Live always at the edge of poetic possibilty, even in the face of severe prose. - Walter Bruggemann

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Monday, August 25, 2008

Lock the Holy Sepulchre Part 5

From an emotional stop at Golgotha I came down to the first floor once again right inside of the front doors. The Stone of the Anointing rests there and is well worn from the hands of many a pilgrim and pleasantly oiled with oil that they have poured on this stone. According to tradition is here that Jesus’ body was laid when he was taken down from the cross. Sunset was rapidly approaching which would begin the Jewish Sabbath. Joseph and Nicodemus quickly prepared his body for burial by anointing him with precious oils and wrapping his body in linen.

Here too I rested in front of the stone on my knees, my forehead upon the stone. I ran my hands over the stone soaking up what oils from the day that I could. I placed my fabric bookmark on the corner of the stone so that it could also soak up the oil that had collected in that area. Even now and then the aroma of the sweet oil still permeates my bookmark and upon the pages of the Bible where I had placed it.
Above the stone are hanging lanterns which are eternally lit and maintained by the sister churches of the Holy Sepulchre. There is a newer mosaic behind the stone which depicts the scene of Jesus’ body being taken down and anointed. The mosaic is too large to capture and to do it justice by camera. I focused on the three crying angels above the entire mosaic and upon Mary and Jesus’ faces. To me they tell the story. This entire area is a beautifully colored from the mosaic and the natural lighting from the outside.
By now it was approximately 11:30 pm. It was time to go to the tomb. I sat down outside of the edicule, the Chapel built over the tomb of Jesus. There was a woman inside of the tomb and a nun sitting outside of it and in front of it like me. I looked at its walls adorned with icons, the hanging lanterns and candles. It is laden with gold and marble. It was peaceful but had an energy that I can’t quite describe. Maybe it was leftover energy from all of the people who had patiently waited their turn to go in. Or maybe it was just an energy emanating from Christ’s resurrection. I could feel a cool breeze light upon my face, it felt so good.

After some time I got up and walked up to the tomb, paused, and then went inside. I left all of my belongings behind me. The antechamber is a small area with an altar in the middle which is where the angel kept vigil. It is called the Chapel of the Holy Angel. There is not one part of the crucifixion and resurrection story that is left un-memorialized. In fact in all of the Holy Land every aspect of Jesus’ narrative is celebrated. And, that’s good because each part of the story speaks to each one of us in many varied ways.

According to tradition it was the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea where Jesus was laid. The other woman in the tomb was praying out loud but in a hushed; she was speaking Greek. She prayed and prayed every now and then moving herself into a different position. We acknowledged one another with a bow of the head and a slight smile and then we adjusted for each other’s space.

My goal was to stay there at least, if not longer, until midnight. My mother died at midnight in March of 1986 which happened to be the midnight between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. At my former church I always sat vigil in our chapel from midnight until 1:00 am in honor of my mother. It didn’t matter the exact day, what was important for me was the time, midnight between Saturday and Easter.

I knelt for a while and then sat back inside of the tomb. This was a luxury. If you have been there you will know that the Greek priest is a pretty tight gatekeeper and will usher people in and out quickly who have waited so long to enter the tomb. Now, I had the tomb to myself (almost!) for as long as I wanted. No Greek priest was in sight! I sat back against the wall and thought about my mother and prayed for her and to her. I prayed for my father as well who twenty years earlier had also passed away. I began to doze off in the airless and candle lit tomb listening to the quiet prayers of the other woman and gazing upon the icon of Jesus lying on the stone in the tomb. Then, like Jesus calling to Lazarus, “Lazarus come out” it was time for me to also get up and come out. So I listened to what was in my heart and mind and I came out. I was healed from the experience and perhaps even brought back to life. It was 12:30 am.
The Holy Sepulchre comes alive with bells and sensors by the Greeks, Armenians, Coptics and Latins. From then until 5:00 am the Church was never silent. The Greeks celebrated mass for over an hour at 2:00 am and then at 4:00 am the Armenians also celebrated mass. It was beautiful to see and even more lovely to sit back, close my eyes and to listen to the sound. I left the Church after it had gotten light around 5:30 am. I was tired, not feeling well and completely satisfied with my experience in the Holy Sepulchre. It was an extraordinary way to say goodbye to Jerusalem.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Lock the Holy Sepulchre Part 4

After reflecting upon Mary’s tears and the sadness displayed in her eyes I walked slowly to Golgotha. Although the two are perhaps only two feet apart from one another I had never had the freedom to look up close or stand as long as I wanted in front of Golgotha. I realized the advantage of my solitariness at this place and took each step with care and prayer.

