Editor’s note:Dave Peters, son of Deacon Joe Peters of St. Stanislaus Basilica Parish in Chicopee, is journeying with five others to the Holy Land. A graduate of the Elms College, Dave is offering his insights and reflections about this trip for our readers. He gives a very special reflection following a violent attack in Jersualem where two Palestinians armed with a meat cleaver and a gun killed four worshippers in a Jerusalem synagogue on Nov. 18 before being shot dead by police, the deadliest such incident in six years in the holy city. Three of the victims held dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship and the fourth man was a British-Israeli national, police said.
“There has been an event.” Deeb, our guide, said soberly after we had buckled ourselves into the van. “An attack on a synagogue in West Jerusalem early this morning; several worshipers there were shot.” Every one in the group looked around at each other in disbelief. While in one sense we all knew this was a dangerous place, the news still came as a bit of a shock because since arriving in the Holy Land we had not once felt that we were in danger. Deeb went on to explain that this attack by two Palestinian men was retaliation for the strangling of a Palestinian bus driver yesterday following a confrontation with Israeli police. Apparently, the incident had been reported as a suicide by authorities after the bus driver had been found hanged by the neck in his bus.
“I think it best that we cancel our visit of the Dome of the Rock today.” Deeb continued. “In all likelihood, the authorities will not open it to tourists anyway.” That was fine because Tony and Deeb had showed us such great experiences already, we knew that anything they offered would not disappoint.
There was no doubt about it, the mood on the streets of Jerusalem had changed overnight. Pairs of young police officers in full combat gear were stationed with assault rifles at every gate, many others patrolled the streets of East Jerusalem, the Palestinian section, stopping and demanding identification from pedestrians they passed. Tony and Deeb testified, however, it was mostly just anyone who looked Arab.
The metal detector at the Wailing Wall beeped red both times I walked through it until the guard who carried a pistol in his belt banged his palm on it, producing a green “Go.” The scene at the wall was simply other worldly. It stood sixty-two feet high and was built of large pale-white bricks. The worship area was separated with the left two-thirds reserved for males, and the remainder for females. In the male area, about one hundred ultra-Orthodox Jews grouped together busy in personal prayer. Some stood or sat at study desks draped in velveteen cloth stitched with the names of their Brooklyn benefactors. They rocked energetically while chanting, others re-wrapped black straps on their arms or adjusted the prayer boxes on their heads. Like other tourists, we donned the required cloth yarmulke provided free in bins at the entrance by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.
“Are you Jewish?” A man called out to us from a booth along the side wall. After we answered in the negative, he quickly produced a stack of historical brochures to pass out to us about the Jewish faith. We scribbled our prayers on small white squares of paper, folded them and stuck them into gaps between the foundation stones which overflowed with similar prayer intentions.
After leaving the wall, we passed two battalions of coed plain-clothed Israeli soldiers on patrol, each soldier couldn’t be much older than twenty, though they all had assault rifles slung across their backs. We finally stopped at Gallicantu, literally, “the cock’s crow.” This is a church run by the Assumptionist priests built on the site of the High Priest Caiaphas house where Jesus was imprisoned for the night following his arrest at Gethsemane and prior to his trial by Pontius Pilot, crucifixion, and death. It is also believed to be the spot where Peter denied Jesus three times.
Of all the Holy Land sites, this one is believed to have the greatest historical accuracy because it is built over a stone dungeon, actually visible from the sanctuary. Basically, it is a hole in the rock which lowers into a hand carved stone room about ten feet cubed. Prisoners of the High Priest would have been lowered into the dark ditch by ropes strung underneath their arm pits and then pulled back up the same way. Leading to the dungeon, the Assumptionists have placed a magnificent life-size bronze sculpture of a kneeling Jesus, tied at the wrists. I found this piece particularly fascinating because I feel that Jesus is very rarely depicted as the political prisoner and criminal he was executed as.
In addition to the well which displays the dungeon cell behind a glass pane, the basement sanctuary of the church also contains three icons of Peter, one of his denial of Jesus, one ofhis repentance, and one also of Peter’s Primacy, where Peter affirmed three times that he loved Jesus. While this event is the first chronologically, when read in light of the Resurrection, it is seen as Peter’s beginning as head of the Church. As Deeb explained the story on the steps outside the church, it is all about God giving humans second chances.
We celebrated Mass outside on a balcony which overlooked the valley leading down from Mount Zion. We could view the golden Dome of the Rock to the left, the Garden of Gethsemene rising along the ridge of the hill on the opposite side, and to the right was Gahena, the field of blood, which was the plot of land purchased with Judas’s thirteen silver pieces and also the site on which he hanged himself.
The afternoon was bright and cool, the wind lifted the Palestinian and Israeli flags on top of several of the roof tops which followed the contours of the hills like a warped computer keyboard. The valley was spliced by Muslim minarets which stuck up like spikes above the rooftops. A few helicopters hovered like dragon flies above the hill on the opposite side.
“With all of this violence, it’s easy to forget that we are all God’s children.” Father said during his homily. “But as Christians we need to realize that we are all part of the same family. It’s easy to forget, especially here, where the faiths of the world converge.” The Muslim call to prayer began to blast from the minarets and covered the valley. The pulse of the helicopter blades grew louder as they approached East Jerusalem. The attackers at the synagogue had been shot by police, my cell phone informed me, but the police were still searching the streets from above for accomplices. “But we do this,” Father continued, “not through converting people, not through violence, not through creating greater division. We need to see all the other kinds of people out there as they truly are, our brothers and sisters. God’s goal for all of us is simply that we may all be one.”
I started to imagine the scene where Peter denied Jesus. It happened just a few feet from where we sat, this same place where today the world seems to be coming apart at the seams like an old quilt. How desperate we all are for a second chance.