When I was a little girl, my mother used to sing in church.
There is one song I remember her soprano best by…
Lift up your gates and sing…
The refrain has played over and over in my head for two days. On top of the music and lyrics, snippets of scripture recite themselves with the same persistence…
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…
how often would I have gathered thy children together …
Obviously, I’ve been affected by our visit to Jerusalem, Jerusalem.
(It has to be said or sung twice.)
Our time there yesterday was spent in the company of three business associates: one, a practicing Jew who had been born and raised in the city; another, born and raised in London as a “Zionist”, and the third, a young husband and father from Tel Aviv who describes himself as “non-practicing”. Our guides, though not professional tour operators were better than that: they were friends and they were local, thrilled with the opportunity to take Dale (whom they regard highly) and myself on a tour of their making.
We began with a side trip to the village and church where traditionally Elizabeth gave birth to John. A short drive later we visited a number of spectacular vantage points surrounding Jerusalem. Layers of history were evident on every road and rooftop; the most recent development being the wall under construction separating Israel from Palestine; effectively stopping terrorists, they said, but proving intensely controversial. From one of these vistas, our most devout Jewish friend identified “the Mormon University” on a hill in the distance which we recognized as BYU’s Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies and Dale said, “Really — well, you know we are Mormon.” They actually had no idea and asked many questions after that, answered brilliantly by my amazing husband.
Eventually we were escorted through the labyrinth of the Old City, beginning at Jaffa Gate. The enclosed lanes paved with stones so worn by the feet of men that they are polished to a slippery shine, are lined with shop after shop hawking all kinds of goods and food. I was a prime target of the keepers: a gaily-dressed, middle-aged woman wearing a broad-brimmed hat and a dazzled expression, trailed by a middle-aged, American-type wearing no hat, but a camera bag and khakis with pockets. I did end up buying a little — for less than they hoped, since my man is also a salesman. Our biggest purchase and bargaining triumph was a full nativity set hand-carved from olive wood – of which there were many throughout the market – but this one was truly unique and by far, in my opinion, the most exquisite: a future family treasure.
Before doing much more, we ate in the palm-treed courtyard of the Austrian Hostel; the voices of children, birds, and bells as backdrop while armed soldiers loitered on the street outside. Our hosts discussed with us the modern history of their nation; particularly their take on contemporary affairs. This made for riveting conversation of course; primary sources with no professional journalistic or political spin. It was also touching, if not sometimes curious, to listen to their New Testament tales. Our Jewish friends were hoping to please, if not instruct us, with what they knew about Jesus. Some of their accounts were laced with fascinating oral tradition, such as a version of the betrayal of Christ, which had him escaping and seeking sanctuary at a Jewish synagogue for several days before his final capture and trial.
Making our way back to the market, they led us through the Via Dolorosa (which is traditionally the path Jesus took carrying the cross to Golgatha), including each “station”, and into the The Church of the Holy Sepulchre where they insisted (“no option” they said) that we stand in line with the pilgrims and pay our respects to each site, including the rock they say he was crucified on and the tomb he was buried in, which of course we did. Dale and I knew what to expect there, so were not disoriented with the environment which is completely foreign to our own faith, but found that we were moved by our observance of the pilgrims and our consideration of the tumultuous history of the site. We could not help but wonder at the emotional depth under-girding this building. Even today, it is strangely controlled by six different Christian denominations, their piece of the pie literally carved out of the square footage; and yet, the church is ironically opened each morning, as it has been for generations. by two different Arab families: the first holds rights to the keys and the second, to the door itself. The truce maintains the peace, but not the facility since no one can do anything without permission of everyone else.
Our hosts, gratefully, soon led us away from the crowd to an unadorned room with an entrance to a small cave that we had to bend over to enter and then use our cell phones to illuminate. He explained that experts identify that cave as representative of what the tomb was really like – if it not the actual tomb itself. Interestingly, no one else was paying any attention to this corner of the church, so we took our time becoming Peter and John, Mary and the other women.
We eventually exited our private reverie and joined the throng inching its way to the Edicule, a marble-enclosed shrine over the traditional burial site. Just as we got to the head of the line, a large group of Armenian tourists broke into a hymn, their harmonies reverberating off the domed Rotunda. A bossy Coptic Orthodox priest barked and gestured that it was our turn. Followed by one of our friends, who himself had never been there, we reverently entered the tiny room. Filled with candles, incense, gold, and marble (hardly recognizable as a cave or rock anymore) we instinctively felt it was not the actual site of Jesus’ resurrection. However: the devotions of the human heart deposited in that space (voiced just then by the Armenian believers — increasing in volume as other pilgrims spontaneously joined them) overwhelmed us and we knew these intangibles made the spot holy.
Our friends let us move at a relaxed pace after that, working our way towards the Wailing Wall: sacred remnant of the ancient temple where people recite their prayers and tuck in scraps of paper containing hopes and wishes. I personally found this the most profound experience of the day. It was after sunset by that time, and the moon spilled onto the courtyard and over the hundreds approaching and lining The Wall. A solo voice, from some rooftop or tower not far distant, sang a haunting melody that I could not identify as Hebrew or Arabic, but it was perfect underscoring to a living drama. Our friends invited me to go to the wall and I got as close as I dare, just feet away out of respect, and I watched the women (who worship separately from the men). It took only seconds before I too was weeping at the Wailing Wall, thinking about women everywhere; their common dreams and disillusions, my heart bursting with love for my ‘sisters’, especially those who live in this city-divided-by-four.
Later in the evening, returned safe and sound to our hotel in Tel Aviv, Dale and I debriefed over dinner – often with tears. We are still processing today, and expect to for some time to come. Clearly, it was a traditional, orthodox tour of the city, which was revealing and we may yet make time later in the week (we will be touring Northern Biblical Israel next) to see the Garden Tomb as visited by LDS tourists. I don’t know yet – and don’t know that we need to – we will see.
In the meantime, I have much to ponder before I can fully “muse” on the experience. I came away with an expanded “view” (not quite the right word yet) of the ebb and flow not just of history – but of humanity: how deep-rooted tradition, faith, and identity are continually mixed up, however sadly, with conflict, violence, and power. It is all here: a potent mesh of peoples and times with a PLACE — a tiny place, just a dot on the globe, where everything starts and everything will end and it all swirls like a tide pool that never really drains or goes anywhere but in circles. Even the children I saw behind curtained windows looked a little solemn.
Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem.
See? You can’t say it just once.
More photos from this day at Mona’s Musings on Facebook.
Hint of Romance
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