time of feeling lost and in between. Now is the time to know our need of God.
But the weather has already broken. And in this land, rain holds promise … new life is on its way.