Shadow of a priest walking near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher
A magical day in the Holy Land, among my 18 (19 when Mike join us tomorrow) fellow pilgrims from St. John's, began, I'm ashamed to say, with a passing derisive thought. My friend and seminary professor Charlie Frazee left a Facebook message suggesting that I look up his longtime friend, Fr. Fergus Clarke, when we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Fr. Fergus is one of the Franciscan monks who help oversee that famed and complicated church, where six once-fractious denominations share authority under a 19th century edict called the Status Quo.
Reading Charlie's post, I said to myself, "Fat chance." The millions who visit the place of Jesus Christ's death and rising each year are plunged into a marketing consultant's worst nightmare. You find it with a map or by asking a vendor in Jerusalem's Old City. Nobody collects admission or hands you an Accustiguide. The building, built, rebuilt, burned, and reconfigured scores of times since a church was first built on the site in the 4th century, makes no sense whatsoever. There is no gift shop, and no one ever asks you for money.
Our guide, Canon Iyad Qumri, always takes his groups to the Ethiopian chapel, where he asks a priest to read the passage from Acts about the official of the Candace of Ethiopia being converted and baptized by Philip. Iyad does this, he says, because the Ethiopians are the poorest of the Church's six sects, and he hopes we'll leave a donation. There doesn't seem to be anyone else in charge except for the Greek Orthodox priest who barks orders (in Greek) at pilgrims if they dawdle at the the chapel built atop the rock of Golgotha -- hence my brief amusement at the thought of presenting myself at the front desk and asking for Fr. Fergus and imagining that anyone would know what I was taking about. As you've probably deduced, there's no front desk at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
I'd actually put Charlie's request out of my mind by the time we made our first stop of the morning at Ein Kerem, a beautiful hillside town north of Jerusalem. The Franciscans have a 17th century church there, successor of Crusader and Byzantine churches, built over the grotto purported to be the birthplace of John the Baptist. A monk tending the flowers in front of the church asked me where our group was from. I said, "Orange County," and he said, "Oh, then you must know Fergus Clarke," of whose whereabouts (on a 45-day leave in the U.S.) he was fully aware. The monk, Fr. Anthony Sedja from New Jersey (shown chatting with pilgrims Ron and Monte), listened politely as I said my penance. Bless me, Father, for I again forgot that God breathes an intelligence into this sacred space that exceeds anything I could manage or even imagine.
As if one minor miracle weren't enough for the day, I can also report that God heard my prayer for gellato. Among our pilgrims are four members of the St. John's Altar Guild, who looked like a million bucks despite a daunting flight of stairs up to Ein Kerem's Church of the Visitation (built to commemorate Mary's visit to Elizabeth, as recounted in Luke's gospel). Not far away, pilgrims Kathy and Loreen sat resting, hoping, Kathy said, that someone would serve them tea. No one did. One of the guilders, though troubled by pain in a knee, had climbed every step, trod every cobbled street, and never stopped smiling. She had, however, been persistently mentioning gellato -- and imagine what we found in a shop right along our path at the end of a particularly arduous walk. It was a little miracle for me to see that a breathtaking wall, containing Mary's impossibly prophetic "Magnificat" rendered in all the world's major languages, had been dedicated in the year of my birth.
Although everything has gone perfectly on our pilgrimage so far, whenever Canon Iyad is asked about a paradox, or something that's done here differently from the way we'd do it, he smiles and says, "It's Jerusalem" or "It's the Holy Land." While experts have a pretty good idea about where Jesus was crucified and buried (in a quarry just outside the City's ancient walls, with his tomb probably located within site of the Cross), for the specific geography of much of the rest of the story, the Church relies on formulations including the words "purportedly," "according to tradition," or "many believe." For me, the truth may end up being in the very chaos. What would humans do if they were truly in charge of Christianity's holiest place? Rope lines and revenue, collateral and commerce, turnstiles and taxes, membership discounts in the Shop of the Sepulcher. But they're not in charge. If you want to know who is, just pay attention to the light in the rotunda that arches over the tiny shrine housing what many believe, according to tradition, is the place where Jesus Christ's body lay for three days. Watch how the sunlight and candlelight transfigure faces, how beams of light stretch toward the tomb like a mother grasping for her child.