The altar area is so busy whether you’re alone or with hundreds of other people. It’s busy with glitz and gold, silver and angels, lanterns, icons and plexi-glass covered rock which is the rock of Golgotha where Jesus’ cross was anchored when it was raised. Inside of the altar there is a small hole that you can place your hand and touch the rock. This is what people stand in line for. It has sort of an X marks the area feel to it. (not the rock but the concept) I remember the first time that I saw Golgotha. It was not what I had expected at all, in fact my non-Christian friends who were with me kept looking intently at me waiting for me to have some sort of spiritual experience. Nada, none, nothing. I said to them, “this is so not my understanding of Jesus’ crucifixion”. What I didn’t realize then as I do now that this demonstration of piety, devotion, and reverence is the Orthodox Christians expression of sorrow and thanksgiving.
Like everything else that has changed for me in Jerusalem, I now understand the importance and significance of iconic representation of Jesus’ life. My attitude has changed as well. Icons are meant to transport you from the world of the mundane and material to the spiritual. There is something very mystical about them and icons have been venerated throughout the history of Christianity. I let my Protestant biases against all of this representation go. Poof! It felt good and less like I had to internalize and carry this imagery within me. I didn’t have to worry, all I had to do was to gaze upon this demonstration of love and be transported back in time.

I stood and looked so closely at the images and at the jewels and flowers that adorn them. There are small frescoes of angel heads with wings fluttering all around.

After looking closely at all there was to see on Golgotha I kneeled down in front of the cross on the marble mosaic floor. It was not long before I leaned forward and rested my forehead too on the cool mosaic. I stayed in that position for some time.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Side Trip

This photo was taken at the New Haven Lawn Club in New Haven, Connecticut

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Lock the Holy Sepulchre - Part 3

The Church is mine but I couldn’t decide where to go in the cavernous sanctuary.So I decided to start at the beginning of the end, the crucifixion of Jesus. I climbed the steps that I had climbed so often before. This time was different though. In the past I’d get in line waiting my turn to go up the stairs with the rest of the pilgrims. It’s difficult to be in a line of people. You need to hold on to the metal banister to pull yourself up and then at best, you climb at other people’s pace. The steps are not a height that is comfortable to climb; they’re taller than most so it is an arduous trip up the stairway.

You place each foot in a worn down footprint valley in the step and wait your turn to move up the staircase. You dare not stop because there are people in back of you. However this time I went slowly and prayerful. I wanted to be somewhere in the church and not just in this luminal space of neither here nor there. I made the climb with both intimidation and determination because I was unsure of my decision to face the night but resolved to push beyond my comfort level and go for it.

As I reached the top of the staircase I heard a familiar sound, one that I came to know and love and long for as I moved back home but it seemed a little out of place hearing it while I was in the Holy Sepulchre. It was the muezzin calling Muslims to prayer. I went to a small window in the Chapel of the Nailing of the Cross to listen to the call that was wafting in from The Mosque of Omar. The mosque sits across from the Exterior Courtyard and from the doors of the Holy Sepulchre. Funny, I’ve never noticed that little window before. But then again, I’ve never had 8 hours to be alone in the Holy Sepulchre and although during the day inside of the Church it was never noisy, in the shear silence now I could hear the sounds from the outside.
I sat down on a stone bench in the first Chapel. Tradition says that it is here Jesus was nailed to the cross. I examined the altar and then the mosaic above the altar. While I’ve stood in line in front of the altar many times and the mosaic to get to the rock of Golgotha, I had never took the time to really look at the mosaic. Jesus is nailed to and laying on the cross which has not yet been raised. Mary is standing over him and another woman is bending down next to him in tears. The women at the cross is not an unusual depiction, for it was the women who stood by and watched and it was the women who took Jesus’ body off of the cross and anointed him with oil after he had died.

