I returned from a week in Bethlehem, Galilee, Nazareth, and Jerusalem on Saturday night and will be processing the journey for some time. It was a powerful trip, especially because I participated with twenty young adults and our bishop. Reading the Scriptural passages, studying them, and then visiting the physical places is a powerful way to make your way through the Holy Land and, as with any pilgrimage, some moments stand out more than others. There will be time, in the coming weeks, to share more of what we experienced. For me, though, it was the unexpected moments that were the most emotional.
On Tuesday, as we hiked up the hill towards the Chapel of the Milk Grotto in the West Bank of the Palestinian Territories, we noticed a large group of women coming down the hill. They were all in black and heading into a church. Not being familiar with our destination, I assumed they were heading the same place we were going. But then, many paces behind them, came the men. The first one was carrying a lid to a coffin and it became clear pretty quickly what was going on. The men were carrying the body of an old man, laid out in a coffin and surrounded by flowers. Then came another group of women, many sobbing. We stood silently on the side of a very small road, trying to push ourselves aside for the procession to pass. As they headed into the Coptic Orthodox Church, I found myself praying for the deceased and his family. It was a stark reminder that life falls over into death, even in the holiest of sites.
The following day, we were outside the Eastern Wall of Jerusalem, which faces the Mount of Olives and the Kidron Valley. On one side of the hill is an enormous Jewish cemetery. On the other side, nearest the Eastern Wall, is a Muslim cemetery. Both are hundreds of years old and yet still in use. We saw one family gathered at the grave in the Jewish cemetery, placing stones on the grave of their loved one, presumably marking a birthday or anniversary. We made our way down the hill from the Garden of Gethsemane and wandered through the Muslim cemetery so we could more closely touch the Eastern Walls surrounding Jerusalem, which have stood since the time of Jesus. As Fr. Paul, our guide, was speaking, a group of men walked in haste towards us. “Stay where you are,” Fr. Paul whispered into our headphones. As the group came closer, I could see that the man in the front of the crowd was carrying a body.
It was child.
No box. No coffin. Just a father carrying his child, presumably wrapped in the traditional white linens, though we could only see the green blanket wrapped around the outside. If I had to guess, I would say the child was no more than five or six years old. The pained look on the man’s expression was one of emptiness, unimaginable grief, and yet a look of purpose. The tradition is to bury the dead within a day, but not after sundown. It was obvious this was a recent death and so the group moved with precision, past the onlookers, and towards the grave.
I stood and wondered. Was it a boy? A girl? Had he been sick? Was it an accident? Why the hurry? These questions haunted me all day and into the night, as the rest of the pilgrims shared their reactions, prayers, questions, and thoughts as we gathered for our regular time of sharing that night. As I went to bed, I prayed for the family of that child, the repose of the soul of that child, and fell asleep thinking about my own children six thousand miles away.
Then, around 4 am, I woke up with a start. I don’t know what made me wake up, but as I sat up in bed, a thought occurred to me. Maybe the father was hurrying because he had other children at home. He had a wife he was anxious to get home to. He had responsibilities waiting. Outside the cemetery, life was waiting. It was a strange experience in so many ways.
In the United States, we have sanitized death, commercialized it even. We have rituals, a timeline, showrooms for caskets, and budgets. There is a beauty in all of this, to be sure. There is also a beauty in hastily taking the dead to their resting place, giving him or her back to God, and getting back to life. Even after leaving the cemetery, that father will carry the child with him forever. That’s how fatherhood works.
I know, too, that I will carry the image of that scene with me for some time. It is an image not on my camera, but embedded in my mind. I will continue to pray for that child, those men, that family. Religious views may divide us, but that man and I are fathers and I pray with all my heart, I never feel his pain.
May your week be filled with holy sights.