It's eerie at first – the amplified rising and falling of pitch.
A human voice?
A human voice.
I cock my head and strain to catch it underneath the other sounds of the waking city. Eventually, it crescendos to the foreground – the Muslim call to prayer. It’s shortly after 5 a.m. and I make a point to be outside to hear it.
Bethlehem's acoustics are perfect for this sort of thing – the vertical hills are a natural amphitheater and the masonry walls reflect sound as a mirror does light. This muezzin has a nice baritone and his prayers are minor-key without being mournful. I don’t understand a single word, but he sounds calm and hopeful and he draws me in to that same mood. He sing-prays for a few minutes as the breeze carries the first whiffs of baking breads, frying falafels, and diesel exhaust, and when his voice trails off it leaves an emptiness in the soundscape. Islam isn't my faith, but beginning each day with a time of spiritual centering is not a bad practice.
About an hour later it’s the Christians’ turn to make some noise as a cacophony of bells calls the faithful to the day’s first mass. There’s a celebration and a gusto to the ringing - they aren’t at all timid about waking up the neighborhood, in fact, that’s the intention.
God is popular, here. Bethlehem is, after all, the city of David - a writer of Psalms and favored King of the Jewish people. We’re just a stone’s throw from Jerusalem, where Muslims believe Muhammad ascended to heaven, and, of course, Bethlehem is the birthplace of Jesus, so all of us whose spiritual ancestry goes back to Abraham have a stake in this place. It’s why I’m here, too, to visit the sites where it all happened, and maybe find a deeper connection through the context of geography, history, and proximity.
Our tour of the Holy Land began in the north, within sight of the Lebanese border. We worked our way south by way of Nazareth, Caesarea, Capernaum and Jerusalem. We got our feet wet in the Mediterranean, the Sea of Galilee, and the Jordan River. We bobbed around in the slimy waters of the Dead Sea. We prayed at the Western Wall. We walked the Via Dolorosa, and visited the Garden Tomb and had our breath taken away under the soaring dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
I’m glad to have done it all. The holy texts take on new life after seeing the land where Jesus lived, the lake where Peter fished (naked, the old rascal!), and the known landmarks like the Mt of Olives and the Kidron Valley. To look upon the excavated foundations of the community of Capernaum and to sit inside the ruins of the synagogue and know that this is the place where Jesus taught and hung out, is a rather awesome thing to contemplate.
Awesome, but not quite mountain-top. I confess to feeling a spiritual detachment in most of the “holy” sites. Many are “traditional” rather than verified. “If it’s not here, it’s near”, or so the saying goes. Each of the sites has a commemorative church which one dutifully looks at, and they’re each a gorgeous and well-done monument to The Significant Thing that happened, but the problem is that there are so many of them, and our time at each one is compressed.
There’s so much to see in so little time. If one were to linger at each site, open a Bible, read the story while sitting in the place, and stay long enough to really absorb the surroundings, the trip would take months, rather than weeks, and unfortunately we don’t have that kind of time. That is the futility of chasing, or expecting, a “mountain top” experience on a Holy Land tour.
We settled into Bethlehem as our base for a week, and with the morning call to prayer complete, I sense we’ve been given permission to begin the day. The modern city of Bethlehem comes to life first, with all of the commercialism that a city needs: dry cleaners, auto mechanics, mobile phone dealers, KFC, etc.
Bethlehem’s old city occupies the high ground right behind our hotel, and wakes up a little slower. In the repeating cycles of destruction and rebuilding, the old city isn’t as old as one would like to believe, but still, a lot of it dates to the 1500s and pieces of the Church of the Nativity are a thousand years older than that.
The old city is certainly old enough to visualize life in another time. It is a tangle of twisting alleyways and building blocks piled unevenly so that one’s roof becomes another’s patio. For centuries they’ve been building up and digging down so that “ground level” is only a vague notion. Corridors, staircases, and catwalks branch off to hidden courtyards, backdoors and undercover entryways. It’s layered and deep and mysterious, like the fantasyland that I would have built in my sandbox as a child, but here it is big as life and I can walk around in it. I find it fascinating.
