Saturday, January 22, 2011

Searching For The True Stone

Kathy's and my last Jerusalem adventure (besides making it through Ben Gurion airport security with our fellow St. John's pilgrims in a couple of hours) felt a little like a Dan Brown novel -- with the final chapter yet to come.

Our quest began yesterday morning at the Holy Sepulcher, when St. John's pilgrims DJ and Duane and I met with Rev. Fergus Clarke, a Franciscan priest assigned to that holiest of churches. He told us that in the mid-second century, the Romans desecrated the site of Jesus Christ's resurrection and built a Roman temple on top. To reach the stone of Jesus's actual tomb, industrious Christians dug a tunnel under the temple which, Fr. Fergus said, still exists.

While the Greek Orthodox Church now claims sovereignty over the Edicule and therefore Christ's tomb underneath, some years ago the Roman Catholics managed to acquire a significant amount of the tomb stone. Somewhat opaquely, Father said those who should go to the Christian Quarter and enter the grounds of St. Xavier Church though the entrance on St. Francis St. might be able to obtain a small cross containing a piece of the Real Stone.

That's all Kathy needed to hear. By mid-afternoon Saturday, we had shouldered our way through the human tide at Damascus Gate (it was shopping day in the Arab suk) to St. Francis St. Here's where it gets a little weird. As though she knew exactly where we were going, a small, lively woman in a blue sweater (shown here) motioned toward a door with a smile. We opened it for her and followed her through.

We were now in the vast, hushed domain of the Custodia di Terra Santa, the Roman Catholic Church's Jerusalem HQ. The woman gave us some advice about Arab merchants and went on her way. We made several inquires and learned that the store selling the treasure we sought would reopen at 3:30 p.m. (notwithstanding the sign on the shop door saying it closed at noon on Saturdays).

Kathy wanted to stay; I wanted some coffee. Within ten minutes I had found a cafe and cappuccino and was enjoying a conversation with Rev. Adam Civu, a Roman Catholic priest from Uganda who's been living in Jerusalem for 27 years. He described a tour he'd taken of churches in 17 U.S. states and counseled me about preaching in terms people could relate to personally. "Isaiah says that our sins will be cleansed so as to be 'white as snow,' but we don't have snow in Uganda," he said. "So I would say, 'as white as cotton'."

Just then, in a moment Fellini would've loved, the woman in the blue sweater entered the cafe and asked if I knew where the WC was. I did, as a matter of fact, so I opened the door and turned the light on for her. She smiled and handed me an empty pink plastic bag for safekeeping.

She left, and soon I said goodbye to Fr. Adam. Making my way back to Kathy, I saw the woman once more. I handed her the pink bag, which she had failed to collect when she left the cafe. She asked me about my children, and I asked about hers -- two sons and five daughters, only one living nearby. "I am alone now," she said. By the time I reached the Custodia, Kathy had learned that the only priest permitted to sell pieces of the True Stone had been in the hospital for a month. She managed to obtain his business card. Looks like we're coming back to Jerusalem.

"Fifteen Years, Hamas"

The other day outside Jerusalem's Old City, an Arab man (not one of these guys) came up to one of our St. John's pilgrims and said in a voice that was neither friendly nor threatening, "Fifteen years, Hamas."

I've added the comma, of course. What do you think it means?

Hamas was founded in 1987, so he could've been jumping the gun on "Happy Birthday." Or he could've been announcing how long he'd been a member of the radical Islamist movement that now controls Gaza, but why would my fellow pilgrim care?

Perhaps it's evidence that the man in the east Jerusalem street is as mindful of demographic trends as western observers. According to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, by 2025 its population will be only 70% Jewish, compared with 78% in 2000. Looking a little further ahead, another study predicts that by 2040, 78% of Israeli schoolchildren will be either offspring of ultra-Orthodox Jews (most of whom don't believe that Israel should have statehood before the messiah comes) or Arabs (many of whom are and may remain ambivalent about a Jewish state). Whether or not Hamas comes to dominate a future Palestine, as some predict, one could easily see how Israel could be squeezed in a massive population pincer movement.

