Diary

12 April 2013

ISTOCK

IT IS 20 years since Pat and I were last in Jerusalem, and nearly 50 years since I was first here. The first time I prayed at the Western Wall, you had to weave your way through a warren of fetid slums to reach it. Today we approach the wall across a great open plaza. Prayers, written on scraps of paper - many of them tear-stained - fill the cracks between the mighty Herodian stones.

Late evening is when we most enjoy sitting here. We observe the observant. Many families are here. We notice how relaxed and trustful the mums and dads are about their children. The latter are free to roam and romp across the plaza. I think of the prophetic vision of the City of God, in which children can play safely. Yet there are many children in this city - Israeli children, too - who are traumatised.

Jerusalem breaks your heart. So it was for Jesus of Nazareth, and so it is for us. The rabbis say: "Ten portions of beauty God gave to the world, and nine to Jerusalem. Ten portions of sorrow God gave to the world, and nine to Jerusalem." 

THE Spafford Children's Centre, not far from the Damascus Gate, occupies a historic compound on the highest point of the Old City. We are shown round by the remarkable Dr Jantien Dajani, who has served the centre for nearly 40 years. The genius of this place, across 90 years, has been its capacity to adapt to events - and Jerusalem has experienced more of those than any city on earth.

The centre began, after the First World War, as a home for orphaned or abandoned babies. Then it became a children's hospital; then, after the Six Day War and the occupation of the West Bank, an outpatient clinic for sick children.

When the notorious "separation wall" was built, many families could no longer reach the centre; so a Spafford clinic was opened beyond the wall in Bethany. But here, in the Old City, the centre continues to serve damaged children, providing specialised treatment and support for those wounded by what they have experienced in this cruel, lovely city.

Dr Jantien takes us on to the roof of the centre, and shows us the view. Looking north, we see a rocky outcrop of rock above the bus station. We notice two caves in the rock which look like eye-sockets - as did General Gordon, who used to stay in this house when he was in Jerusalem. He decided that he was looking at Golgotha. But, of course, that is what you often do in Jerusalem.

"RELIGION", Fr Harry Williams CR famously said, "is what men do with their lunacy." No doubt he had the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in mind. Here, the competing Christian communities address God in their liturgies much as an Englishman addresses a foreigner. If he does not seem to understand, simply raise your voice.

The religious who run this place do not always assist your devotions. Tonight, Holy Saturday, Pat and I sit quietly before the edicule, the rococo confection which houses the tiny chamber where, as on this night, Christ lay. A Greek Orthodox monk stands like a bouncer at the door of the tomb. He tells me to uncross my legs. Then he rum-mages in his robes for his mobile, and starts a loud, angry conversation.

And yet, and yet, the holiness prevails. We slip into the tomb and pray. Here, notwithstanding all the nonsense, prayer is valid. We entrust ourselves, and those dear to us, to the love that, on the first day, will have the last word. Hope floods our hearts. And as for all that's barking, a moment's reflection makes us at least a little more tolerant. For, just around the corner and up the stairs, he who bore all our grief and sorrows surely bore all our dottiness, too.

WE ARE gathered for worship. Midway through the service, we are invited to beat each other over the head with spring onions. It is a rite rarely prescribed by Anglican rubric. But this is Passover, a feast with far more buttons undone than any of ours. (A stinging blow over the head with a spring onion is to bring home to you the folly of pining after Egypt and its vegetables.)

The jokes are as sharp as the onion blows. One of the three teenagers at the table is soon under the table, convulsed with laughter. Moments later, she is up from the table, dancing round the room with the others, dancing to the singing that, at Passover, sets your pulse racing. Then they are off on a wild hunt round the house for the hidden afikoman (dessert). This is a night for the young.

But what makes this festival different is not its hilarity, nor its playfulness, nor its child-centredness, but the total engagement it demands. Above all, you are here to ask. You ask what it means - and what it costs - to be free. And if you do not ask, you have no business to be here.

All this, I remind myself, is the rite in which our Christian eucharist is rooted. At what point, I wonder, did we go wrong?

The Revd Dr John Pridmore, a former Rector of Hackney, has retired to Brighton.

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