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The Mount of Olives stands just east of Jerusalem, across the Kidron Valley, affording the visitor to that holy place a wonderful view of the Old City, where the shining, golden Dome of the Rock (whence the Prophet Mohammad is said to have ascended into heaven) dominates the vista. The slopes of the Mount of Olives have become, over the centuries, a burial site for Jews, Christians and Muslims, all of whom are welcome to believe (in some measure) that this spot, looking toward a sealed gate in the eastern-facing wall of the Old City of Jerusalem, may be the place where the Messiah will come to bring about, or to complete the salvation of mankind. And it would seem that with salvation, as in real estate, location is everything.
When our group of 22 pilgrims from Saint Mark’s walked from the Mount of Olives into the city of Jerusalem last month, we could see black-clad men with their side-locks, tassels, and broad-brimmed black hats visiting graves. I know there are Christian and Muslim graves there somewhere, but most of what you can see are burial places for Jews, who place a stone on a grave as memorial gesture when visiting.
Something put it into my head to visit the graves of the dead while we were in Jerusalem – I had a question I wanted to ask - but it was not a part of the itinerary, so I knew I would have to make a secret mission of it. The wee hours of the morning seemed like a good time to be walking among the hopeful dead anyway, so I stole out of the hotel one morning well before sunrise to go to visit the dead on the Mount of Olives.
I found a chink in a fence I was able to squeeze through and in no time I was ambling among the flat, table-top graves that are spread out on the hillside like a giant keyboard of some kind. No grass grows between the graves, there is only dirt and stones. The moon was bright, so I was able to navigate easily among the tombs. I wasn’t looking for anyone in particular, I just wanted to find someone there who’d be willing to talk to me – a goy from Philadelphia – someone who might be willing to entertain my question. I picked my way among the graves, trying to make enough noise to be heard by the dead if they wanted to talk, but no so much noise as to wake the dead if they preferred to remain sleeping.
Eventually I paused, and I sat on the edge of a gravestone, looking back to the old city as the moonlight glistened on the Dome of the Rock, and in the still darkness before dawn I heard the sound of old, gravelly throat being cleared somewhere behind me.
“What brings you here at this hour?” the voice asked.
Dispensing with small talk, I got right to the point, “Sir, I have a question to ask.”
“American?” asked the man.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Oy vey,” said the old voice, “another American tourist.”
“I’m not a tourist, I’m a pilgrim!” I began to protest, before realizing that the dead old Jew really didn’t care about my semantic distinctions, so I repeated the purpose of my visit, “Sir, I have a question to ask, if I may?”
“So, ask,” said the man.
“You were buried here in order to wait,” I ventured, “but what, may I ask, are you waiting for?” giving voice to the question I had come here to ask of the dead.
“What am I waiting for?” the old voice repeated.
“What are you waiting for?”
Taking a slow, deep breath, (which was only for effect, since he was already dead) the man replied, “In the last chapter of the Book of the Prophet Zechariah, we read this:
“ ‘A day is coming for the Lord… On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east… Then the Lord my God will come, and all the holy ones with him.’ ” And he let out a breath of ghostly air.
“So you are waiting for the coming of Messiah?” I asked.
“Yes,” sighed the tired voice, “I am waiting for Messiah.”
“Why?” I asked, hoping this was not pushing my luck.
“ ‘On that day,’ the prophet says, ‘there shall not be either cold nor frost. And there shall be continuous day… not day and night, for at evening time there shall be light.
“ ‘On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem… it shall continue in summer as in winter.
“ ‘And the Lord will become king over all the earth; on that day the Lord will be one and his name one.’
“For this,” said the man from his grave, “for this, I am waiting.”
“So, you are waiting for endless day, for living water, and for the time when the Lord will be one and his name will be one?” I asked.
“Just as the prophet said,” the voice allowed.
“May I ask, sir, if it’s no trouble, what does this mean?” I pressed on.
“It’s no trouble,” came the answer, “what else have I got to do?
“You won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve had time to think about it, lying here on this hillside. There’s more to consider than just these few lines, of course, but my memory isn’t what it used to be, so I find myself going back to what I know, what little I can remember, and to me it seems like enough, at least for now.
“On that day there shall not be either cold or frost: this is good news to a cadaver, because it’s the cold the kills; it’s the slow seeping away of life’s heat, the gradual slipping into deeper, colder water – it’s like every burial is a burial at sea, and you just get colder and colder till the chill has emptied your veins and penetrated your bones.
“Here, on the Mount of Olives, cold and frost won’t do: it spoils the olives and kills the trees. So this promise that there shall not be either cold or frost is a sign of life.
“And there shall be continuous day. This, my child, is a promise of justice, because cruelty and wrongdoing cavort in the night hours, but justice thrives in the daylight.
“Remember that murder, robbery and warfare are all planned in the night, or underground, or in dark places. Greed despises the light where it can be seen eating more than it should, taking more than it needs, while Hunger moans close at hand.
“Lies are best perpetrated in the night; secrets that erode trust are mostly nocturnal.
“Do you think the lights burned brightly in Auschwitz? No more than they do along the wall I can almost see from here, or in any place where injustice is cloaked with the confidence that my destiny trumps your rights.
“If you want to keep a child stupid, don’t give him any light. You know this,” the man said, “you can see this from where you live.
