Day 4: On which we don't understand much
It is Sunday. Some hardy souls are up at dawn to witness the different denominations worshipping, each using their own liturgy, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We are too tired for this, or not committed enough, or perhaps just not drawn to the idea of 'witnessing' worship.
Instead we sleep in, missing breakfast, but getting up just in time to walk to St George's Anglican Cathedral for communion. There are two congregations here, the first Arabic speaking (9.30am) and the second English speaking (11am). Since we arrive in time for the 9.30am service we worship with the Arab congregation. The service and the surroundings are a strange mixture of the familiar and the faintly exotic. The organ music, the pew sheets and the temperature are all redolent of rural Suffolk. (I make a mental note that one should always wear something warm to church, even in a hot country.) Much of the service, though, is in words we do not inderstand. I wonder whether parts of our BCP services (even our Common Worship services) back home are equally unintelligible to newcomers. There is plenty of time for wondering about such things, particularly during the sermon, which is not shortened to cater for those who don't understand the language. It's funny to notice myself gazing at the preacher with what I imagine is an attentive look on my face while my mind gradually wanders off to other places. You can only feign attentiveness for a certain length of time when you don't understand a word. Again, I wonder about how some of my sermons come over to newcomers. However I suddenly realise that it isn't quite true that I don't understand a word. During the gospel reading I keep hearing a phrase I know: "Salaam Aleikum' Then it gets repeated again in the sermon. Someone is repeatedly greeting someone else in this reading. I rack my brains. Eventually the preacher gives a brief resumé of the sermon in English, and I realise that of course it's the resurrection account in John's gospel where Jesus comes amongst the disciples and every time he meets them he says says "Peace be with you" - "Salaam Aleikum" We are encouraged to sing and speak in Arabic, having been given a phoneticised version of some of the words. I'm not sure how well we do, but it is an impressive object lesson in using liturgy well to enable two very different groups of people to worship together. We pass the peace and hear the words again "Salaam Aleikum". We feel welcome.
After the service we warm up in the sunshine and drink cardamom-scented Arabic coffee. We chat and admire the garden and its tortoise very Englishly.
There is, however, no sabbath rest for us. It's back on the coach for a visit to the Israeli Museum where we have to spend what seems an inordinate length of time in baking heat looking at a blindingly white (I have forgotten my sunglasses) kind of model village-style Jerusalem. Khalil is very enthusiastic about getting us to make the most of it to understand the layout of the city in its various phases. I'm starting to wilt. I feel slightly guilty that I can't really take it all in.
We also see some replicas of Dead Sea Scrolls and learn something about the Essenes, who seemed a fairly strange bunch. Apparently one of the pieces of scroll on display is not a replica, but I'll be darned if i can tell the difference.
We lunch at the Notre Dame Centre where the large Pope photographic display hasn't quite caught up with the new regime. Then onward to the village of Ein Karem where we climb a lot of steps - I lost count but I think it was about 165 - to a church marking the site (perhaps) of Elizabeth and Zechariah's summer residence in the hills. This is supposed to be the place where Mary (3 months pregnant) came to see Elizabeth (6 months pregnant) and then stayed with her for 3 months. So she would probably have been there for the birth.
Khalil talks about the timings involved, particularly the times of year during which people would have lived in the hills - perhaps April to October - descending to the valley November to March. He has worked out from this the most likely dates for the birth of Jesus and John the Baptist. I'm interested but find it all quite confusing. What's the matter with me today? All I really want to do is look at the view, imagining that this was what Mary saw. I don't want facts. It's a glorious view, that's all.
What a view it is. And it's beautifully breezy up here. A good place to be pregnant, whether in the wobbly, nauseous first trimester or the uncomfortable, aching third. And how good to have a friend, a cousin, also pregnant under very strange circumstances. No wonder Mary's soul magnified the Lord. I don't understand much today, but perhaps I can understand something of Mary's feelings, and Elizabeth's. There's a time while you are waiting for your children to be born when everything seems possible, before the exhaustion of sleepless nights and the responsibility for a tiny helpless human. It's a time of angels, and praising, and wonderment. This is the view Mary saw as she felt her baby move for the first time in her womb. That I can understand.