Our earnest prognosticator may simply have been saying that Hamas will supplant the more moderate Fatah as rulers of a united Palestine. Or my friend may have been hearing a prediction that as early as 2026, by virtue of peaceful diplomacy and implacable demographics, Israel will be swallowed by an Islamist Palestine.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Pilgrims' Progress: A Last Morning In Jerusalem

Beginning before dawn Saturday, we walked along the Via Dolorosa through the Old City of Jerusalem, ending in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Each of us had one more moment to touch the rock of Golgotha and hear the chants and the organ and smell the incense and meet the lively eyes of pilgrims from all over the world and come as close as we could to our God in Christ. For that, there are no words, and the best pictures are the ones we can't quite show you. To experience it yourself, ask for God's grace, and if you can, come to Jerusalem. As our guide, we used A Walk In Jerusalem: Stations Of The Cross by John Peterson, former dean of St. George's Cathedral and secretary general of the Anglican Communion.

Fr. Fergus Clarke, a Franciscan assigned to the Holy Sepulcher, told us yesterday that, based on what we know about the first century role of women, if Mary Magdalene hadn't been the first witness to Jesus Christ's resurrection, nobody would have gone to the trouble of making up a culturally incorrect story claiming that she was. Imagine that: Proof both that Jesus rose again and that men are wrong to keep women down in the church. This sculpture hangs behind the altar in the Holy Sepulcher's Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene.

If anyone tells you that Christians can't agree on anything, tell him this: We agree that Jesus rose from the dead at a spot about 20 paces behind pilgrim Andrea. The building, called the Edicule, and the slab it encloses are relatively new. Beneath them is the rock of the tomb itself, which people have venerated since the resurrection moment. Fr. Fergus told us that when the Romans tried to obliterate it in the second century and built a Roman temple in its place, Christians dug a secret tunnel under the temple and found the tomb.

Pilgrim Kathy met a friend at the Holy Sepulcher this morning: Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington, D.C. You may remember him from the memorial service at Washington National Cathedral following the Sept. 11 attacks. Kathy knows him through her work as former President Nixon's last chief of staff. While the cardinal had been to the Holy Sepulcher many times, this was his first visit to the Adam Chapel, where the split rock of Golgotha is visible through a window behind the altar.

Au Revoir, Jerusalem

An iPhone photo of the group photo of our 30-member St. John's Episcopal Church pilgrim band, taken at the beginning of our pilgrimage outside St. George's Cathedral in east Jerusalem, with Canon Iyad Qumri, our friend and guide, at left in the first row.

After walking the Stations of the Cross beginning Saturday morning at 5:45 and having our final Holy Eucharist service at one of the places associated with the biblical town of Emmaus, we'll have a final few hours to pack and drink in the Old City before our departure at about midnight from Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. We arrive at LAX Sunday morning, each of us, in some way, changed.

As the French say, we'll be back.

Sepulcheral Secrets

The view of the Edicule, which encloses Jesus Christ's tomb, from the Latin balcony of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. On Friday morning pilgrims DJ, Duane, and I got the friar's tour from the Rev. Fergus Clarke, friend of my friend Charlie Frazee and one of the priests who helps care for the church.

Six Christian denominations govern it under a 19th century arrangement brokered by the Ottoman Turks called the status quo. While the churches agree about little other than that this was the place of Jesus's resurrection, it's enough to keep them cohabitating in what Fr. Fergus variously called a delicate ecosystem or, even more fraught with peril, a long marriage. Just as a couple can have a crisis if a spouse leaves the dental floss out every night, things can go terribly wrong in the Holy Sepulcher if a sewer pipe breaks or someone starts a service too early, leaves a chapel door open when another denomination is processing past, or moves a chair.

Reporters often make fun of the monks for clashing over seemingly trivial things. "But 360 or 363 days a year, it's usually fine," Fergus said. I'm going to be learning more about how this community manages to subsume its permanent and likely irresolvable theological differences under the higher interest of remaining in relationship for the sake of serving the risen Christ.

Looking Better For Palestine, Worse For Israel

The Middle East is a land of paradox, and the one I've been grappling with during our 12-day St. John's pilgrimage is why Arab east Jerusalem (home of our pilgrim guest house at St. George's Cathedral) seems so calm when prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians have dimmed so dramatically over the past few months.

It's not that there's any immediately apparent reason for optimism. Israel has resumed its provocative settlement expansion in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. As U.S.-brokered peace talks languish, Palestinian officials are maneuvering, against U.S. wishes, for a UN resolution to condemn the settlements as a major obstacle to peace -- the first step, perhaps, toward a dangerous unilateral proclamation of a Palestinian state. Israel's security wall, which in places seems to have more to do with separating Palestinians from one another than terrorists from Israel, remains a scar on the landscape.