However there was another person in the mosaic that I had never really paid much attention to. Maybe I had never even looked at or noticed him. It was that of a man scantily clothed with a turban scarf on his head. Sitting down on a rock at the head of Jesus was one of Herod’s executioners, the crucifier – the one who hammered the nails into Jesus’ feet and hands. He holds nails in one of his hands and the mallet is in the other. He looked outwards with a sad and distant look. For the next hour I read the accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion from the Gospels glancing at the crucifier. What could have been in his mind at that moment? Was his heart so hardened that he could actually and intentionally pierce flesh and bones with a hammer and a few nails?

So often on Good Friday we are asked to think about the times in our lives when we drove the nails in Jesus’ hands. How have our sins and shortcomings, our denial and betrayal contributed to the crucifixion? Tough questions. I sat in the Chapel of the Nailing of the Cross for an hour or so thinking crying and praying.

I’m not sure what begged me onward but I moved to Golgotha from the Chapel of the Nails stopping at a small altar with a life size statue of Mary; aptly named Our Lady of Sorrow because she looked as if she were crying. She is inside of glass casing but somehow people have left jewelry for her. Golden rings and necklaces, watches and bracelets are around the base, a few necklaces were placed on her praying hands.
This year I have come to understand more fully the devotion of the Orthodox and Latin churches and for the adoration of Mary. I think the Protestant church has lost out by not revering her more and incorporating her into the narrative. The look on her face was indeed sorrowful; her eyes were glassy and underneath her eyes appeared damp. To me she looked as if she was crying. I don’t know what it’s like to lose a child but her face gave me a good indication of the indescribable pain. I rested my elbows upon the altar and watched her for a good long time.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Lock the Holy Sepulchre - Part 2

I arrived a little early at the Holy Sepulchre before the doors were to be closed for the night. You could tell that it had been another busy day because the tourist energy that engulfs the sanctuary was beginning to wane. There were still some people spread throughout the holy place adorning the altars and chapels. Some were sitting silently with their eyes closed in prayer. Some were kneeling down with their Bibles in hand, reading for a moment and then glancing up to reflect upon the Word.

I walked around visiting each altar and side chapel knowing that some of them I would become very familiar with in the next 8 hours. I tried to envision were I would spend most of my time but then that seemed too planned, too controlled for me. I decided to go wherever the ruach, the breath and spirit of God would blow me. The priests were cleaning up for the day, the candelabras were scraped of the wax that had built up during the day and the taper boxes were replenished ready for the next. The day was winding down.
There is an eerie organ sound that echoes throughout the Holy Sepulchre. The organist is tuning the massive pipe organ one note at a time. I wasn’t sure if this was part of what happens each night or if I just happened to choose this night when the organ was in need. You could not see the sunlight any longer through the rotunda over the Sepulchre, Christ’s tomb. The sun had set and the sanctuary was dimmed.

Then, I hear a loud knock; the priest raised the doorknocker and let it fall on the wood of the front doors of the Holy Entrance. It reverberated throughout the stone walls and columned halls. It is 8:30 pm and one of the large forbidding doors is closed. People leave for the day and walk out. They take a moment to turn around and make the sign of the cross upon their forehead, heart and shoulders. The Exterior Courtyard outside in front of the doors is lit with dim artificial light and empty. What an unusual site that is to see the Courtyard void of pilgrims and picture takers, police and priests.

