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I needed the time away during my sabbatical, and through a special providence it was allowed for this sabbath to take place in Jerusalem during Holy Week, when the Redemption events are re-lived now two thousand years later in ways more vivid and life-changing than most can imagine.

During the pandemic I was informed that, having served ten years as a diocesan priest, I was due for a sabbatical. The sabbatical could last as long as six months. Feeling that six months would be too luxuriously long, I decided that two months was more realistic. I’m not good at things like sabbaticals, vacations, relaxation and other leisure pursuits. I am easily bored.

Nevertheless, believing that the authorities thought that a sabbatical would do me some good, I waited until the pandemic looked to be clearing up and tried to find a place to take said sabbatical. I wanted it to be a religious house—not only to join in with the prayer and worship of such a house, but also because there would be room and board included. Suddenly it seemed attractive to return to Oxford, where I had prepared for the Anglican ministry.

I wrote to the Dominicans, the Benedictines, and even the Jesuits in Oxford. I wrote to the Oratorians and the Opus Dei folks. None of them could fit me in. I don’t blame them. While I love Oxford, my love of English Christianity has blown hot and cold. Did they not have room? Or did they not want this American who is sometimes too outspoken for his own good?

So I looked further afield. A good library was a must since I planned to do some research into the Shepherds of Bethlehem. I had got it into my head that they were more important than most people think—otherwise why did St. Luke include their story? Were they really no more than first-century country bumpkins—charming rustics added to the tale to give it local color?

It came to mind, therefore, that it might be possible to find the looked-for religious house in the Holy Land and do some on-the-spot investigation. Which led me to write to Pere Olivier, the guest master of the French Dominican house of studies in Jerusalem—the famed Ecole Biblique.

The reply came back positive, so I write this column now safely ensconced in a delightful Dominican house—and writing on Holy Saturday, having lived through Holy Week in Jerusalem. And what a week it was!

On Palm Sunday, after the liturgy with the friars in the morning, I joined a group of friars and scholars in the afternoon to hike, first to Bethphage on the other side of the Mount of Olives, then back again to Jerusalem with thousands of others following the path of Our Lord’s triumphal entry.

On Holy Thursday, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper is held in the church of the Holy Sepulcher at eight a.m. This is due to the “status quo,” a decree from the eighteenth century establishing the rights and limitations of the different denominations who control the sacred site: the Greeks, the Latins, the Armenians, and three smaller groups (the Syriac Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox and Ethiopians). Thus, Latins can worship in the morning.

I joined hundreds of other priests from around the world for the three-hour liturgy. We renewed our vows, the patriarch washed feet and blessed oils and celebrated Mass. On Good Friday morning, the liturgy was celebrated at Calvary. The Latins control the chapel of the nailing to the cross while the Greeks control the actual site—a few yards away—of the crucifixion. The old Protestant in me naturally questioned the authenticity of the site, but the Catholic in me was pleased by the recent archeological investigations virtually proving its authenticity. (This article from the National Geographic shows the results of the investigations.)

In the afternoon of Good Friday, I made my own personal Way of the Cross, following the Stations along the Via Dolorosa in the Muslim Quarter of the city. The public procession was cancelled this year because of Muslim-Jewish unrest at the Temple Mount.

Which brings me to Holy Saturday—sometimes called “The Second Sabbath”—the day of rest after Christ’s labors to redeem the world. And what is a “sabbatical” but a sabbath rest: a time for renewal, rest, and recovery. This “second sabbath” away from a busy life and an active ministry has proven the advisors right. I needed the time away, and through a special providence it was allowed for this sabbath to take place in Jerusalem during Holy Week, when the Redemption events are re-lived now two thousand years later in ways more vivid and life-changing than most can imagine.

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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.

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