King David. What a guy!
I was pretty stubborn as a kid. Yes… me. Once, I threw a fit at my Sunday school because I didn’t agree with the directors’ choices at my parish’s Christmas pageant held during Mass on the Sunday before Christmas. I wanted to play the part of King David… after all, MY name is David and I should be allowed to be the KING. The directors had already named three kings, and wanted me to be an angel.
I DIDN’T WANT TO BE AN ANGEL! I WANTED TO BE KING!
So the Christmas pageant had three kings, and King David, played by me. There was no use arguing with me that King David was never at the manger scene, as I later came to find out.
David was heralded as the greatest king of Israel. He was the shepherd, the psalmist, the fair and mighty, though meek and humble. He was a sinner, and led by example with his repentance. He danced (naked) before the Ark of the Covenant, and united the kingdom of Israel against all of its foes.
When your name is David, then King David becomes one of your heroes, just by way of association.
“Step through.” The muffled voice of the overhead loudspeaker booms.
What the…? Where? How? Huh? And more importantly, Why? The Israeli checkpoint into the West Bank is intimidating to say the least. Guards behind blast doors look at you through industrial partitions that make you feel like you are some strange science fiction medical experiment. There is no clarity of direction leading you through the light blue walls that jig and jag, in what seems to be an effort to instill confusion.
I’ve heard the horror stories of this facility, and feel cold while walking through it. It is a coldness I have only felt once before in my life, when I walked for the first time through Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp outside of Munich, Germany. The checkpoint has a reputation for intimidation. The people who desire access in and out of Palestine can be stopped for hours, without explanation, sometimes without purpose, just to remind the Palestinian people (as if they could forget) “WE, YOUR OCCUPIERS, ARE IN CONTROL”
People making the crossing can be taken to another room, and forced to strip search, or perhaps a body cavity search. They could wait for hours, and even though they have all the proper passes and forms, they can be denied entry… on a whim.
I have a gold pass… an American passport. I am allowed through the screening without even a second glance. I try to find my way through the facility like a rat in a cage. I look around, knowing that somewhere, BIG BROTHER is looking over me. They didn’t build this to intimidate United States citizens, but it works.
I came to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the birthday of the Church. On this feast, the apostles saw the Holy Spirit descend upon them in tongues of fire, and they left the isolation and fear of the Upper Room, to go out into Jerusalem to preach the good news of Jesus Christ.
This feast is also associated with the Jewish feast of First Fruits. The period of time after Passover is considered a period for Jewish people to grow in holiness and meditate on the Torah, which ends with the celebration of the coming of the harvest (and yes this is harvest time in Israel, even though someone like myself, who lives in the Northern Hemisphere, expects the harvest to come in September.)
There are rich and beautiful parallels learned by Christians when they understand the correlation to the original Jewish festivals. The time after Easter/Passover is a time for us to focus on the meaning of the Resurrection, only to go forth as new fruits of the Resurrection, and celebrate the meaning now discovered in the Spirit.
Technically, Pentecost was yesterday. So technically, I was in Jerusalem for Pentecost, but I did not arrive in time to participate in any of the processions to the Upper Room. I was at Mass in Ibillin yesterday, (otherwise I never would never have been able to Mass in Ibillin, which is where I am staying while in Israel), and the train ride took me into Jerusalem very late in the afternoon. Today however, Monday, is considered a public holiday for the feast of Pentecost, so I made my pilgrimage to the Upper Room today.
The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus was born in the city of David. The other Gospels do not say where Jesus was born. We don’t know that Jesus wasn’t born in Bethlehem, but the emphasis that Luke puts on the place of birth reinforces what we have learned in Matthew’s gospel that Jesus was a descendant of David.
Whatever Bethlehem was in Jesus’ time, there is very little of it left today. The provincial town has been through two millennia of construction and destruction. Still we take from Luke that Jesus’ birth was in a place of low esteem in Bethlehem. Over the centuries, there is one spot, which has been marked as the place of Jesus’ birth. The spot has been fought over, and fought over, and fought over again. Churches have been built over it, destroyed, and rebuilt. Now, the spot is mutually controlled by the Greeks Orthodox, Armenian, and Roman Catholics in a deliberate schedule of confusion.
A spot on the floor under the altar of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Nativity is a little grotto where it is said that Jesus was born. Shortly after Jesus’ birth, he was laid in a manger, which is marked by stone corner of the cave, just a few feet away.
I will share with you my thoughts as I left the checkpoint into the West Bank.
“Wow. That is a big wall. That is a really big wall. What is it for I wonder? Some kind of prison? Wow… it goes… a long way. It goes… oh… along the entire border.”
Immediately, images of movies that I watched when I was in elementary school came to mind. At the time, we were intrigued about the stories of East Germans who crossed over the wall into West Germany. It was always so easy to identify who the bad guys were in the movie. The bad people were the ones who built the wall. The ones who didn’t trust the other side.