It’s so warm; I wondered how I was ever going to go the night with long sleeves and a shawl over my head. So I sat quietly on a wooden bench by the Holy Entrance hoping to catch the evening Jerusalem breeze that every evening cools down and relieves the heated stone. I thought about the thousands of people, of all faiths, who have crossed this particular threshold. I thought about the keeper of the keys, a Palestinian Muslim man who is part of the Nuseibh family who, since 1520 CE, under an order of Sultan Suleiman, has held the keys to the Holy Sepulchre. Several times I sat on that same bench to talk with him about the Sepulchre. He showed me places in the Holy sanctuary that not many people get to see. He recognizes me now when I go to visit. I thought, these are things that I’m going to miss about Jerusalem.

I can hear other Church bells ringing in the distance, another day has ceased and the stores and the streets of the Old City are closed up for the night. I can still see the sky outside and the stars have emerged, a planet is visible, it could have Venus or Mars maybe even Jupiter.

At 8:50 pm the knocker at the Holy Entrance bangs again loudly and the lights are turned out save for the remaining lanterns that are perpetually lit. The one remaining door is partially closed with only a foot of ‘escaping room’. Don’t think for a minute that I didn’t consider bolting, it was getting spooky and I wondered what in the world I had committed to now, why did I ever think this was a good idea. The priests who are on night watch gather at the door, there are three Armenians – one of them my friend, three Franciscans, and one Greek priest.

At 9:00 pm the door is shut and a loud imposing slam echoes throughout the Church. The sound of the latch being closed and locked from the outside was even echoing louder in my head. The small little door inside of the larger door is opened and the ladder that is used to reach the lock on the outside is now inside. The priests disburse except Fr. E who comes to me. No one will be back until 5:00 am when the small door is opened and the ladder is retrieved by Mr. Nuseibh. I am locked in the Holy Sepulchre and Fr. E said, ‘The Church is yours”.

More to come

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Lock the Holy Sepulchre

One of the dearer friends that I made this past year is an Armenian priest. He has been in Jerusalem for the past 15 years and has served in the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate of St. James as Seminary Dean and as an Archimandrite. Fr. E and I were classmates at Hebrew University. In one of our first conversations over tea he mentioned that sometimes people choose to spend the night in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He says that he often does when he is going to travel back to Armenia. The Armenian Patriarchate is one of the three major guardians of the Christian Holy Sites in the Holy Land and he knows the Church of the Holy Sepulchre intimately. The Holy Sepulchre houses Golgotha and the Tomb of Jesus Christ.

Cha-ching! My mind began to work overtime. Spend the night…in the Holy Sepulchre…the holiest place in all of Christendom? Wouldn’t it be a little spooky? Do they keep the lights on? What if I get tired? Can I sleep? Can I take pictures? Is there a bathroom? For the next few months as our friendship developed I kept entertaining the thought but then quickly changed the subject in my mind. It was sort of like watching a scary movie with your hands over your eyes but your figures spread apart so that you can see. I wanted to be there but then again I didn’t, after all, I’m not orthodox. And the Holy Sepulchre is a big place.

There are some experiences that, if we don’t take advantage of them, we will regret later in life. Sitting vigil in the Holy Sepulchre is one of them. As my sojourn in Jerusalem came to an end I told Fr. E that I wanted to stay the night. Being one of the calmest people that I know, he said, “OK. That is good. I’m on duty that night so I’ll be there with you.” I could bring my Bible and a journal, “don’t forget your camera” he said. But there is one concession that I had to make. Fr. E asked me to wear a long skirt or dress, cover my arms, and don a head covering. And so on July 29, an unusually hot night in Jerusalem, and feeling a little silly with a head shawl on, I spent the night inside of the Holy Sepulchre.

After the ceremonial closing of the doors Fr. E came to me and said, “The church is yours”. The priests disappeared and I was left with only two other women for a night of reflection and prayer. The next few blog entries will reflect upon my night.

The photo above was taken a few weeks before I spent the night. It shows the doors to the Holy Sepulchre from the outside plaza. For those of you who have been there, you'll notice that tourists and pilgrims have retreated for the night.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Nablus - Part 2

Balata Refugee Camp is located within the Municipality of Nablus in the West Bank. A few days ago I posted an entry and photographs on Nablus. Today's entry will give you some insight on Balata. It is the largest of all of the Palestinian refugee camps within the West Bank with over 21,000 residents. It was established in 1950 in 252 dunums of land. It is overcrowded with unemployment running about 80%. The major problems in Balata is sewage, water, overcrowding and privacy. Buildings are situated so close together that in some areas the 'street's are no more than 2 1/2 feet in width. For those who live in the central areas of the camp seeing sunlight is far from a reality. Military aggression is high often during the night.