Yet thanks to Israel, Palestinians are able to move around the West Bank more freely than during my pilgrim visits in 2007 and even 2009. Its economy grew by 9% in the first half of 2010. The Fatah-controlled government in the West Bank is getting higher marks, too, especially Prime Minister Salam Fayyad (below left), who in one friend's book is doing so well that he told me he sometimes worries that extremists on the Palestinian side will be tempted to use extreme measures against him. As with all politicians, not everyone agrees that Fayyad's the savior. Another friend said, "The joke you hear is that for years Palestinians have been praying for salaam [peace], and all they got was Salam."

What seems most promising is that Fayyad is using the region's growing economic clout for jujitsu moves such as forbidding the sale within Palestine of any goods manufactured in Israeli settlements. The West Bank's government got a further boost this week when Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, despite Israeli efforts to interfere, paid the first visit ever by a top Russian leader and reaffirmed Moscow's support for a Palestinian state.

What a change since the Cold War, where the Middle East was a superpower flash point, with the U.S. backing Israel and Moscow, the Arabs. As we made our way back Wednesday from visits to the West Bank towns of Nablus and Zababdeh, we had to slow down briefly because of a highway improvement project funded by U.S. tax dollars. The day before in Washington, the PNA's diplomatic mission in Washington raised the Palestinian flag for the time, with tacit U.S. support. One wonders if it will be much longer before the Obama administration decides to make U.S. aid to Israel contingent on more cooperation in the peace process.

After a while, if Palestine looks, acts, and thrives like a state, it's going to be a state. Perhaps that's the source of the air of optimism we're feeling amid all the tantalizing excuses for pessimism. That a Palestinian state is picking up momentum may also explain why Benyamin Netanyahu seems to be doing everything he can to put on the brakes, because here's no denying that Palestinian statehood is a risky road for Israel.

The other day our pilgrim band heard from Bernard Sabella of Bethlehem University, an Arab Christian who's an expert on the nettlesome problem of Christian emigration from the Holy Land. When I asked him about the recent warning from Arab Israeli journalist Abu Toameh that if Palestinians got a state tomorrow, leaders from the Israel-must-die Hamas party would be in control of its government the day after that, Sabella said, "Not necessarily." How reassuring that must be to Israel. I've also encountered those who believe that a Palestinian state is the first step toward a one-state solution, which would inevitably destroy the viability of a Jewish homeland. Polls make clear that this sentiment is still widespread among Palestinians.

We may hope that the distractions of building their own state would eventually diminish the desire to end Israel's. But while I end my third pilgrimage with a renewed sense of optimism about prospects for Palestinian self-determination, I have a deepening concern about Israel's long-term security. If Israel's current policy is born not of mere intransigence but a feeling of existential threat not just from Iran but also from the increasingly concrete prospect of a future Palestine, I don't see how anyone can realistically expect the policy to change anytime soon.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

It Ain't So About Joe

From The National Interest, the Nixon Center's journal and blog, a surprisingly harsh assessment of retiring Sen. Joseph Lieberman. From my admittedly parochial perspective, I remember his graciousness to the disgraced former president despite the harsh commentary about Jews on the White House tapes and his support of the Center bearing Nixon's name by being one of its founding board members (along with Sen. John McCain). Beyond all that, I think we're losing someone who bravely staked out the great American center in a capital city that often seemed to have abandoned it in favor of politically opportunistic but ineffective zealotry.

The Hackosphere Matures

From Andrew Sullivan, a welcome if tardy acknowledgment that bloggers should observe traditional journalistic standards.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, when another web site published the fabricated story that Sarah Palin wasn't the mother of her youngest child, Sullivan linked to it before checking the facts and thus lent his substantial prestige to the most effective libel of the campaign.

With reasons that seem to have to do with professional pride and his considerable and understandable alarm at the idea of Palin ever getting close to the White House again, Sullivan hasn't quite given up on the pass-the-baby story. But whether it's a question of ethics, potential legal liability for his publisher, the Atlantic Monthly Group, or both, he's tightened up procedures at The Daily Dish. This week, when the National Inquirer published a story about the Palins, he wrote:
I'm not linking because I have no way to confirm the story.