What a shock it was to me, with my childhood memories, to find the words graffitied all over the wall to the West Bank, “American Money. Israel Wall. Palestinian cement.” Or my personal favorite, “American Money. Palestinian apartheid.” Does this mean… that I am one of the bad guys?
Just like the graffiti left on the Berlin Wall, some of the graffiti on the wall to the West Bank is quite clever. Comments such as “An eye for an eye and we’ll be blind!” and “Place bomb here” remind me of something I heard a long time ago, “Oppressed people tend to be witty.”
And Palestinians are very oppressed.
I’d like to show you the satellite photo of the checkpoint in Google Earth, but for some reason BIG BROTHER won’t let me. The Google corporation, either by political mandate, the choice to ensure the safety of people who cross the border, or by the access given to them by those who control the satellites, has provided a picture of the area that has the checkpoint covered by clouds. I can only show you the pictures of the wall that I took from inside the West Bank. If you have downloaded Google Earth onto your computer, you can view the photos by clicking here.
My real reason for heading into the West Bank is to go to Bethlehem, as I was instructed to do by Fr. Naylor from Hong Kong. I have set my sights on visiting Bethlehem University, the only accredited Catholic University in the West Bank. It is run by the La Salle Brothers who founded the university in 1973 at the request of Pope Paul VI during his visit to the Holy Land in 1964. It is an amazing place.
It is a beacon of hope in what is quite evidently a ghetto of Palestinians trapped in a cage of poverty and despair. The University is attended by 70% women. That would be of course because the female population of the West Bank is around 70%, a small fact that doesn’t make the news too often. The remaining men are the ones who haven’t been killed, haven’t been thrown in prison, and haven’t emigrated.
The University has a student body of 2,600, give or take the couple students who stop coming because they are taken by Israeli soldiers during raids that come in the middle of the night. They are thrown into prison, and sometimes they come out, and return their schooling in the hopes of finding a future brighter than the one that is prescribed for them. The student population is 31% Christians (even though 2% of Palestine is Christian), and the remaining students are Muslim.
The cost to educate each student is around $3,500 per year. Of that cost, the students pay 12%, still exorbitant amount for the average salary of a Palestinian in the West Bank. The remaining sum is provided for by scholarships, donations, and the Vatican.
My very first stop this morning was to the Upper Room. I feel a little like I'm at Disney World, because I know that this isn’t the “real” upper room of the apostles. This is a Byzantine era construct that was made to commemorate the approximate place where the Apostles celebrated their last meal with Jesus.
I am here to recall Pentecost, the celebration of the birthday of the Church. I take a moment to sit and pray in this space which has been used by Jews, Christians, and Muslims over the centuries.
Quiet. No spinning wind. No tongues of fire.
But then it hit me. It was all about FEAR wasn’t it? The apostles sat in a room like this for months because they were afraid. Ok… maybe a better picture of those 50 days is needed. They didn’t just sit. They walked around a bit. They sometimes had to go out and get lunch. It wasn’t like there were armored tanks surrounding the building. They weren’t refugees of a sophisticated manhunt like we have today. The Upper Room was their base of operations, and they spent time here trying to figure out what to do with the amazing events of the last 50 days.
To see the Google Earth pictorial of what the commemoration of the Upper Room looks like click here. The Apostles had a safe haven. Here they could have maintained the status quo. They weren’t shaking and nervous, they didn’t jump every time the cat pounced on a rodent or a ball of string. They just lacked the courage to go out, and be who they were supposed to be. They were confined, physically by these walls, which were a metaphor for the trappings of their mind which limited their sight, their vision, and their impetus to be.
They lacked courage. They knew that if they spoke up, if they raised a fuss, their fate would be the same as Jesus. Not seeing the particular advantage of death, they simply thought “Isn’t it safer to stay here where we won’t cause any trouble?” But then the dam broke, and the waters came rushing out faster than life. They had to go out, because they knew the consequences didn’t matter, they refused to be controlled and confined by the evil of society, the evil of the status quo.
Pentecost. The festival of first fruits. The Church was born as the first fruit of the Resurrection. What was planted in the tomb, has become reborn in the life of the Church.
My understanding of the Church has grown a lot during this pilgrimage, but here in the Upper Room, I clearly understand that the Church was not meant to stay in a building. The building, the Upper Room, was a place for the study, the contemplation, and the pacing back and forth thinking about what had happened. These were the laboring pains that gave birth to the Spirit, the courage to not be limited by fear, to walk out of the doors and speak about the love of God.
The Church today remains petrified when we remain in our buildings, when we let fear dictate our movements. The Holy Spirit calls us to change things, to not accept the limitations of society, but rather to transform society by being in it, without fear.
Right below the Upper Room is the tomb of King David. This simple accommodation is not what you would expect to see as a tomb for the great King of Israel. It is nothing like a great Pyramid or Temple or palace grounds and churches throughout Europe. It is a small room, arranged for the prayers and meditations of the TENAK (the Hebrew Scriptures).