“Why do you think they called the Dark Ages dark? Wickedness swaggered with the conviction that might made right, while Justice was locked somewhere in a dungeon.
“But where there is continuous day, there will be justice, for even at evening, when cruelty and wrongdoing are ready to go about their work that requires the cover of darkness, there shall be light.”
“And what about the living water flowing out from Jerusalem?” I asked.
“Have you seen the desert just beyond these hills?” he cried. “Do you know what water means in this place?
“Do you remember what Isaiah said?
“ ‘The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing…
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
‘A highway shall be there,
and it shall be call the Holy Way…
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.’
“Need I say more about the living waters that God promises will one day flow from Jerusalem?” the old man asked.
“Your memory is not so bad after all,” I joked. And the man let out a sigh of contentment.
Then I repeated the last part of the prophecy of Zechariah he had quoted to me:
“ ‘And the Lord will become king over all the earth; on that day the Lord will be one and his name one.’ ”
And the dead man took up his discourse:
“ You have seen how we fight here? You have seen the land mines and the guns and the tanks, no? And our arsenal is puny compared to yours, is it not?
“You know how men abuse one another in the name of God – it has ever been thus. You know how God has been used as a justification for slavery, warfare, and oppression of all kinds – always because my version of God is different from your version; my text reads differently from yours, even if they are identical. And this is done from one corner of the globe to the other.
“We cannot fool ourselves for ever. We cannot pretend for eternity that this way of treating one another pleases God. In time he will make himself known; in time he will establish his rule.
“How I yearn for the day that the Lord will at last be king over all the earth, to put all that to and end; when all people will see and know that the Lord is one, and his Name is one. Is this not worth waiting for?” asked my aged, departed friend.
Knowing it would be unwise to turn around and look for the body of my long-dead companion, for it was still enclosed in its tomb, I gazed at the old city across the valley from where I sat among the graves.
“That’s a lot to wait for,” I said.
“Oy,” said the man, “a lot to wait for, indeed”
“Why is it so important to be right here, on the Mount of Olives?” I asked.
“When the Lord comes,” said the old voice, “I suppose it may be that he will save all creation at once, that there will be no waiting, that you won’t need to take a number, as though you were standing in line at a delicatessen. I suppose it may be that God can manage the machinery of salvation with greater efficiency than I can imagine.
“I suppose it may be that an American goy will be as likely to be saved as me, a faithful Jew, who did his best to observe the commandments.
“But my burial here on this hillside, my desire to wait here, just across from the Eastern Gate, with the words of the prophet ringing in my post-mortem ears, is not intended to say anything at all about God. God will do what God will do, and there is nothing at all I can do about that except to be faithful.
“But to wait here is a choice I make, so that even in death I can declare my faith, so that my body may rest in hope, not only repose.
“To wait here is to continue to pray, even with the cold, decaying dust of my bones, that Life triumphs over Death; that God will bring Justice; that a living stream will some day flow from the streets of this holy city on the edge of a desert; and that the Lord our God is indeed one, and will be king over all the earth.
“To wait here is to be a witness to my children of this faith, and to hope that perhaps they will live the faith better than I did: more truly, more peaceably, more honorably.
“To wait here is to declare at the end of my life what I could only say inadequately while I was alive: that even though we all go down to the dust there is something to wait for.
“To wait here is to stand as a testimony to the One by whom all things were created, and for whom all life is lived.
“Don’t you see how few are willing to live their lives for him anymore? Even if they claim to believe in him, they are not willing to change their lives!
“Don’t you see how few are willing to wait for God, to keep watch for him?
“Me, I made the last choice I could make in life, to set myself as near as I could to the place where his glory will pass by, when he comes with a sound of many waters, and when the earth will shine with his glory.
“What am I waiting for? Why do I wait here? What else could I do?
“I am waiting because I believe God is faithful.
“I am waiting because I believe God will restore paradise.
“I am waiting because I believe God will establish justice at last.
“I am waiting because I have faith that God will show his mercy on my soul and on all souls.
“I am waiting because I am thirsty, as I have been all my life, and I long for the living waters to flow from the streets of Jerusalem.
“I am waiting because I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth, and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God!
“I am waiting because God is coming. What better is there to wait for?”
I sat in silence for a moment to let his anthem sink in and to hear its faint echoes in the valley below and the soft harmonies that seemed to be coming silently from the graves around us.
Then I said to the man, “I don’t know what I expected to hear from you, but it wasn’t this. You know that I believe that Jesus is the Messiah, that he has come, and that he will come again. I expected something, crazier from you, I guess, something angrier, and more selfish. I expected more politics, more vengeance. I expected at least to have to argue with you.”
“There is enough of conflict in life,” he said, “too much, in fact, to drag it all into the grave with you.
“In death, it is enough to hope in God.
And then he looked at me, I know, although I did not turn to look back at him, for there was nothing to see. But I could feel his eyes looking deeply into mine, as he gazed at me from his grave. And he said to me, “He’s coming, you know. God is coming.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “I know. He’s coming soon.”
And I heard a long and ghostly sigh as I picked up a stone from the ground, and turned around to place it on the old man’s grave. And as the sun rose over Jerusalem, I made my way home to join the other pilgrims for prayers, and for breakfast.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
27 November 2011
Saint Mark's Chruch, Philadelphia