Calling Crosses

In St. Helena's chapel in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, 12th and 13th century crusaders and other pilgrims carved thousands of crosses in the walls.

Pilgrims' Progress: Thursday In Gethsemane

We've been in the Holy Land nine days. We've seen more churches than we can probably remember right off the bat (Quick: Was that fresco you loved in the Holy Sepulcher, Dominus Flevit, or the Church of the Annunciation?). We have sipped cold water from Jacob's well, stood in the ruins of the Capernaum synagogue where Jesus may have taught, climbed the same steps he may have used to enter the Second Temple, stooped to touch Golgotha, and draped ourselves over his burial slab.

And then this morning, after a long walk across the Temple Mount and through the Old City, as we arrived in the Garden of Gethsemane (I can only speak for myself; I'm sure all the other St. John's pilgrims were more devout), I briefly wondered what we were going to have for lunch back at St. George's.

The gnarled olive trees themselves, probably fed by the same roots as the ones that sheltered Jesus Christ and his slumberous disciples the night of his betrayal, seem to proclaim his suffering. I'd been there twice before, it's true. But how could the faithful pilgrim's mind wander for even a moment?

Could you not keep awake one hour?
Waiting until the last few days of a sometimes grueling Christian pilgrimage before visiting Gethsemane and St. Peter in Galicantu helpfully tempts us to reenact the disciples' far more fateful 11th-hour distraction. Gali cantu means "cock crows." Churches often commemorate saints' best moments. Here, we remember Jesus's prediction that his friend will deny him three times.

Denying him my own full attention illustrated a truth a Nixon colleague taught me after a decisive three-hour meeting we sat through together: "All that really counts is how you behave in the last three minutes." Jesus's disciples had their ups and downs during his three years of public ministry, but in the end, they utterly failed him. Together with his smiters, his best friends contributed to his desolate experience of complete abandonment. Our ministry after our pilgrimage will be to do better for him and one another.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Wall Low

We're used to seeing Jews (and the occasional Gentile) praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. But nearly 500 more meters of the wall have been uncovered by Israeli archaeologists digging beneath the Muslim Quarter. A result of their work is the Western Wall Tunnel, which pilgrims Andy, Deb, Kathy, Leslie, Loreen, and I visited tonight. About halfway through, where this young woman was praying, is the point experts surmise is the closest (94 meters) to what Jews call the foundation stone. Also understood to be the biblical Mt. Moriah as well as the place from which Mohammad ascended to heaven, the stone is now enclosed by the Dome of the Rock, one of the two principal Muslim installations on the Temple Mount.

Work on the tunnel excavations began soon after Israel defeated the Arabs in 1967 and won back control of the Old City. Fascinating as the attraction is, it's as much politics as tourism. Muslims know as well as anyone that the tunnel excavations are under the ultimate authority of orthodox rabbis, not archaeologists. Property owners in the Muslim Quarter complained that the dig weakened the foundations of their homes and businesses. Once the rabbi in charge ordered his crews to start digging under the Temple Mount itself until the Israeli government got wind of it and stopped him.

As a matter of fact, all of Israel's digs along the perimeters of Herod the Great's walls give the impression of being aimed not only at gaining insights about the Second Temple period but also undermining the theological authority and perhaps even the physical integrity of the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque. When Israel first announced plans in 1996 to open a northern exit for the tunnel exhibit, which Muslims said would be an encroachment on their territory, 80 people lost their lives in protest riots.

The polemical quotient was pretty high this evening. Our guide, David, was an orthodox Jew who confirmed to pilgrim Andy that he believed the world was 6,000 years old, just as Torah says. As we made our way back through the long, narrow tunnel at the end of our tour, David and I got into a discussion about modern biblical criticism. He wasn't buying. Moses wrote Torah, period.

I did think I detected a hint of opportunism when I asked David if he would favor excavations on the Temple Mount itself if they were possible. (They're not possible. It would spark the third intifada or worse.) He said his strictly religious colleagues would think twice, since no one besides the high priest (and that includes archaeologists, no matter how devout) was allowed to see the interior of the the Holy of Holies. But then he smiled and added that university archaeologists probably wouldn't be as scrupulous. He said he'd definitely be interested in seeing what they found.

