It was Palm Sunday 2009, and instead of sitting in a pew in my home church watching the Sunday school children walk down the aisles waving palm fronds, I was standing on the edge of a crowded processional in the sunny streets of East Jerusalem.
My brother, then a Jerusalem resident, led my husband and me boldly into the center of this stream of celebration. We were quickly surrounded by the energetic crowd on the Mount of Olives as they headed toward the ancient city gates.
This was no humdrum scene. Palestinian boys played trumpets, tubas, and drums with all their might, singing loud praises in Arabic. American nuns sang familiar hymns in English, and everywhere there was excitement and joy and conversation in many languages. Pilgrims from around the world waved the flags of their countries. Many waved palm branches high above their heads. My brother waved his hands, greeting many friends.
The Dome of the Rock, the famous Muslim shrine, glistened in the sun. We made our way down the sometimes steep, curvy streets toward the ancient city gates, past photographers wielding large cameras, past one tourist-ready camel, past an enormous graveyard, and past several heavily armed members of the Israeli army.
Perhaps an hour later, we entered St. Stephen’s Gate. The narrow stone streets grew even more crowded, busy with commerce and tourism.
I felt energized and blessed especially by the enthusiasm of the local Christians, a minority group living among one of the most long-lasting and violent of family feuds—Arab vs. Jew. Sometimes caught in the crossfire, Christians have dwindled to a minute percentage of the population. Yet here they were, boldly proclaiming Christ’s name.
Later that week my husband and I toured many religious sites, including Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, and multi-denominational churches and chapels. Fascinated, we eagerly soaked up the culture, the beauty, the history, and the rituals, such as the Greek Orthodox service with centuries-old black lanterns hanging from cavernous ceilings, the scent of incense, the hidden priests reading the ancient text in a foreign tongue.
Those experiences and others highlighted again for us the vast and passionate differences in belief and practice of those who call themselves followers of Christ.
It’s not often that we get to join fellow Christians of different garb, different church practices, and different languages to celebrate the one overarching thing that unites us. A year ago on Palm Sunday, I experienced it. I look forward to someday walking together toward a different gate, again boldly singing praises to our King—who this time sits not on a donkey, but on a throne.