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. 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. The steep hillsides form a natural amphitheater and masonry walls reflect sound from everywhere to everywhere else. This muezzin has a nice baritone and his prayers are minor-key without being mournful. It’s soothing - almost hypnotic.
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 rising sun washes the city in soft, fresh light, and the breeze carries the first whiffs of baking breads, frying falafels, and diesel exhaust. When his voice finally 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, and they’re much less relaxed. A cacophony of bells erupts from a tower, calling the faithful to the day’s first mass. The sounds are sharp and jarring. There’s a gusto to the ringing - they aren’t at all timid about waking up the neighborhood, in fact, that’s the intention. Get up you saints and sinners - it’s time for church.
God is popular, here. Bethlehem is, after all, the hometown of David - 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 who trace our spiritual ancestry 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 contexts of geography, history, and proximity.
If I’m lucky, I’ll not just learn something, but I’ll feel something, too. Maybe here in the hills of Judea, I’ll have a real “mountain top” experience - one of those flashes of holy perception in which I shrink to near nothingness, while simultaneously aware that I’m included in something unfathomably large.
Our tour began in the north, within sight of the Lebanese border - the terrain and vegetation reminiscent of the front range of the Rockies. We worked southward by way of Nazareth, Caesarea, Capernaum and Jerusalem. We got our feet wet in the holy waters of the Mediterranean, the Sea of Galilee, and the Jordan River. We prayed at the Western Wall. We walked the Via Dolorosa and visited the Garden Tomb. We had our breath taken away under the incredible dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher - how can you even begin to describe it? Holy? Hallowed? Haunted? Hogwarts? Surely if God lives anywhere . . .
I’m glad to have seen and done it all. The holy texts take on new life for me after seeing the land where Jesus lived, the lake where Peter fished (sometimes naked, the old rascal), and the known landmarks like the Mount of Olives and the Kidron Valley. To wade in the Sea of Galilee, and to wander among the excavated foundations of Capernaum and to sit inside the ruins of the synagogue and know that this is a place where Jesus taught and hung out, is a rather awesome thing to contemplate.
Awesome, but not quite mountain-top.
I would welcome one of those moments when my heart is warmed and my consciousness heightened, but 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”, the saying goes. Each of the sites has a commemorative church which one dutifully looks at, and they’re each a gorgeous monument to The Significant Thing that happened, but there are so many of them that only a few end up being memorable, and I start to wonder what we’re really doing, here. Are we trying to find God’s story in the land where it happened, or are we touring churches?
Holy Land tourism is an industry, and as with all things industrial, time is a scarce resource and our movements are choreographed to maximize it. It is thrilling to be here in the geography of Jesus, where history is sticking up out of the ground all over the place, but the spiritual piece is difficult for me to grasp, because the Spirit doesn’t move at the pace of our schedule - we don’t pause long enough for it to catch up.
If we 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. We don’t have that kind of time. This is the futility of chasing a “mountain top” experience on a Holy Land tour.
So, I’m thankful that we’ve settled into Bethlehem as our base for a week. We leave every day for our tours, but our early mornings and our evenings are here, with time for deeper exploration.
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: convenience stores, auto mechanics, mobile phone dealers, KFC. It’s noisy, congested and busy.
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 blocky buildings piled unevenly so that one’s roof becomes another’s patio, and all of it is made of the same yellow stone - even the streets are paved with it - for a classic, monochrome look. 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 maze 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.
Searching for something more interesting than the hotel breakfast, I find a bakery in a square where Old City alleys come together. At this early hour most of the other shops are still shut behind heavy steel doors, but the pastry guy is open, and a street vendor is selling little cups of strong Arab coffee from a cart. I’m their first customer of the day. The rings of sesame bread are crunchy on the outside and pillowy on the inside and there’s no reason to wait for butter or jam - just eat them while they’re still warm. And my favorite is a round, oily, roll - yellow in color and filled with fruit paste. I ask what it is and the baker says something in Arabic that I don’t understand, but I go back every day - all I really need to understand is that they are delicious.
Wandering the old city’s contorted streets, low-key plaques by heavy doors identify compounds and apartments as Coptic, Greek Orthodox, Ethiopian, and Lutheran. The Roman Catholic presence is obvious, and in an easy overlapping of faiths, the Mosque of Omar has its entrance on Manger Square, directly across from the Church of the Nativity. The doorway is between two market stalls and inside the vestibule I see a pile of worshiper’s shoes.
In my early morning walks, I encounter platoons 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.
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. Here in Bethlehem, I feel like I belong inside, but I don’t know how to get there.
I risk over-using the word “mystery”, 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: incense and oils and smoke and chanting. 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 want to get to the mountaintop, but I don’t even know where to start climbing.
I find the mystery to be intriguing, though, rather than alienating. Spiritualism may 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.
At the risk of tripping over into the New Age, I wonder: how can this place which is sacred to so many not be a nexus for the Spirit of God? 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 kiss 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, the Arabic chaos of the new city, and the impossible politics with Israel. I love the food and the people and the hospitality. I love the wine and the coffee, 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 across oceans and continents 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 film of heat and wind-blown desert dust, the Muslim call to prayer is the ideal soundtrack. It is just foreign enough, just Arab enough, just exotic enough that it perfectly fits the picture of the place.
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 reflect: is it His desire for me to chase His majesty on spiritual mountain tops, or to seek a more constant, internal connection?
Here on the high ground of the Old City of Bethlehem, a block from the Church of the Nativity, is a gelato cafe with an outdoor patio overlooking the town and the fields below. Wife and I stop in one evening. Night falls over two scoops of pistachio. We stand at the railing and watch the gray haze of the day deepen to orange, then indigo, and the first stars begin to pop.
This sky and 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 - somewhere 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 to catch it as it comes to the foreground over the other noise of a day transitioning into evening.
It’s almost cinematic the way the scene and the sound fit together. The song-prayer becomes a conduit for connection and it elevates me. I’m unworthy, and I don’t understand it, but I feel a peaceful reassurance that I am a part of the great story of God’s creation, and this holy land is somehow a home for me, too. It’s a feeling of complete belonging. I feel blessed to have this moment. When the prayer is over and his voice finally trails off it leaves an emptiness in the soundscape, and an unexpected fullness in my soul.