Pilgrims' Progress: Well Done, Daphne

We St. John's pilgrims saw this painting of Jesus Christ and the Samaritan woman along with other breathtaking images in the West Bank city of Nablus today, in a church built over Jacob's well, where the encounter described in John 4:1-30 occurred. We've visited no more sacred a place so far. Abraham visited here when it was called Shechem. Joshua gathered the tribes of Israel here and called them to renew their worship of God in sincerity and faithfulness (Josh. 24:14). For the Samaritans of Jesus's time, Shechem was as sacred as the Second Temple was to Jews in Jerusalem.

As for the gospel story, which the evangelist said occurred as Jesus made his way from Jerusalem to Galilee, this is the only place known as Jacob's well. There's plenty of ambiguity about the actual location of the Upper Room and Emmaus, for instance, but none whatsoever about this spot. Pilgrim Daphne (shown outside the church with her mother, pilgrim Ellie) lowered a bucket 150 feet down and raised it filled to the brim, and we drank from the same spring that the evangelist says nourished our Lord.

Photos weren't allowed. But we'll remember.

Pilgrims' Progress In The Church Of All Churches

You come to Jerusalem a few times, and you actually have people to look up. On Tuesday afternoon Kathy and I went first to the Armenian Quarter and Sami Barsom's tailor shop. He was making tea for a visitor, the Rev. Shemun Can, assistant to the Syriac Orthodox archbishop in Jerusalem, and he invited us to join them.

I'd met Sami twice before. He was gracious enough to say he remembered, if not my name, the shape of my face. While we sat and talked, he waved at two Orthodox Jews who walked past his shop and warmly greeted an Arab who came in to introduce his fiancee. When they left, Sami smiled and said, "He said he met me 10 years ago and asked if I remembered him."

The muchtar, or top lay leader, of Jerusalem's Syriac Orthodox, Sami prides himself on talking to everyone. A recently published collection of his articles for the Jerusalem diocese's magazine contains pictures showing him practicing his faithful personal diplomacy with prominent Israelis and Palestinians alike. "We follow Jesus Christ," Sami says, "and he calls us to be in peace with one another. So what else can I do?"

It isn't that he hasn't experienced the alternative. Both his and Fr. Shemun's families fled Turkish persecution in 1915, when, as Sami told us, Assyrians and other ethnic groups were engulfed in the Armenian Genocide. "The Turks said, 'They're all like the Armenians, they're all the same'," Sami said with a dismissive wave. His family settled in west Jerusalem and moved to the Jordan-controlled Old City, he said, in the aftermath of Israel's 1948 war of independence.

Fifty-one years ago, he opened his tailor shop right around the corner from St. Mark's Church, seat of Jerusalem's Syriac Orthodox archbishop and one of the places touted (as reliably as by anyone else) as the site of the Last Supper. Most of his customers, he said, are Anglicans and Episcopalians. Among the consequences of his abundant hospitality is that most of them probably abandon any thought they may have had about negotiating a price. We left with a handmade green stole (good for the whole season between Pentecost and Advent) and some extra gifts from Sami, including something for the St. John's Altar Guild as well as a postcard containing the Lord's Prayer as set down in Fr. Shemun's exquisite Syriac Aramaic calligraphy.

Our inevitable next stop was the irresistible Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where we watched an elaborate Epiphany mass at Christ's tomb that looked as though it was being overseen by none other than His Holiness Karekin II, supreme patriarch and catholicos of the Armenian Orthodox Church (that's he in the background in the above right photo, with the black hood and crosier).

After Kathy got another chance to say a prayer inside the Edicule, we ran across a procession of friars that was moving from chapel to chapel around this most mysterious and chaotic of churches. Among them was a distinguished-looking priest who put us in the mind of our two-year-old promise to try to say hello to the Rev. Fergus Clarke, Jerusalem-based buddy of my friend and church history professor Charlie Frazee. Making our way to the Franciscans' corner of the church, we asked about Fr. Fergus and learned that, sure enough, that was he in the holy procession. So we waited, listening as the Latin chant echoed through the church, coming closer minute by minute. Just as they swung toward the entrance of Christ's tomb carrying their candles and amid swirling incense, an organ began to play in support of their plainchant, as glorious a moment of liturgy as I've ever experienced.

