I had an experience early in 2017 that still comes back from time to time to poke my worldview, my fragile hold on “things church,” and my engagement with others in these polarized times.
It was my third visit to Israel/Palestine in seven years. The first two, under the auspices of Christian Peacemaker Teams, were invaluable, but this one was different. I agreed to be part of a group of mostly local people from Muslim, Jewish, and Christian faith traditions who committed to travel to Israel/Palestine together.[i] The participants met regularly in the months leading up to our departure to get to know one another’s faith practices and stories, as well as our understandings about current events in the region. We were cordial, respectful, and—yes—somewhat guarded.
However, nothing could have prepared me for the bonds and new perspectives that were formed “on the ground.” We met with imams, rabbis and Christian leaders in religious and civic settings, but we gained as much—if not more—from one another. Members of the group shared sacred stories at ancient sites important to Islam, Judaism, and/or Christianity, but we learned a much deeper reality at each of them; namely, that the three faiths, their scriptures and adherents, hold common beliefs, ethics, and hopes. Of course, one might learn this in a World Religions class, but my travel companions helped me to see it by word and deed—they lived it. In that setting, as we heard and witnessed even more about the struggles and injustices that are raging in that holy (and tragically unholy) land, the genuine curiosity, fresh insights, and mutual regard among my new friends seemed all the more profound and poignant.
All of this is background for what happened at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem midway through that two–week trip.
I readily confess to a certain amount of skepticism—no, make that cynicism—when it comes to religious sites purported to be “the place where it happened.” That was true in this case, as well. I was happy to see the famous church as a tourist, but I didn’t expect anything more.
The main basilica was under restoration, so the nave was punctuated with scaffolding. In the apse, circular steps led up to the chancel and main altar, which was separated off by a towering screen of gilded icons, and overhung with an array of ornate sanctuary lamps. The church was crowded with people threading their way around scaffolds and one another: tourists, workers, clerics leading Holy Land pilgrims. A cacophony of sounds and languages danced off the stone floors and columns.
Amid all this visual and aural overload, I noticed some people lining up at the chancel steps, where two Orthodox[ii] priests in elaborate vestments stood holding a gold chalice and a paten of bread. Given what I’ve already admitted about my somewhat sardonic take on it all, I’m still mystified as to what prompted me to join the line of people waiting to receive the Eucharist in that setting. Great cloud of witnesses? The healing of the nations? “When in Rome (or in this case, Bethlehem) …”? Whatever it was, I was certain in that moment that I wanted to receive Holy Communion in the Church of the Nativity.
Rather than lining up in single file, the people ahead of me clustered in groups, so I couldn’t see the procedure until it was my turn. At the top step, I faced the older of the two priests, gray-bearded and solemn–faced, holding the chalice. To his right, a younger cleric held the plate. I suppose their positions might have been a clue, had I been thinking. In any case, I took a piece of bread and extended it toward the chalice, intending to partake by intinction.
In a split second, the older priest’s free hand shot up to cover the chalice. His resounding “NO!!!” echoed through the chancel. Glaring at me, he jerked his head at the younger priest, and the two of them strode off.
I stood there stunned, aware of the people waiting behind me. When I turned to face them, they stared at me silently and gradually dispersed. My bewildered embarrassment quickly spiraled into hurt and anger. Apparently, by some unknown ecclesiastical standard which my adrenaline-flooded brain judged as rigid and archaic, I was out of order, unworthy, and had profaned the sacrament.
“WHO NEEDS THIS, ANYWAY?!” I spouted. I was tempted to fling the piece of still–dry bread across the stone floor.
When I stepped back into the crowded nave, I saw a few of my female travel companions. I wasn’t aware that my eyes were tearing up, but they noticed, and asked what had happened. They listened, and I calmed down in their presence. Holding the bread in my open hand, I said, “So what am I supposed to do with this?”
One of them, a Christian, replied simply. Quietly. “We’re here.”
