Looking down on so many occasions from the Belvedere at the Church of St Peter-in-Galicantu and having the monastery built on ‘The Potter’s Field’, ‘The Field of Blood’, Hakeldama pointed out to us was the real inspiration and motivation for what I have been doing in coming to Jerusalem. I wanted to get inside the monastery I had only seen from a distance. I wanted to see what a church built on such a site, with such a history would feel like.
Last week I tried to get to the monastery. I chose a route but soon realised it was the wrong choice. I was walking though the Valley of Hinnom, Gehenna, the vision of hell that lay beneath the walls of the city with its continuously burning heaps of rubbish. I realised that this wasn’t going to be the best way to Hakeldama. But I was determined to get there. The monastery is only open on Tuesdays and Thursdays so it was to be my goal and destination today. I decided that it would be good to begin the journey as early as possible, whilst it was still cool and to head straight through the Old City, along al-Wad, through the Western Wall Plaza, through Dung Gate and then down the road that leads past the City of David, into Silwan and the Pools of Siloam. So that is what I did. You could just get bus #276 from the East Jerusalem Bus Station if you didn’t fancy the walk.
Going that way enabled me to see something of the crowds at the Western Wall. It was just after 8.00am when I got there and the place was packed with worshippers with their leafy fronds, waving them as they said their prayers. It was exciting to see so many people coming and going, all dressed up, men with the most amazing array of headgear, mothers with children, prayer shawls everywhere and people carrying the fronds in special containers that made it look like they were all carrying snooker cues!
The instructions for the Feast are given in Leviticus 23
You shall take the fruit of majestic trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days. (Leviticus 23.40)
So this is what the people were doing on this second day of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles.
I continued on my way. The road down to Silwan is extremely steep. You know you are entering a valley and in fact you are entering where two valleys join – the Kidron Valley and the Valley of Hinnom. Where they meet is a fertile area where the red soil is rich for farming and makes great clay. Things have changed now but in the past potters used the clay from there and hence this was known as the Potters’ Field, a name that is familiar to us. As I passed Siloam I saw where I was heading, the monastery I had seen from the church of St Peter.
The monastic buildings cling to the valley side and so you have another climb to get to the gates. I was early so they were still closed. But then some people arrived who were wanting to attend the liturgy that was going on. They rang the bell, a monk came and let us all in. So not only did I get to see this special place but to share in the Liturgy as well. It’s a Greek Orthodox community and at the end of the Liturgy, after communion had been received, I went forward to receive the antidoron. This is bread that is blessed but not consecrated and can be shared with any who are there, whether or not they are Orthodox. It was a sign of great hospitality which was then followed up with an invitation to share in breakfast with members of the community.
The monastic church is constructed alongside a cave and the monastery itself over a whole series of tombs. The church is dedicated to St Onuphrius, a hermit who lived in the Egyptian desert in the 4th or 5th centuries. But the site has nothing to do with him but with part of the story, the extended story, of the Passion of Christ, because this was the land bought with the thirty pieces of silver, with Blood Money. Hence it being called the Field of Blood.
The New Testament contains two versions of the story about it. St Matthew includes the story of the purchase of the field in his account of the Passion. Judas has returned the money he was given. Matthew then writes,
The chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, ‘It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.’ After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, ‘And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.’ (Matthew 27.6-10)
The writer of the Acts of the Apostles has a slightly different take on it.
Now this man [Judas] acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) ‘For it is written in the book of Psalms,
“Let his homestead become desolate,
and let there be no one to live in it” (Acts 1.18-20)
But whereas that is what the Psalmist says ‘let there be no one to live in it’, there is this community there and signs that Christians have worshipped on that site and made it holy. The many tombs testify to what Matthew says, that it became a graveyard, and which ever version is closest to the truth this must be the most painful piece of real estate in human history.
In the musical ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ Judas sings a song of agony, ‘Damned for all time’ as he makes the deal with the Chief Priest. Tim Rice’s lyrics pick up his pain.
Annas, you’re a friend, a worldly man and wise.
Caiaphas, my friend, I know you sympathise.
Why are we the prophets? Why are we the ones
Who see the sad solution – know what must be done?
I have no thought at all about my own reward.
I really didn’t come here of my own accord.
Just don’t say I’m damned for all time.
It is a strange place to build a monastery, a strange place to live your life. Yet with beautiful hospitality and with tangible holiness that community manifests what God always does, transfigures what is wrong, redeems what is sinful, saves what is lost, raises what is dead. This is very real land, very real estate because Judas embodies so much of what we would like to think isn’t part of our reality, part of the human estate, part of our church. But Jesus, on whom the betraying kiss is planted by one he has called his friend, dies and rises that we too, sinful, betraying, may live. It is good that someone lives on land bought with the price of that divine blood and prays for us all redeemed by that same blood.
you called Judas your friend,
yet be betrayed you;
you called Peter your friend,
yet he denied you.
Forgive my acts of betrayal and denial,
and call me friend
as I call you Lord.