The monks offered two more rounds of prayer, including a highly ritualized censing of the Mary Magdalene chapel and the veneration of the consecrated elements in the Chapel of the Sacrament next door. Fr. Fergus (at left in the above right photo) welcomed us graciously in the sacristy and cheerfully admitted he knew Charlie from his days as a parish priest at St. Joseph's in Placentia, California. Indeed he said he'd mailed him a letter that very morning. He said a blessing over us and my new stole and invited us back to see him, and we marveled again at how we felt so at home in this faraway place where God seems so close.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Epiphany, Again

For Armenian Orthodox Christians, Tuesday was the feast of the Epiphany. This photo shows a priest saying mass inside the Edicule in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the traditional site of Jesus Christ's burial.

Monday, January 17, 2011

At The Center Of The World

During two Holy Land pilgrimages and the 18 months in between, pilgrim Andy and I have been carrying on a conversation about the Middle East. It hasn't really been a debate, since we're both strong supporters of Israel who are working to deepen our appreciation of the immense complexities of the issue and of the necessity for a just provision for Palestinians' right of self-determination.

We rarely have the opportunity we did today to conduct our discussion at the epicenter of the crisis. We were standing with our fellow pilgrims inside the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, on steps leading to a walled-up spot that was once an entrance to the Second Temple. The towering wall at our back faces south. You can see Herodian (which is to say time of Jesus Christ) stones at the bottom and the windows and blue dome of the al-Aqsa mosque on top. Could Jesus have climbed these steps on one of his visits to the temple from Bethany, on the Mount of Olives (to our left)? Pretty likely. So you have 2,500 years of religious history and explosive interfaith rivalry inside a few square feet. For the faithfully political (or the politically faithful), it's pretty much the center of the world.

Since pilgrim Kathy, junior archaeologist, was helping injured pilgrim Pam prepare for her much-regretted early departure for the U.S. tonight, she didn't go with our group this morning. I retraced our footsteps with her this afternoon. That's she amid the massive stones that Roman soldiers threw down from the Temple Mount when they destroyed the Second Temple in A.D. 70 -- the very ones of which Jesus said in Mark 13:2b, "Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down." You can't get much closer to history than that, in this place where peace sometimes feels as far away as it can be.

The Al-Aqsa mosque and Mount of Olives, from the Jerusalem Archaeological Park

Pilgrims' Progress in Nazareth: Why We Came

"This is why I came," said a St. John's pilgrim as we drove along the western edge of the Sea of Galilee on Saturday morning. It was as Christ-drenched a day as we'll have during our 12-day pilgrimage, beginning with the renewal of our baptismal vows in the Jordan River (pilgrims Melinda, Deb, and Cheryl are above) and culminating, sacramentally, at least, with Holy Eucharist served around a stone altar high above the lake.

Before I said the mass, I asked our pilgrims to preach the sermon by calling out two or three words that they associated with our trip so far. The one I heard the most was peace. If you yearn for peace, if you want to feel close to the historical Jesus, if your faith in God's saving and infinitely loving power is bolstered by the feel of solid ground under your feet that Jesus's may have touched first, then come to Galilee.

For one thing, you'll find a church built in remembrance of one New Testament event after another -- Jesus's healing work at Simon Peter's house in Capernaum as recounted in the action-packed first chapter of Mark's gospel, the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, even the meal the risen Christ prepared for his disciples as recounted in John 21.

All these miracles and mysteries notwithstanding, our pilgrim hearts were also touched by moments of sheer humanity and common sense. In Nazareth, at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, our guide, Canon Iyad Qumri, pointed out his favorite fresco, depicting the
Holy Family's flight to Egypt as described in Matthew's gospel. Usually we see the patient Joseph leading a mule carrying Mary and her child. But wouldn't we be just as likely to see the lad riding on Joseph's strong shoulders?

Joseph would probably have been singing as they walked along, and we've been singing up a storm, too. In Bethlehem, a few feet from the grotto remembered as the site of Jesus's nativity, we sang "O Come All Ye Faithful." We did our best approximation of the Blind Boys of Alabama's "Wade In The Water" as I used olive branches to sprinkle my fellow pilgrims with Jordan River water. We sang hymns and the Taize "Gloria in excelsis" during our hillside Holy Eucharist and "Michael Row Your Boat Ashore" (what else?) during a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. And on Sunday morning in Christ Church in Nazareth, we belted out hymns in English (you can see that pilgrims Dale, Phyllis, and Bob were holding up their end) while our local Episcopalian brothers and sisters sang in Arabic.