It almost goes without saying that Bethlehem is a religious town: especially the old city. It isn’t uncommon to encounter a platoon of nuns walking together to one of the schools or churches. Orthodox priests in the dark robes of the hardcore sects appear and disappear around corners and through doorways.
Wandering the contorted streets, low-key plaques by nondescript doors identify compounds and apartments as Coptic, Greek Orthodox, Ethiopian, and Lutheran. The Roman Catholic presence is obvious, and in that overlapping of faiths that seems to be the middle-eastern norm, directly across the square from the Church of the Nativity, an open vestibule between two market stalls reveals a pile of shoes in the entry to the Mosque of Omar.
What happens in those compounds behind those doors? I feel like there are things going on that I can’t be a part of - that I’m not allowed to know.
As a new-world, mainline protestant, I’m accustomed to open doors, rock bands, and projection screens in my church. I’m used to a practice of faith that minimizes the divide between insider and outsider, but that divide is what I keep running into, here.
I hate to keep using the word “mystery” over and over again, but what other word is there when I find others who claim the same basic faith that I do, but practice it in ways that are completely unknown? Here, I am faced with icons and statues and traditions and I am out of my depth. There are symbolisms and rituals and references older than the Bible itself all around me, and I don’t understand even half of them. I don't know how to approach those sects - am unsure of proper protocol - if I knock on one of those heavy compound doors, will someone answer? Will they invite me in and interpret their tradition for me?
I find the mystery to be intriguing, rather than off-putting. Spiritualism can seem mythological to the practical mind, but here in Bethlehem I find a closeness and a realness and naturalness to faith, and I’m comfortable in it.
There’s a sense that I’m in a place shared by people who believe in different ways, but who believe nonetheless, and their history is all right here in a very tight radius: hence the monks and the priests and the nuns and the imams and the busloads of tourists lining up to touch the rock, and the piles of shoes inside the doorways. It’s why we’re all here.
I end up loving Bethlehem for the religious mystery of the old city and the Arabic chaos of the new city, and the impossible politics with Israel, and I’d love to find a way to come back and spend a month or two peeling away the onionskin layers of faithful practice, and Palestinian daily life.
And, it may be ironic that after traveling through eight time zones to look deeper into my own spiritual heritage, one of the things that makes the most sense to me, a Christian, is the Muslim call to prayer. Looking out over the city that is both ancient and new, through the haze of wind-blown desert dust, the Muslim call to prayer is the perfect soundtrack. It just seems to fit the picture.
While I may not understand the words, I understand the point to stop what I’m doing and refocus myself on God’s purpose, rather than my own. I appreciate how public, and forthright it is, and I always do stop what I’m doing and listen.
Here in the city of David, a block from the Church of the Nativity, is a gelato cafe with an outdoor patio that overlooks the town and the fields below - the view is quite grand. MSL and I stop in one evening. Night falls over two scoops of pistachio. The gray haze of the day turns blue, then black, and the stars begin to pop.
This sky - these stars - are famous. We’ve been singing about them for two thousand years. It was from this sky above us, and over those fields right down there that the angels told the shepherds “we bring good news of great joy”. Human history has been different because of that moment, and it happened right there - or right here - within my range of sight.
We stand there, two Christians on the patio of the ice cream shop with the old city behind us and the new city before us and the shepherd’s fields below us and the famous stars above us and it's eerie at first – the amplified rising and falling of pitch. A human voice? A human voice. I cock my head and strain to catch it underneath the other sounds of a day coming to a close.
For us, the collected children of Abraham’s God, we may have gained no new insights into the grand mysteries of the universe, but our Muslim brother reminds us, for the fifth time today, to humble ourselves and remember that we live by the grace of something awesome and everlasting.