We heard the sound before we saw anything. We were underground in the ancient stone tunnels beside the Western Wall (Jews prefer this name to Wailing Wall), and it was claustrophobic in the tunnels, but we heard the sounds of celebration advancing, and then the Bat Mitzvah appeared--a 13 year old boy arriving at maturity, carrying the Torah at the front of a HUGE procession of relatives and friends. He looked impossibly young to me, and he walked by our group as we pressed against the cold stone, followed by his proud father, his family and a whole crowd of beautifully dressed women singing, wearing 4 inch heels as they danced down the uneven passageway.
Partway down the tunnel, our guide, David, a Messianic Jew, told us that the "women's section" of the underground tunnel was ahead of us, and the women of our group were invited to step in and see what was going on. We did, but only got partway into the room, which was filled, packed, stuffed with all those women from the passageway--100 or more in a tiny room, ululating (google it!), and looking down through glass walls on the Bat Mitzvah who was surrounded by hundreds of men as he prepared to read his section of Torah aloud for the first time as an adult.
It was both ancient and contemporary at the same time--a celebration of maturity, the welcoming of a young man into his role as adult in the community. The room below us was a sea of white kippas (yarmulkes) and dark suits milling around the hewn stone room that has been there for well over a thousand years. The intersection of faith and community, of history and story telling was before us.
We felt that again when we stood with our guide at the steps of the ancient temple facing the Mount of Olives. I really like our guide so much. Israeli guides need to to take a 2 year course of study, and pass several exams before they are certified, and David is truly amazing. In any case, he said in his inimitable fashion, "There is zero chance that Jesus did not walk here," which meant, of course, that Jesus DID walk here, that my walk up the temple steps may have intersected and crossed over the places where his feet had been.
Everywhere I go in this city of Jerusalem, bible stories come alive. As we stood warming our hands in front of a small fire lit outside an Arabic cafe, drinking thick Turkish coffee brewed with aromatic cardamom, Bishop Neil told us that he had heard someone theorize that Peter's denial of Jesus at the time of crucifixion occurred as he warmed his hands at the fire. Perhaps Peter didn't want to leave the warmth of the fire, perhaps he never intended it to become a denial the way it did.
We understood that. We have been literally freezing all day, soaking wet and walking over 7 miles as we went to museums, walked under tunnels, visited the Western Wall, walked outside the Dome of the Rock where no Christian is permitted entry. The tiny garbage can fire, the warmth of mint-muddled tea and Turkish coffee, gave us enough comfort that we would have given up things to remain there. What things? I don't know, but we had real difficulty leaving that tunnel cafe and heading out into the snow and rain and wind. Hands and toes froze. I ended up buying a pair of gloves at the Columbia store in the new mall located nearby after my leather gloves split at the seams. We were so cold, so tired, and our agenda has been ambitious, to say the least. What would I give up to be comfortable? I could think of many things.
Walking resolutely on, we talked amongst ourselves--how would Jesus have dealt with this kind of weather? It must have happened at some time in his life. But there were no hot showers, no wam fuzzy socks, no Columbia brand gloves, no North Face, no central heating. And that was the least of his worries, I imagine. Because he continued through all the challenges he faced and continue used on his path to Jerusalem, toward the place of the Skull, the place of crucifixion.
Tomorrow we visit Bethlehem. Can you believe it? It is our only 'passport day' when we must carry our passports or we will be denied entry. Bethlehem is in the West Bank under Palestinian rule, and there is great fear about what people might be led to do in the place where Jesus was born, where his story and our stories really come alive.
The greater the difficulty we face because of our faith, the more challenging it is to claim it as our own. Today has been a day where we have seen the beauty of claimed faith in the flushed face of a 13 year old boy, where we visited the Western Wall and saw people pass through security gates just so that they could pray, where we saw clusters of riot gear and heavily armed soldiers guarding the spaces where people ate and shopped, where Muslims prevented us from carrying our bibles or using the word "temple" in public as we stood outside their mosque on the former Temple Mount.
How much does my faith mean to me? What am I prepared to do to defend it or claim it? How much of the story am I willing to tell and how much of the history do I claim as my own?
Jerusalem raises more questions than I can answer right now, and as tired as I am, I know that I am going to be figuring out the answers for a long time. It isn't just that Jesus has walked here; now I have walked here too. The dust of my rabbi, Jesus, surrounds me and claims me.
It is 10:30 pm now, and only 3:30 pm where you are. Even the time difference is challenging, but I have managed to adjust. I pray that you are comfortable and warm. I pray that you are surrounded by those who love you. I pray that the dust of the rabbi Jesus covers and claims you as well.
Blessings and peace to all. Our friend Paul is much better-thank you for your prayers!