Despite the conditions there are several healthy organizations and activities that the Camp council have initiated such as a Youth Theatre, a Dabke dance troupe that has travelled internationally, children's art workshops, a Woman's Internet center, and a Committee for the Rehabilitation for the Disabled. We visited one of the schools that was holding summer camp and then walked in the camp. Vestiges of UNWRA, United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees
Steps up to a home.
Walking through the streets A woman getting some air
This little cutie was sitting on the step as we turned a corner

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Culture Acuteness

I just entered the Twilight Zone. Or, maybe I left the Twilight Zone. Today is Sunday, or maybe Monday, I’m not sure. I look around an unfamiliar room and see my belongings and yet now my belongings seem out of place and unfamiliar to me. So it goes. I’ve arrived back in the United States and in particular in Connecticut, my home.

“Culture shock” is a phrase meaning that you’ve arrived in a new place so different from your reality that your entire body and mind are zapped, frozen, frightened, distressed because you are in a new culture. Well, I’m neither shocked or frozen or any of that. I prefer to think that I’m in “Culture Acuteness”. There are stark differences between Connecticut and Jerusalem. Lush and green not dry and brown. Thunder and lightning and not turquoise, sunny blue skies. Red brick and clapboard homes not Jerusalem stone apartments. Squirrels, not cats. And glorious lightening bugs. I’ve arrived home.

Totto, I knew that I wasn’t in Israel and the West Bank any longer when I was being driven by Connecticut Limo from JFK airport to Connecticut. There were three passengers including me. Tired and weary, all strangers we sat patiently as the driver readied himself to deliver us to our destinations. This was his maiden voyage. How do I know? First off he had directions hand written on notebook paper. Secondly, he smiled and asked if everyone was ok and ready to go. For a New Yorker that’s a little unusual. I wanted to yell, just get this blasted van moving I’ve been in transit almost 24 hours with the time change. But I didn’t. I wanted to make his first trip memorable.

I had glanced at his name tag as he turned around and smiled and his name was Nabil Akbar. To me he didn’t quite look Arab perhaps Indian. Shame. Who me? Racial profiling? Anyway, I knew that he was a Muslim because of the miniature Quran hanging from his rear view mirror like fuzzy dice. Our trip began. I was enjoying the beautiful green trees so full and abundant. I was thrilled to see the New York sky line from the Whitestone Bridge. I even enjoyed sitting in traffic because I could read the signs, they were in English! Then we approached the toll booth in Westchester.

We waited our turn in a lane and as we neared the booth, my stomach began to tighten. I thought, OMG, this guy is obviously going to delay my homecoming. We’re going to have to get out of the van, they’ll have to search the trunk, maybe even open our suitcases. He’ll have to show his ID card and we’ll have to pull out our passport. Really. I didn’t want to go through the humiliation for any of us in the van.

Nabil rolled the window down. He passed money to the toll taker. She took it without looking at him and we were on our way. WHAT????? She didn’t even look him directly in the eye. A soldier didn’t lean over with his rifle on his back and glare in at us. As we pulled away there were no soldiers standing there seeing us off. You see, we had simply passed through a toll booth and not a checkpoint. I was not suspect nor was the driver. I relaxed as did the muscles in my stomach, there’s no place like home.

I have moved back to the States now and will be searching for a Pastorate in the United Church of Christ. My sabbatical is nearly over but my thoughts and reflections are not. In fact, they will inform my life and ministry as long as my memory serves me. I still have stories to tell and photographs to post so I hope that you will continue to check in with me “From a Thin Place”. The next post in a day or two will be Nablus – Part 2, the Balata Refugee Camp.

God be with you till we meet again!