A Lenten and Easter Reflection from the Holy Land

By Meghan and Gabi Aelabouni, area desk director for the Middle East and North Africa

One spring afternoon, in the open courtyard inside the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem’s Old City, we met with the Rev. Carrie Ballenger, fellow ELCA missionary, and the Rev. Ibrahim Azar, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL), to record the bishop’s short video greeting for upcoming ELCA synod assemblies. As the group prepared to record, the silence of the courtyard was suddenly broken. The Hebrew words of a Jewish song filled the air, likely coming from the roof of a settlement next to Redeemer. As if in response, the Arabic call to prayer arose from a nearby mosque, and a quick glance at the clock revealed that the noon bells of Redeemer would soon follow.

In the land called “holy” by the three Abrahamic traditions, expressions of faith are not only found in the sights of ancient buildings and artwork. Faith is in the air itself, in the overlapping — and sometimes competing — sounds of human prayer and praise. The COVID-19 pandemic in Israel/Palestine has been unnerving in part because of the silence it has brought: the silence of empty buildings and streets and closed shops and cafes; the absence of the cacophony of prayer and conversation, in a myriad of languages, that typically bubbles up from the visitors who come from all over the world to visit the Holy Land.

The tourism industry provides a livelihood to many Palestinian Christians, both in Jerusalem and in the West Bank, who wait anxiously and wonder when visitors may return — and how to feed their families in the meantime. In the past year, the echoing quiet of lockdowns and quarantines has underscored the fact that the vitality of the Holy Land is ultimately found not in its ancient stones, but in its people.

Part of the ELCA’s ministry of accompaniment in Israel/Palestine is to help amplify the voices of those people: particularly Palestinian Christians, who as the “minority of the minority” among Jewish Israelis and Muslim Palestinians are less frequently heard in global conversations about Israel/Palestine, and whose voices are too often dampened or silenced by occupation. Like the church bells, their stories say to the world: We are still here. Do not forget us.

This Lent, the world has found itself on an uncertain journey — as uncertain as that of the first followers of Jesus, who accompanied Jesus on his path to the cross and to death, wondering all the time what it all meant and how the story would end. Like those first disciples, Palestinian Christians today recall the promises of God: that even from the silence of death and the grave, a song of resurrection will come — for them, and for all people.

Easter Sunday Service on the Mt. of Olives, 2019. Credit: Ben Gray/ELCJHL