Fifth Letter, from Jerusalem


19 June 2016

Dear Family and Friends,

This Father’s Day turned out to be special.  I hugged my dad this morning and we wished one another “Happy Father’s Day.”  Then I left with a group of students and others for a tour of the Old City designed to take us to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and then to the Russian Mission in Israel, down the Via Dolorosa, and thence to the Pool of Bethesda compound, which includes the Church of St. Anne, the mother of Mary.  The Russian Mission houses some antiquities at the eastern extent of the original Sepulcher compound, some of which date to the time of Hadrian and others to the time of Constantine.  According to Christian tradition, Jesus walked bearing his cross on the “Way of Sorrow.”  If he did walk this route, he was several meters below the level of the current street.

Because today is Sunday, various masses being held by different branches of Christianity made some parts of the Sepulcher off limits to us.  These included the tomb itself and the traditional tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a first-century tomb.  But the Russian Mission was open, as was the Church of St. Anne, a simple stone basilica with marvelous acoustics.  It was there that the day turned extraordinary.  A Catholic priest (Irish, I think) asked our group to sing, and he suggested “Amazing Grace,” which we took up with pleasure.  Some of us harmonized, and when we finished we turned to see a group of pilgrims from Hong Kong sitting in the pews, some with their hands lifted.  We switched places to listen to them sing the “Alleluia” that I remember from childhood, which resolved into their own “Amazing Grace.”  That song is a good choice because its pentatonic scale and the long decay in the church enabled us to sing harmony with ourselves.  Then our crew sang again: “It Is Well with My Soul.”  We left as another company of pilgrims came forward, many of us in tears.  Seeing the archaeology of Jerusalem seemed rather prosaic after that experience.  I assume it’s the priest’s job—even if he’s self-appointed—to encourage groups to sing.  I thanked him just the same.

We were also able to get onto the Haram esh-Sharif (the “Noble Sanctuary” in Arabic), known to Jews and Christians as the Temple Mount.  We could not, however, enter the Dome of the Rock and we had to leave after only 30 minutes because noon prayers were beginning.  Still, that was a second good piece of the day.

For the past several years we have been staying at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem.  Our first night here, Kenny Lewis, a Samford music major, got permission to play the organ in the chapel, so after Vespers on Friday several of us had an old-fashioned hymn-sing.  Making music together has been part of this year’s Jerusalem experience like never before.

Jerusalem is holy to three religions, and for these and other reasons it evokes strong feelings.  As trained archaeologists, our group knows full well that no holy site can claim certainty for itself (note my habitual use of “tradition” and “traditional” in this letter).  Never mind.  Knowing that we are in the city where Jesus was tortured to death calls forth both grief and joy.  Some of us will go to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial today, which will draw out the same emotions for different reasons.  A solution that makes Palestinians citizens of their own state, for which I hope and pray, still feels years, maybe decades, away, but I anticipate that there will be joy on that day.  Then both Palestinians and Israelis will still have to figure out how to live together.

That’s the way it so often works I guess.  After the strong emotions comes the work of living.  I remember the day I received the letters informing me of my promotion to Associate Professor and the granting of tenure.  For awhile my face hurt from all the grinning.  Then I noticed that no one had volunteered to grade the stack of student papers on my desk, so after calling Laura and my mother, I got back to work.

Pray for the peace of Israel.

James

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