Saturday, August 8, 2009

To Be Living Sacrifices

Using a sun-dappled altar overlooking the Sea of Galilee, on Friday we St. John's pilgrims had our first of three Holy Eucharist services. Canon Iyad had brought pita and wine. After hearing Paul's exhortation to make of our lives "living sacrifices," we took turns saying how what we'd experienced by the halfway point of our pilgrimage had deepened and enriched our faith lives. Sitting in a circle on rocks, not far from a site associated with the Sermon on the Mount, we disclosed our renewed resolve to seek a closer walk with God and one another, to recognize our blessings, and to find more opportunities in our busy lives to be still and quiet -- as it was for us on that Galilean hillside with the wind in our ears and the sun weighing on our backs.

It was my second time celebrating Holy Eucharist in the Holy Land. There are no words! I had kept my green St. George's College stole in my luggage. After our hillside mass, pilgrim Shirlee, directress of the St. John's Altar Guild, offered to look after it until our final Eucharist next week. At the rate I've been losing things on this trip, that's probably best. I hasten to add that all pilgrims, including wife and daughter, are accounted for.
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Mix 'Em, Match 'Em

A continuing series: At the amphitheater in the town of Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee in Jesus's time, four miles from Nazareth. People came from miles around to visit the bazaar. Did the Holy Family see a performance here?
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Friday, August 7, 2009

Six Pilgrims A'Waiting

Cool sunglasses at the Church of the Primacy of Peter on the Sea of Galilee.
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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Holy Astonishment

This sculpture depicting Gabriel's appearance to Mary is on the grounds of the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth.
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Local Heroes

While Nazareth has 65,000 people today, Joseph and Mary had perhaps 300 neighbors, most living in caves in the hillsides. Beneath the guest house of the Religious Sisters of Nazareth, where our St. John's pilgrims have arrived for three nights, excavations have revealed a section of first-century street and a doorway that the young Jesus may well have walked through while visiting neighbors, friends, or cousins.

Yesterday we visited three churches, including the magnificent Roman Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation. The plainest was built to commemorate the quiet heroism of the man who went through with his marriage to a pregnant girl so she wouldn't be exposed to scorn or worse. We are used to seeing Jesus cradled in his mother's arms, but in the Greek Orthodox Church of the "Announciation" a ceiling mural's depiction is equally natural: A toddler riding on his legal father's strong shoulders during the family's flight to Egypt.

The small church, built over the spring where Mary is said to have gone for water when she had her world-changing encounter with the angel Gabriel, is filled with icons that glow in the light of candles and multiple hanging fixtures. As pilgrim Mary read Luke's account of the fateful conversation in which a Nazareth teenager learned she would be what the Greeks call God-bearer, her voice cracked when she got to the words of her courageous namesake: "Let it be with me according to your word."
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This post initially overstated Nazareth's population.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Wailing Walls

While Orthodox Jews and religiously conservative Muslims have their differences, they regretfully concur on the status of women. An odd moment for Christian pilgrims visiting the Western Wall is when females are relegated to a small area at the south end while men prowl a vast terrain that includes a library and study center that runs along the north. One young woman yesterday cheerfully undermined the status quo with her camera. Posting on Facebook, my Andover classmate and fellow Episcopalian Carter Mears described his own pilgrim band's response:
When I was in Jerusalem, our gentle protest of the gender division of the wall was for the men to give their prayers to the women to place in the wall and the women to give the men their prayers.
No va mas bien on the Temple Mount. When we visited Islam's third holiest site yesterday morning, the experience of one of our pilgrims was marred by an official who castigated her for her perfectly modest neckline. When I asked my thoughtful and open-minded daughter, 24, what she had thought of the learned, genial anthropologist who guided us around the Al-Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock, she said, "I pretty much tuned him out after he went on and on about all the scantily-clad young women."

Kathy Transfigured

A lifelong Roman Catholic who was four years behind Sonia Sotomayor at Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx goes to the Holy Land and visits the cave in Bethlehem associated with Jesus's birth, a church in Jerusalem associated with the Virgin Mary's birth, a church built to commemorate the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, the church built over Golgotha, and the chapel associated with the Resurrection, and this is what you get. Heck, we don't even do the Annunciation until this afternoon!

Beer Buddies

Valerie Taylor and Madees Khoury, both 24, in the brewery founded by Madees's father and uncle in the West Bank town of Taybeh in 1994, the year of the Oslo accords. An exceptionally tasty lager made from German and Polish hops, Taybeh isn't available in the U.S. because it's made without preservatives, which makes shipping complicated, and because it ships with a label that says "Palestine," ditto. If you want to learn more about the Middle East's only microbrewery, do a Google or Facebook search for "Taybeh Beer." While Taybeh is the West Bank's only 100% Christian town, Madees and her family also make a non-alcoholic brew that is gaining ground with abstemious Muslims.

Digging Down To The Top Of The Hill

As seven of us pilgrims took Mike for a walk through the Old City tonight, we saw this magnificent view while climbing the steps from the Western Wall to the Jewish Quarter. At 9 p.m., hundreds of Jews were still at prayer, as though burrowing through, as one pilgrim put it, to the Temple Mount, where Muslims worship at the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. In the foreground is a group touring Israeli excavations that have uncovered extraordinary finds from the pre-Christian, Roman, and Byzantine periods.

Archaeologists would like nothing more than to burrow under the Temple Mount to find the seemingly inevitable substantial remains of the Second Temple, of which the Western Wall is part. But doing so would disrupt or destroy Islam's third holiest site and risk the ire of hundreds of millions of Muslims -- a small fraction of whom maintain that the Second Temple never existed.

