From the Psalter:
Behold now, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord, you that stand by night in the house of the Lord.
Lift up your hands in the holy place and bless the Lord; the Lord who made heaven and earth bless you out of Zion.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 134 (BCP Version) – July 3, 2014)
Up an hour later than usual, breakfast at the Sisters of Nazareth today was the same as yesterday. Our bags were collected and we walked down past the R.C. Basilica, past the open air mosque, through the market district and to the bus. A long ride first to Mount Tabor and then to the very small town of Burkin.
Mount Tabor is the traditional location of the Transfiguration, that strange vision seen by Peter, James, and John of Jesus in conversation with Moses and Elijah. There is a lovely church here designed by (you can, by now, probably guess) Antonio Barluzzi. To get to the top of the mount, we had to get off the bus at a visitor center at the base and then ride up the mountain in minivans.
The road up is steep and has many switchbacks — now there is a physical parable or metaphor for the spiritual life! The physical reality of the place is lost in the simple description one finds in the gospels: “Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.” (Mk 9:2) Mark (and Matthew who repeats the story) make it sound like they went out for a Sunday afternoon stroll. This would be a hike! This really is a high – and steep – mountain.
The church is quite beautiful with a dazzling mosaic of the Transfiguration event in the dome of the apse, two interior side chapels — one dedicated to St Francis; one for the Reserved Sacrament — and two exterior chapels — one for Elijah and one for Moses. St. Peter never got to build his three monuments (booths) but the Franciscans and Barluzzi did it for him. The Elijah chapel is interesting in that it contains a mural of the prophet’s competition with the prophets of Baal — two altars are depicted, one with a pile of meat but no fire and one with fire consuming what is on it. I’ve never seen that story depicted in art before; in this mural, the meat on the altar of Baal looks like it came straight from a really good butcher’s shop, prime cuts.
On the terrace next to the church, we encountered a cat (the most recent of many), really just a kitten, who was very vocal and very affectionate. She would have made a great souvenir, but getting her through customs would likely have been impossible. She was quite a distraction from the view, however.
One other interesting piece of art was in a gated (locked) garden — I think it shows St Francis either taking Jesus’ body from the cross, or helping Jesus’ to get down from the cross. Without being able to get closer to it and more time to study it, I can’t really be sure. In either case, it is a subject for further contemplation.
Back down the mountain we got back in our bus and took off for Burkin which turns out to be a small and very depressed village (most cities, towns, and villages in Palestine are depressed — whatever economic prosperity there is in Israel is not being shared with the Arabs). Here we visited the tiny church of St. George, which commemorates the spot on which Jesus healed ten lepers. (Luke 17:12-19) It is the fourth oldest continuously in use worship space in the world! There has been a church here since the early Fourth Century! It is under the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.
We were guided into town and to the church by Usama, a member of the Greek Orthodox congregation. One can tell that he and the other members of this church are very proud of their heritage. Unlike most older Orthodox buildings we have visited, this space is immaculate. The silver is polished; the cloth hangings and altar vestments are clean and bright; the icons are dusted. Pride in their place is patent in every corner.
The worship space is tiny – our group of 18 people more than half filled it. It is probably very crowded on Sundays for the Divine Liturgy and at other times of Orthodox worship. This congregation has a membership of 65 people. They are the only Christians in a town of over 7,000 population. Their witness is astounding!
Usama then guided us to his home where his wife and some other ladies in the congregation, assisted by a young boy, hosted us to lunch. The tables were filled with tomato and cucumber salad, yoghurt, pita, and chiken and lamb shwarma served on heaping platters of seasoned rice. There was enough to feed a group five times our size.
Several of us had two or three helpings of the delicious food when Usama’s wife, Neda, came around and piled one more serving on everyone’s plate: “Eat,” she said, “how do I know you liked it if you leave some behind?” It was all in good fun and the graciousness and vibrancy of their hospitality was overwhelming.
The congregation supports itself by selling the usual trinkets, but mostly by making pure olive oil soap which they sell for an amazingly low price. Evie and I will look into whether we can find a way to help sell their soap in our part of the U.S. to provide greater income for them as they maintain the Christian presence in this place.
We talked with them about the dwindling of the congregation, what it is like to be a Christian minority in an overwhelmingly Muslim community. Neda said that she and her neighbors get along just fine, that she and her family visit them to celebrate Eid al-Fitr (the major Muslim feast celebrating the end of Ramadan) and their neighbors visit them to celebrate Christmas. We asked if they had ever considered leaving. “No,” Neda replied quickly, “If we left, who would be the church?”
Who would be the church? A question for us all to ponder.
Lord, bless these servants who lift up their hands in your holy place and witness to your Name!
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.