Palm Sunday

A rather attenuated Easter this year - no ash-smeared foreheads, no processions, no waving of palm branches. But though these external observances have had to go by the board, we can keep Easter in our hearts.

Many years ago I spent a full week wandering around Jerusalem and on one of those days I climbed the Mount of Olives. Viewed from Jerusalem, there are three "roads" climbing up the side of the hill. Two actually pass the Garden of Gethsemane, the third starts a little to the left. The left-hand one angles up leftwards and comes out half-way between the summit and Mt Scopus, where there is a large university campus.

The middle one is a very rough track that goes straight up the hillside, past houses whose courtyards are covered in vines that form a sort of canopy providing a cool green shade. Gives a whole new impression of the blessing of peace where "every man sits under his own vine". This path comes out pretty close to the summit, which is crowned by the spire of the Lutheran church. If you go right you come to the mosque cum church which marks the very spot from which Jesus ascended into heaven - His footprint, deeply impressed in the rock, is there and may be viewed by doubters and believers alike. It is, I think, one of the very few mosques where Christian services are permitted (or vice versa, depending on your viewpoint).

The right hand path turns sharp right behind Gethsemane and angles off to the right, past the Russian Orthodox church whose golden onion domes are such a feature of the Mount. A little higher on the left you have the Catholic church of Dominus Flevit (the Lord wept, in case your Latin is as rusty as mine), which marks the very spot where Jesus wept over Jerusalem.

A little higher, this time on the right, is the tomb of the prophets Haggai and Malachi. It was early morning when I visited the site and the young chap who took my money was unusually garrulous. He admitted that his family had been displaced in 1948 and forced to camp on the bare hillside looking back at their home in what had become enemy territory. Making the best of the situation they started to plant a garden and while digging, discovered a hole in the ground. Further exploration revealed the entrance stairway which gave onto a semi-circular tunnel lined with kokhim. Rather cleverly they put the story about that they had discovered the tomb of the afore-mentioned prophets and now get a certain amount of satisfaction from charging Jews to come and pray at the entirely spurious site!

Although the path is tar-sealed, a short distance further you come to a flight of steps, the reason why the road is not used by traffic. From the top of the steps you have a marvellous view over the Old City, with the Dome of the Rock and the Haram in the foreground.

On this occasion, however, I gave the view only a cursory glance, because I was heading across the shoulder of the Mount and going to Bethany. I never did get there, being distracted by a church, outside which stands the very mounting block used by Jesus to climb onto the donkey, and another decorated with lavish frescoes whose shine betokened Dulux (or something) rather than the traditional fresco paints.

It wasn't only the materials that were modern: the theme was as well, for the beast and the dragon belched out flames and fighter jets and the sinners fleeing the Divine wrath were dressed in suits and ties (and just the suspicion of a kippah or two!)

By the time I had seen all these things it was well past mid-morning and the sun was growing increasingly hot. I could see Bethany in the shimmering in the distance and decided against trudging the mile or two that remained between me and the spurious house and tomb of Lazarus. I returned and resumed my explorations of the Old City, where at least the narrow streets were stipplied with shade.

The interesting thing is that I have an old photograph of the Mount of Olives dating back to 1877, when neither church nor convent existed, and those three paths are there. I have an even older engraving (date unknown) and again, the three paths are there. Of course, that will not seem marvellous to anyone in Britain, where public footpaths date back to the Norman Conquest, if not beyond, and I have little doubt that these paths, which have grown up because they are the shortest and most convenient route from A to B, C and D, date back centuries, if not to or even beyond the time of Christ.

If so, then the right hand path - still used today for the Palm Sunday procession from Bethany to Jerusalem - is likely to be one of the very few authentic sites in Palestine. If, next time you visit Jerusalem, you want to "walk where Jesus walked", you could do worse than follow that right-hand path past Gethsemane and on to Bethany.

kokhim kokhim, sing. kokh. A coffin-sized tunnel dug at ground level around the walls of a burial chamber. A style of burial that prevailed for about a century around the time of Christ. The body was slid, head-first, into the kokh and left there for a year. When the flesh had all rotted away, the relatives returned, removed the bones and placed them for long-term burial in an ossuary or bone box.

Without doubt, Jesus was buried in just such a tomb - it was a new tomb excavated by a rich man, and the rich always follow fashion - which means that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre's tomb is certainly not the tomb of Christ. However round the back of the Cenacle is the chapel of St Nicodemus and a small room opening off that chapel has two kokhim! If Jesus was buried anywhere in the vicinity of the church, then one of these kokhim is certainly His. Return

© Kendall K. Down 2020