Much of the tension in Jerusalem and the Middle East results from such competing primacy claims. Today our St John's pilgrims even heard an indigenous peoples argument being used to undermine Jews' insistence that their temple preceded Islam's installations. Canaanites, forebears of Palestinians, Palestinian artist and anthropologist Ali Qleibo reminded us, worshiped in Jerusalem long before Jews. He also suggested that the animal sacrifice rituals still being conducted by Christians in the West Bank town of Taybeh prove that Palestinians were killing animals during worship long before the Jews were -- a dubious distinction, one would think, and yet a useful one when claiming that in the great Jerusalem derby, Islam really didn't come in third behind Judaism and Christianity. Perhaps Dr. Qleibo would endorse those Temple Mount excavations so we can learn more.

As for us Christians, the only Abrahamic branch without a dogma in the hunt when it comes to the Temple Mount, we are usually satisfied to take the "place" position.

Mix 'Em, Match 'Em

Latest in a continuing series: Kathy and John at the Western Wall.
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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Perfect Chaos Of Christ

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.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Jerusalem Vesper Light

We began our day with a reading from Mark 4, where Jesus beseeches us to let our divine lights, our singular and most authentic selves, shine in the world. Tonight, St. George's Cathedral was making the most of its true lamp stand nature, glowing brightly on a cool, breezy Jerusalem evening.

The first full day of a retreat can feel like a lifetime. So much happens to enliven the senses and spirit and banish the everyday. As the Palestinian National Authority prepares to convene a summit meeting beginning on Tuesday in Bethlehem, the light of Christ shone like a light bulb going off in Canon Iyad's head. With 4,000 PNA soldiers gathering to protect their fractious politicians (as of today, Hamas said it wouldn't permit Fatah members from Gaza to attend), he said we should probably visit Bethlehem today instead of tomorrow. How wise he was, as always. The place was already crawling with soldiers. Tomorrow we might actually have been turned away.

The afternoon light shone in the window of St. Jerome's chapel in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, where tradition holds that the great scholar produced the indispensable Latin Bible known as the Vulgate. As a group of Spanish pilgrims sang "Adeste Fideles" during mass in the Franciscan church upstairs, we sang "O Come All Ye Faithful" downstairs. When seven of us took a late-evening walk through darkened maze of the Old City, the fresh-squeezed orange and grapefruit juice we enjoyed seemed to be sunlight itself. I even saw a twinkle in the eye of the young Israeli soldier who came onto our bus at a checkpoint to inspect our passports. Her semiautomatic rifle, half as long as she was tall, banged against our shoulders as she walked down the aisle. She smiled sweetly as she asked how we had enjoyed Bethlehem.

And yet her qualities would have been lost on those West Bank Palestinians whose lives are disrupted by Israeli security measures. Iyad said he used to take groups to Bethlehem just to get ice cream after lunch. Nowadays the eight-mile round trip can take half a day. Palestinian Catholic priests have to show movies about the Church of the Holy Sepulcher because their Arab students find it to hard to visit it in person. So many lovely, gracious people here. So much light and hope. So much faith. So much work to do.
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Birth Rite

Touching the spot deep beneath Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity where tradition holds that Jesus was born.
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Angels In August

On a rocky, terraced hillside near Bethlehem, pilgrim David read to us about Ruth and Boaz, Saul and David, and, from Luke's gospel, about the angels' announcement of Jesus's birth. It's thought the shepherds were gathered in this very field. On a hot afternoon in August, we sang "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear," including this call to warring humankind: "O hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing!"
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News From A Few Blocks Away

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Explaining The Politics Of The Wall

Monte, Chris, and Iyad.
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Moses? Or Iyad?

Pointing the way to the Kidron Valley.
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Valerie Always Wanted A Convertible

Sitting pretty on the Mount of Olives. The camel's name is Kojak. Tootsie Roll Pops are extra.
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The Issue Of Settlements

Behind pilgrim Monica is the third largest of the controversial West Bank settlements, home to over 30,000 Israeli citizens. Iyad said Palestinians are feeling more hopeful because of Obama administration pressure to limit the expansion and growth of the settlements and because Israel recently closed two nettlesome West Bank check points.
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Common Home Of Abraham's Tribes

That's the golden Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, not far from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher -- making this crowded and fought-over territory holy to Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Now go listen to Steve Earle's "Jerusalem," and pray far peace.
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Sunday, August 2, 2009

Morning Prayer And Briefing

After we had prayed and shared why we each felt called to make the trip, Iyad gave us some pilgrims' tips -- hat and water, hat and water -- and a brief overview of the inextricability of religion and politics in the daily lives of the 13 million Jews, Christians, and Muslims who share the close quarters of Israel and the West Bank.
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Strength For The Day

At St. George's Guest House in Jerusalem, the hospitality is warm, and the coffee is delicious. Pilgrims from St. John's compared notes on their nights' sleep and cell connectivity while enjoying scrambled eggs and toast, pita and hummus, cucumbers and yogurt, cheese and grapes. We gather in a half hour for morning prayer -- and then we're off!
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St. George's Jerusalem, Monday Morning

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Kathy Isn't A Discalced Pilgrim

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Damascus Gate, Old City Of Jerusalem

Iyad and Yvonne check out the Ottomans' handiwork.
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Canon Iyad's Orientation

Up to Jerusalem with St. George's guide of guides.
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A Lot To Absorb

On the bus to Jerusalem, mapping out our pilgrimage.
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St. John's Pilgrims, Awaiting Andy's Luggage, Ben Gurion Airport

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