Sunday, December 21, 2008

Christmas in Jerusalem

Robin on the Mt. of Olives with Old Jerusalem and the Dome of the Rock behind her.

I hadn’t planned on being in the Holy Land that Christmas. I was there working during the second week of December and my schedule was to return to Florida on December 22.

But for some reason the boss told me to stay behind when he departed on the 22nd, and gave me several assignments at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I rebooked my ticket so I could head out and arrive at my sister’s house in Colorado on Christmas night.

My Israeli contact on this project was a huge, friendly, Sabra, a foreign ministry employee who was also, in his spare time, a decorated three star General. They have a lot of those in Israel.

Anyway, Mr. Sabra, another one of Robin’s numerous happily married admirers, helped her make appointments with all the right people and shepherded her through the complexities inside the chronically feuding Israeli government. In between work assignments, I took time to see the things in Israel that I had always wanted to see, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built in 326 A.D. by Helena, the mother of Constantine I, the first Roman Emperor to accept the Christian faith.

The Church is in the center of Old Jerusalem and is fascinating to see. It is a warren of nooks and crannies filled with candles and incense, darkness and dim light, dampness and stone, pilgrims and priests, and a confusing array of sects and the chapels they operate. It all looks in terrible need of repair, but this is a result of the feuding factions that control this ancient place. Within these walls, the responsibilities and shrines are divided among the Eastern Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolics, the Roman Catholics, the Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriacs, with the Patriarch of Jerusalem supposedly in charge of them all. Yet none of these sects controls the front door. The Turks decided long ago that the entranceway would be put in the charge of two Moslem families who still hold the keys to this day.

The sects within this Christian edifice regularly quarrel over it in a most un-Christian fashion. In 2002, a Coptic monk moved his chair from the sun into the shade and the Ethopians were so offended that a fistfight broke out that sent eleven people to the hospital. A few years later, somebody accidentally left open a door during Lent and the police had to be called in. This year there have been at least two fights between Greek and Armenian priests, leading one to beg the popular questions: what would Jesus do?

I was able to visit the Church several times, once during a late Thursday afternoon. When I left the building to walk out of the Old City I had my directions a little confused and got lost among the old streets. As I walked along trying to get my bearings, some Moslem children ahead of me turned and shooed me away. “Wrong place, wrong place,” they said. Turns out I had left the Christian quarter and was getting a little too close to the Dome of Rock mosque just before prayer time. I quickly turned back.

The next afternoon I asked Mr. Sabra to drop me off at the Israel Museum so I could see the Dead Sea Scrolls. You probably know that these were found by an Arab shepherd in caves near Qumran in 1947, and contain the only known surviving copies of Biblical documents made before 100 A.D. I spent a couple of hours in the museum and since it was December it was dark when I walked out and headed back to the Holiday Inn. “Safest place you can walk in Israel,” Mr. Sabra told me. “You walk right by the Knesset.”

The streets were dark and not many people were out walking. When I saw a man in the distance walking toward me with a camera bag slung over his shoulder, I felt relieved to see another tourist on the streets. But he never looked directly at me, as we closed the distance between us, and that made me nervous. Then, I saw him turn off suddenly and walk into the gates of what I later learned were the grounds of the Knesset. I might have heaved a sigh of relief at this point if I hadn’t noticed something odd as he turned. The thing he had slung over his shoulder was not a camera bag. It was a small gun on a strap.

I never walked so fast in my life.

At dinner, I told the group my story about running into the man with the gun. I had seen lots of military men and women in Jerusalem, slouching about street corners with their weapons slung over their shoulders. But what had worried me about the man I had seen that night was that he was wearing civilian garb. I learned from my friends that he was likely a Knesset guard who had checked me out, assessed that I did not pose a threat, and had gone on his way.

“But it was such an odd looking gun,” I said. “It was the size of a revolver but it was on a strap.”

Mrs. Sabra turned to Mr. Sabra at this point and said through her hummus, “Ah, that must be the new mini Uzi.”

“Um,” said Mr. Sabra reaching for the falafel: “I hear that’s a fine weapon.”

My colleague and I just looked at each other. Where but in Israel would people casually discuss the new mini Uzi sub machine gun over dinner with American guests? (I’ve since learned there is also a micro Uzi, but that is clearly a story for a different day).

I was finally able to head home to the States on Christmas Day. In line at the El Al counter I encountered another friendly feature of the Holy Land, the El Al security woman. She looked through my luggage and asked me if anyone had given me anything suspicious. When I said they hadn’t, she did not seem satisfied. “You are a Christian. Why are you not home with your family on Christmas Day? What would you be doing on an El Al jet on a day like this?”

I didn’t even ask her how she knew I was not a Moselm or a Jew. Things are so amazing in Israel I just let that pass.

“Madam,” I said with great respect. “I asked myself that very question today. But because of the rotation of the earth and the direction of my flight, I will actually be able to take this flight to London and then Chicago and then land in Denver where my sister lives and it will still be Christmas Day.” The uniformed lady shrugged and walked away, finally satisfied.

I must say I was glad to see her go. I definitely hadn’t wanted her to pull her mini-Uzi on me. After all those fistfights in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, she probably figured we Christians were a pretty dangerous bunch.

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