This morning I went from the absolute sublime to the confusing to an old-fashioned scheduling conflict — all among the holiest of sites.
Yesterday, Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher — arguably the holiest site in Christendom — had been a crowded chaos of visitors, all trying to elbow into holy space. I was told that the church is opened early — by a Muslim family entrusted with keys Christians do not trust to one another — and that morning twilight would probably be a better time.
And it was.
I came into the church’s court a little before 5:30, and could immediately hear the chanting. An Orthodox priest and four monks stood before one of the many altars, offering a full-voiced liturgy that swelled and filled the great dome above. A dozen pilgrims sat, knelt, stood, bowed before the space commemorating the crucifixion. I touched the space unheeded; the chants wrapped themselves around me, and it no longer mattered upon which square inch salvation came — it mattered only that God’s praises were being expressed with a transporting beauty.
I had also been told that the Dome of the Rock — Islam’s third most holy site — was open to non-Muslims between 6:30 and 10:00 each morning. To get there, I would have to once again pass by Judaism’s most holy site, the Western Wall. Yesterday afternoon, there had not been too many praying at the wall, and yet those who were there seemed to express a universal human yearning. I had found it moving to stand before this ancient and honored structure, pressing it with hand and head, leaving some of my own yearnings written on a piece of paper wedged into the stone. And so I expected that early morning here would also and again bring up that same sense of well-being.
But this time, it didn’t.
Again, I heard the men before I saw them — but instead of lofted melody, it sounded more like a surging roar. The men’s court was completely filled with a pulsing mass of worshippers, some waving their arms in ecstasy, others dancing in small swirling circles, many wrapped in the Israeli flag, most of them singing and shouting in a cacophony of what I can only say struck me as violent joy. “Joy as when men divide the spoils,” Isaiah says (9:3). A place within me felt that I should share their joy, or that I should at least appreciate it. But instead I found it frightening. I don’t know what they were celebrating, but it seemed to ooze with testosterone — like players revving up for a football game. It felt to me like they were celebrating, not God, but themselves.
I can’t reject the idea that my view is effected by my experiences with the suffering of Palestinians; and it may well be that my general discomfort with any mixture of religion and overt nationalism has colored my perspective. Still, they roared. They roared.
It turned out the Dome of the Rock would not open until 8:00, too late for me, as our bus was leaving at 8:30. We spent the day moving north through the West Bank. At Nablus, an Orthodox abbot with a long gray beard and a short pony-tail showed us Jacob’s Well, and we listened long for the splash made by water falling 45 meters after being poured back in. Then we cranked the handle long and hard to pull a bucket-full up, and shared a drink, just as Jesus did with a Samaritan woman. The mountain on which you worship does not matter, he told her. “God is spirit,” transcending holy sites (John 4:21-23).
Then we crossed the street to visit the Balata Refugee Camp–the source of the mural above. We met Abdullah, who has returned from studies abroad to help run the camp’s community center; and Mahmoud, who came back from a career in the United States to operate a counseling center serving generations who have suffered the repeated violence and ongoing privation of refugee life. And the self-sacrifice of these two Muslim men reminded this Christian that what we do on behalf of others, and the Spirit in which we do it, is so much more important than what we cling to for ourselves.