I looked at their faces, conscious of how far we had come together in the last several days. I loved them in that moment, and heard myself say, “In my tradition, we share the bread and say, ‘This is the body of Christ, broken for you.’” Then, I passed that ragged piece of bread to the co-traveler next to me. Without hesitation, she broke off a corner and the rest made its way around that intimate circle back to me. Each and together, we ate.
I began by saying that the experience has affected my worldview, my life of faith, and my engagement with others. And that’s true. But the memory returns with a lingering sense that it’s not done with me yet.
In the more immediate aftermath, my processing was stuck in the negative. Whatever the explanation[iii], I couldn’t get past what those priests did, how they did it, and the irony of being turned away from the sacrament directly above the grotto where they professed Jesus had been born. I equated the experience with all the egregious actions and attitudes I was witnessing not just in Israel/Palestine, but around the world and around me. I saw it as just one more example of discrimination against “the other” couched in pious God-language , by government leaders, institutions, religious bodies (including the Reformed and Christian Reformed churches), and individuals—church people! “Who you are, what you look like, how you talk, whom you love, how you vote, your religion, your interpretation of scripture, how you conduct your life of faith—you offend God, you don’t belong, we don’t want you here.” Frankly, I was tempted to be done with anything and anybody, including the church, who would deny their affirmation, their “cup of blessing,” to those who don’t meet their standards. WHO NEEDS THIS, ANYWAY?!
I’ll admit, I still go to that negative place sometimes, and I believe that exclusionary attitudes and practices carried out in the name of Jesus should be challenged. But my righteous indignation faces me in the mirror before long. Those priests, those people … this woman. Ouch.
As time has passed, though, I’m able to focus on what happened in that small circle of women. What they did was not a denial of our differences; rather, they held those differences, honoring and entering into a ritual that they understood was holy. Far from eating the bread “in an unworthy manner” (ala an indignant Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians) they redeemed a painful experience into something sacred.
But did they? Or better put, did they? I’m not convinced that any one of us was a conscious agent of that mystery. What made my friend say those two simple words? Could she have known where they would lead? Could I, or the others? It all seemed to happen not by intention, but instinct. We simply found ourselves there, and in that moment, the body of Christ was discerned and manifested in a far deeper and broader sense than I had ever experienced.
When the memory comes back now, I wonder what else it has to teach me in the challenges du jour. The path from “NO!!!” to a wider circle of beloved-ness despite fundamental differences may be a worthy, even sacred, journey, but sometimes I still want to toss the invitation aside and be done with it all. It doesn’t seem worth the potential conflict, hurt and disillusionment, especially given the possibility that the destination is unreachable.
And yet, something or someone brings me back from my jadedness and anger, and I realize how much I’m still invested in this thing called church. Recent decisions made at the RCA General Synod, for example, give me hope that we’ll find our way together toward a wider circle around an ever-expanding table, with a cup of blessing for all who would come—”We’re here.”
How are we to discern the body of Christ? Like my friends in that teeming church full of different voices, different beliefs, I want to be generous, to be open to transcendent mystery, to be a co-traveler. I want to listen for those words of grace, perhaps even speak them one day.
[i] The original idea for this trip was conceived by John Paarlberg and others in the New York Capital District, who agreed early on to engage the expertise of Marlin, Sally and Joshua Vis. Although this was their first experience coordinating an interfaith travel group, the Vis family’s years of leading seminars in the region under the auspices of the Reformed Church in America proved invaluable.
[ii] The church property is primarily owned and controlled by the Greek Orthodox Church, with lesser ownership by the Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic churches. Other Orthodox faith bodies (Coptic, Syriac) want their say, as well. Sometimes the Palestinian police have had to break up clerical skirmishes! (Not much room at the inn, I guess.)
[iii] I learned later that in the Greek Orthodox Church, only the priest is allowed to touch the Communion elements, must place them directly in the worshiper’s mouth, and may only administer the sacraments to Orthodox Christians. Presumably, my attempt to receive by intinction labeled me.