Like many of my clergy colleagues at this time of year, my thoughts are consumed by Holy Week and Easter. Unlike many of my clergy colleagues, I’m not snowed under with preparation for countless services.
The reality is that Holy Week is a rather quiet time here in Tiberias. Most pilgrims — and some members of the Tiberias congregation — are in Jerusalem, quite understandably. The first year I was here, I did a simple Tenebrae service on Maundy Thursday and had the church open from 12 to 3 on Good Friday, with readings on the half hour. Two people came to each. I decided in the subsequent years that on Maundy Thursday, those who wished could join me in worshipping at the Arab Anglican Churches in Shefr’amr and Nazareth, respectively; I ended up traveling alone.
For Palm Sunday, I’ve joined the Maronites in Jish, and the Anglicans in Shefr’amr in the morning. Only a couple of people came to the evening services in Tiberias, where I had prepared a kind of Lessons & Hymns style service to tell the story of Christ’s entry to Jerusalem and his Passion. Because turnout is so poor (it’s not about numbers, I know, but…) we’ve begun to go to Jerusalem instead so our two Church of Scotland congregations can worship together in the morning. Then in the afternoon, we join in the Palm Procession down the Mount of Olives, where thousands of people from all over the world gather and walk to the Old City, waving palm branches and singing. It’s a moving reminder of just how large and diverse the Body of Christ is today.
Coming from a place like Old St Paul’s where Holy Week is physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally demanding, to St Andrew’s Tiberias where it isn’t really observed at all, has taken some getting used to, to say the least.
It’s not just the richness of the liturgy that I miss; it’s also the community — both the communal worship and the communal preparation. The Triduum here is a dark lonely time. I have a choice: I can offer worship at which I can preside but to which virtually no one comes; or I can worship in community in other churches which are very welcoming but in which my ministry is not recognised.
And by the Sunday morning, I am never sure whether a community will gather as the rising sun warms the land, whether the loneliness will lift as the mist over the Sea of Galilee clears, whether the darkness that falls on Good Friday will turn to dawn on Easter.
Here, I find myself facing the very real possibility that at 6am on Easter morning, I will be on my own in the garden of the Scots Hotel for the sunrise service. Or maybe one person will come. Maybe English won’t be their first language. Maybe they won’t feel comfortable singing. Or maybe fifteen people will come, fifteen people I’ve never met, seeking Christ in the garden. Or maybe it will be just three or four of us, the ‘regulars’ who gather week in and week out, breaking bread, pouring wine, and declaring Jesus as Risen Lord. The liturgy I prepare must be simple, adaptable, sacramental. My sermons are more like reflections on a theme: ‘Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, whatever reason you’re here, God loves you.’
Three years ago, I set up the church for the evening Easter service. I waited. And waited. And then, just before 6pm, a group of German Lutheran young people came in. They were led by their female pastor and had spent the day traveling from church to church around the Sea of Galilee, only to discover none of them were having celebrations of Easter open to the public. I asked them to read the scriptures, some in English, some in German, according to their ability. We sang the Taize Ubi Caritas and their soft harmonies floated towards the vaulted ceiling. During the reflection, I looked to the front pew to see two of the girls holding hands as they listened. Neither of the St Andrew’s elders were present to help with the administration of Communion, so I asked the pastor to serve with me. ‘Dressed like this?’ she asked, pointing to her t-shirt and jeans. ‘Of course,’ I replied, smiling. Tears filled our eyes as we fed our people.
‘It didn’t feel much like Easter traveling around finding so many closed churches,’ she told me as they were leaving. To be honest, it hadn’t felt much like Easter to me earlier that day either, setting up on my own and then waiting in an empty church. It hadn’t felt like Easter preparing a liturgy and sermon for an unknown congregation.
But a community gathered, welcoming me as I welcomed them. The loneliness lifted. And the darkness turned to dawn as Easter broke through. Resurrection joy filled our hearts.
Palm Sunday has passed. The Triduum is approaching. I can feel the loneliness waiting around the corner. I can see the darkness hovering above, about to descend. But though it may feel far away, I try to keep faith — however wavering it may be — that Sunday morning the light will shine through the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.
I send you love and blessings, my friends, as we walk together towards the Cross, and wait with hope for the dawning of Easter.