Yet again on this pilgrimage, I was led to reflect upon the meaning of death. I’ve seen so many tombs of religious and political leaders that it is hard not to think about one’s own death. Upstairs, the Christians celebrate the departure from comfort and certainty in the gift of Pentecost. Downstairs the Jews come and celebrate the life of King David. We are born (in a room), we live (go out from the room) and we die (end up in a room). What we do in between is what makes us who we are.
So I find myself deep in prayer again as I sit before the tomb of the man who made the name “David” great. Though not directly, I am named after him, and someday I will be… whoops… prayer interrupted. Israeli soldiers coming in, and going out. They don’t mean to disturb me, but I’m still not used to the endless number of semi-automatic rifles marching around on the streets of Israel, and I’m certainly not used to semi-automatic rifles in places of worship. I’m slightly offended, but I guess I am not supposed to be. All of these guns around Jerusalem are supposed to make me feel safe. I’d feel safer if they didn’t need to have guns.
After they leave, I have one last moment with the memory of David. Here lays his remains. He was a hero of mine. Yes, he was a solider and fought, but he was always the little guy and crafty enough to find ways not to fight when he could. Often, he also actually resisted the urge to kill his fellow man. He was a poet, a singer, a shepherd, a dancer, and a leader. He certainly is a hero of the Jewish people, and a hero of mine.
In David’s city, Bethlehem, I sat with a group of British pilgrims from Westminster and listened to some of the stories of the students and faculty of Bethlehem University. The student’s words were very clear.
“We want Freedom, that’s all.”
Ironic. I’m sitting here listening to this with a group of British pilgrims. Wasn’t America saying the same thing to England 250 years ago? It all seemed to work out in the end between our countries, and we’re all still friends, even if we don’t understand each other when we speak English.
Talking with these students, one begins to see how freedom shapes a person’s mind. One of the girls lives here in Bethlehem. She lives eight kilometers (five miles) from Jerusalem. The last time she was in Jerusalem was when she was five years old, fourteen years ago.
She has a father who holds a Phd. in Genetics, not a bad field of study these days. Unfortunately, there is no job to be had in the West Bank in Genetics, even the ability to teach Genetics, so he works for a bus company.
“I’m glad that the Israelis put up the wall. Even though it traps us in here, it makes it clear to the rest of the world what is going on here. We are trapped. And now the world can see it.”
“Being harassed, being trapped, affects your mind. Last summer I had the ability to go to Canada. It was the first time in my life that I was able to travel 4 hours and I was never stopped by the police or had to ask permission to go where I wanted. I didn’t know what to do. Eventually I learned, that I was allowed to want things. It completely changed the way I thought, the poetry I wrote, the way I saw the world. Now I live here, and I have been forced to put my mind back in the box. It is very difficult. The conditions they put on you can change the very way you think.”
I began to reflect on the way I think. I never think about limitations, I tend to think about possibilities. I respond to the injustices I see, because I have a history of seeing injustices overcome. I believe in peace, because I have seen how mutual collaboration has been beneficial to everyone, not just me. But these students, they have not been so fortunate.
I want to burst out of the walls that confine me, and launch into the mission of the Spirit like the Apostles did at Pentecost. I never want to be controlled by fear. I believe. And I do so, not because of belief in myself, but the belief I have in my heroes. Jesus, David, Ignatius, Francis, on and on. Heroes remind us that walls cannot contain the giftedness we are given in God. Pentecost is the breaking forth of that giftedness, that Holy Spirit.
I ask a question of the students. “Those of us working for peace and social justice have heroes that we like to name. I think of Mahatma Gandi, Nelson Mandela, Dorthy Day, and Dr. Martin Luther King. You are doing something very courageous be being here at Bethlehem University. Who would you say are your heroes?”
“… I would say… we have no heroes. There is no one to whom we can look to find inspiration. If we are lucky, we look inside ourselves, but the Israelis occupy us even there.”
Happy Birthday to you!
Happy Birthday to you!
Happy Birthday dear ___________!
Happy Birthday to you!
Today, I visited the sites of great births in the Christian tradition. The birthplace of David (Bethlehem), Jesus (Bethlehem), and the Church (The Upper Room). At each of these birthplaces, I whispered a little prayer, “Be born in me a sense of justice. To be a voice for those who have no voice. To live by courage, and not by fear.”
Birth is never easy. The sacrifices to bear them were great. And for those of us who are allowed to think about them, all of our heroes were born. It stands to reason that the heroes of today, and the heroes of the future, must also be born.
The song above (Happy Birthday) is sung every time a friend of ours reaches the memory of his/her birthday. What do you put in the blank when you sing the song?
What I want to put in that blank is the word COURAGE. When we can celebrate the birthday of a life lived beyond the walls of FEAR, I think we will have something to celebrate in every human being. When that day comes, we will celebrate the many heroes that we can truly be for each other.
And maybe those in the West Bank will once again be allowed to have heroes.