I don’t need to tell you that this is a very divided city and country. Everywhere you go you’re reminded of this, sometimes subtly, sometimes not subtly at all.
It felt as though I was living a nightmarish dream this morning. I rely on the alarm on my phone and I was relying even more on it this morning as I was on the rota to preside at the 7.00am Eucharist in the Cathedral. The alarm is set for each morning – so that was ok. The alarm went off, I got my legs out of bed and then the nightmare began. The phone said it was 6, my watch said it was 7 and the light outside suggested it was the latter! What was going on? I thought any moment I’d wake up properly and order would be restored.
I got dressed as quickly as I could and headed to the Cathedral. The Eucharist was already at the offertory. Another priest was standing in for me! I was reminded of Thomas Merton’s book ‘The Sign of Jonas’. In one section when he has been ordained deacon he recounts how he faints during the Mass. He comes round in the Sacristy. His brethren have carried him out of the church to where he can recover. But as he comes round he sees someone else putting on the vestments he had been wearing. It wasn’t all about him!
The reason I was thrown into such a nightmare (for me) was that the clocks changed in the Palestinian Authority during the night; they went back an hour. My phone, set to automatically synch with the local time zone, thought I was in Hebron but I wasn’t. The clocks don’t go back in Israel for just over another week! I was trying to get my head around it – so in Bethlehem, where I was yesterday the time has changed but not here. Now, I know at home we don’t share the European time zone, but somehow it feels so different here where the boundaries are more complicated, disputed and certainly less clear.
When you walk around the Old City you of course cross a number of divisions. Within the walls the city is divided into four quarters – Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim. This division was only formalised in the 19th century and in fact there was, until the Six-Day War, a fifth Moroccan Quarter near the Western Wall, which was cleared fairly rapidly after the war so that the Western Wall Plaza could be created. The least populated quarter is the Armenian, though its fiercely defended by the Armenian Patriarchate which is located within it. The other three quarters have greater populations. But what is noticeable is the way that Israeli flags are now being flown in quarters other than the Jewish as settlers move into other quarters to establish their rights.
I noticed this as I was walking back – against a tide of people making their way for Friday prayers at Haram esh-Sharif, the Temple Mount – along al-Wad towards Damascus Gate. There on a building that spans the street is a menorah and Israeli flags in what is very much the Muslim Quarter and the main route from East Jerusalem to the holiest sites for the Muslim community. The divisions are being blurred but, I think, in a provocative way not in a way that makes divisions cease.
Even in buildings you see clear divisions. I stood in the courtyard in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and, for once, looked up. The divisions in architectural style are then very clear to see.
Some divisions have of course disappeared. If I’d been staying where I am pre-’67 I would have been in an area administered by Jordan and my access point to Israel would have been the ‘Mandelbaum Gate’. That was a feature of life here from the end of the British Mandate in 1948 until Israel asserted itself over Jordan and the areas it administered in the Six-Day War. In 1965 Muriel Spark published a novel called ‘Mandelbaum Gate’. The book is set in Jerusalem in 1961 and tells the story of half Jewish Catholic-convert Barbara Vaughan who has come on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and is planning to meet her fiancé Harry Clegg, an archaeologist working in Qumran. It’s a story that brings out, in the context of a romance, the divisions that still prevail.
Oh that it could be different. There is no sign of the Mandelbaum Gate now, no plaque commemorating it, or at least none that I could find. Perhaps other divisions will, in time, disappear as completely. A verse from an a popular carol that we will be singing in a few months time came to mind. ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ picks up on the titles ascribed to the Messiah in the Old Testament in a way that bridges that divide with the New. It can serve as a good prayer for this day in which sharp divides became so apparent as soon as my eyes opened and which, for some, create a daily nightmare in which life has to be lived.
O come, Desire of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid thou our sad divisions cease,
and be thyself our King of Peace.