On Saturday evening, we were blessed by a visit to our pilgrim guest house by a dynamic Nazareth-born priest in the Diocese of Jerusalem, the Rev. Fuad Dagher, whom we'd welcomed at St. John's in August while preparing for our pilgrimage. He told us about the child care center he's launching at his church in Shefa-'Amr, St. Paul's, with the support of the Diocese of Los Angeles and some $40,000 in local contributions.

Over dinner, Fr. Fuad waxed pessimistic about prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, chalking up most of the problems to the Israeli side. A couple of pilgrims pushed him back on issues such as the U.S. war in Iraq (which he said was a disaster for all concerned).

I'll write later in our pilgrimage about politics, the leitmotif of almost everything we see and do in the Holy Land. For now, I can't help tarrying a little more over the sights, sensations, and sacraments of our two rich days in Galilee.

Dr. King And The Good Samaritan

Early one morning last week, we St. John's pilgrims visited a spot about halfway between Jerusalem and Jericho for a few moments of meditation. Invited to say a prayer by our guide and friend, Canon Iyad Qumri (shown below, pointing down to the old Jericho road), I mentioned that Dr. Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King had once visited the same place, or one nearby. He mentioned their pilgrim visit in his last speech, on April 3, 1968, the day before he was murdered in Memphis. He was trying to persuade the city's pastors to come out of their pulpits and offer direct support to striking sanitation workers:

I'm going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It's possible that these men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, "I can see why Jesus used this as a setting for his parable." It's a winding, meandering road. It's really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about 1200 miles, or rather 1200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you're about 2200 feet below sea level. That's a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the "Bloody Pass." And you know, it's possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it's possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the Levite asked was, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"

That's the question before you tonight. Not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?" The question is not, "If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?" "If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?" That's the question.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Young Nazarenes

We pilgrims worshiped at Christ Church (Episcopal) in Nazareth on Sunday morning. These lads had the responsibility of collecting and storing the prayer books and hymnals after the service. And after that, punch and cookies in the parish hall.

We'll Never Be Alone

As Brian Greene writes, Albert Einstein needed a gimmick to bolster his theory that the universe had a fixed size and shape. His solution was the cosmological constant, a repulsive gravity that pressed against the gravity that Newton had discovered and kept the cosmos shipshape. While Einstein may have been wrong at first about the size of the universe, he was right about anti-gravity. Scientists now call it dark energy, and it's thrusting the universe away from us at unimaginable speeds, leaving us in the stardust:
If the dark energy doesn’t degrade over time, then the accelerated expansion of space will continue unabated, dragging away distant galaxies ever farther and ever faster. A hundred billion years from now, any galaxy that’s not resident in our neighborhood will have been swept away by swelling space for so long that it will be racing from us at faster than the speed of light. (Although nothing can move through space faster than the speed of light, there’s no limit on how fast space itself can expand.)

Light emitted by such galaxies will therefore fight a losing battle to traverse the rapidly widening gulf that separates us. The light will never reach Earth and so the galaxies will slip permanently beyond our capacity to see, regardless of how powerful our telescopes may become.

Because of this, when future astronomers look to the sky, they will no longer witness the past. The past will have drifted beyond the cliffs of space. Observations will reveal nothing but an endless stretch of inky black stillness.

Especially apt for us Holy Land pilgrims are Greene's reflections on the fragility of empirical knowledge. Remember that he's talking about hundreds of billions of years in the future, when the earth would long since have been engulfed by the sun. Bless him for his optimism about the survival of the species, which, he suggests, would have to have planet-hopped even to confront this dilemma:
If astronomers in the far future have records handed down from our era, attesting to an expanding cosmos filled with galaxies, they will face a peculiar choice: Should they believe “primitive” knowledge that speaks of a cosmos very much at odds with what anyone has seen for billions and billions of years? Or should they focus on their own observations and valiantly seek explanations for an island universe containing a small cluster of galaxies floating within an unchanging sea of darkness — a conception of the cosmos that we know definitively to be wrong?

And what if future astronomers have no such records, perhaps because on their planet scientific acumen developed long after the deep night sky faded to black? For them, the notion of an expanding universe teeming with galaxies would be a wholly theoretical construct, bereft of empirical evidence.
That's where faith comes in handy, as with us who still tell our primitive stories about stars in the night and empty tombs.

Halfway Ride

Sign on aerial tramway cars at the Mount of Temptation near Jericho. We St. John's pilgrims could figure out how they unloaded passengers at the halfway point but not how they loaded them.