Life can be hell in the Holy Land, and is likely to get even more trying now that Donald Trump has recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. As soon as the President made his intentions clear there was talk of another intifada. The Holy Father and Mrs May voiced their concerns, and the mayor’s office in Bethlehem ordered that the lights on the Christmas tree in Manger Square be switched off. Even before Trump had officially declared his intentions, protesters in Bethlehem were burning pictures of him.
Yet none of the underlying tensions of the place made much impression on me when I was in Jerusalem as a pilgrim last month. Of course, the security wall lowers one’s spirits, but I was part of a coddled set of pilgrims. We were driven everywhere in an air-conditioned bus and were not required to negotiate with border guards or to get out of vehicles and “assume the position”.
I have Mrs Reid to thank for the coddling. Mary (as I like to call her) had long wanted to walk in the footsteps of Our Lord, and when in the summer she saw an advertisement for a trip to the Holy Land led by a priest we know slightly, she said: “Let’s go.” And, in due course, off we went.
The priest was Fr Martin Edwards, the self-deprecating and liturgically conservative PP at St Mary Magdalen, in Wandsworth, where he says Mass in both forms, but always ad orientem. On this pilgrimage, however, he used only the old form, the traditional Latin Mass.
To make matters even better, Fr Martin was accompanied by Jeff, a world champion altar server from Washington DC. Jeff is part Filipino, part Chinese and part Russian, and as you would expect from that robust mixture, he does not do wilting piety. He kisses the biretta, to be sure, but he does not make a meal of it. He turned out to be the star of the pilgrimage, after Fr Martin himself. (Such is Fr Martin’s star quality, by the way, that on the day after we arrived in Jerusalem he was made an Honorary Canon of the Holy Sepulchre.)
We attended Mass daily and said the rosary and the Angelus on the tour bus. When we weren’t praying we were laughing. Our wonderful Palestinian guide kept us informed … and entertained. In fact, he gets the prize for best joke of the pilgrimage. “If Adam and Eve had been Chinese,” he said, “there would have been no Fall … because they would have eaten the snake.”
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