By Rob Price
I’m writing this post from my room from the Gloria Hotel in the Old City of Jerusalem, where my group of 14 pilgrims and I have been sequestered by the Israeli government (along with all other foreign tourists) since early Sunday morning, March 15, in response to the crisis posed by the coronavirus.
Our pilgrimage has been cut short, though thankfully we were able to complete the Stations of the Cross, Veneration at Golgotha, and worship at the Edicule (the chapel over the empty tomb) the day before the restrictions were put in place. There is a sense of deprivation as we think about the places that we will not be able to visit and the severe limitations on our movement, but there have also been some rich graces that have been given to us; it is these I’d like to share.
The first is a deeper solidarity with the Unwanted. It is difficult to describe the palpable fear and hostility that we have felt from local Jerusalemites as a result of being clearly foreign and on pilgrimage.
The hotel staff has been heroic in their efforts to extend hospitality to us as visitors in need – but I can see the fear in their eyes and their hesitancy to come close to us. As an employee of the tour company managing our trip explained, “perhaps this is for the best, since the Corona[virus] was brought here by you [pilgrims/tourists].” A group of Jews and Arabs who are engaged in a powerful ministry of reconciliation refused to come to see us, out of fear that we would get them sick. We were even too frightening to be pickpocketed or hustled: the corner of the street on the Mount of Olives upon which Church of the Pater Noster sits was empty of people — normally it is crowded with professional beggars and hawkers of trinkets looking to get close enough to make a grab. All we heard from the few men staring at us from the other side of the street was Arabic with “corona” clearly spoken in the middle of the sentence as they pulled their jackets or scarves over their faces. As one my pilgrims said, “I have never felt unwanted anywhere in my life until now, and it really bothers me.”
As I pointed out in my sermon on the Samaritan woman in the Eucharist we held in the hotel’s rooftop meeting room, in John 4, Jesus makes the utterly rejected, unwanted woman his family. And Jesus takes this initiative from his own status as one “rejected and despised by others,” one “from whom others hid their faces,” one who came to his family only to have them “know him not.” Removed from the cocoon of the social belonging and networks that underwrite our privilege, our “at-home-ness”, we have found ourselves in an unwanted status – being in this country but not of it – that must be a resource for us to move in compassion towards those at “home” who are unwanted there. We must adopt them and make them kin to us.
The fact that we ourselves will be viewed with some anxiety by our own family and friends on our return (I’ll be self-quarantining in our guest bedroom) only underlines and makes more poignant the nature of our universal Christian vocation. Pilgrims are given the opportunity to lean into a following of Jesus in which we are always living as strangers in solidarity with those who are at once estranged and too fully at home in this world.
A second grace of these days is to find that it is in circumstances like these that the Book of Common Prayer truly shines. When we learned early Sunday morning that we were confined to the hotel, I scheduled a Eucharist at 9, observing the Third Sunday of Lent along with St. George’s Cathedral (where we had been planning to attend) and our own St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Dallas.
At that service, I lined out a quasi-monastic schedule of prayer: Evening Prayer at 5, Compline at 8, sunrise mass on the hotel’s rooftop patio at 6 a.m. (preceded by saying Psalm 118 facing the rising sun over the Mount of Olives), Morning Prayer at 9, Evening Prayer at 5. Instead of walking the Old City and praying in Emmaus, we are walking the steps of Common Prayer, and finding our hearts burning within us as we meet the Risen Jesus in the breaking of the Bread and the love we share with one another. Several pilgrims have said that it has really helped with boredom and stress, giving them something to look forward to, a time to meet for companionship and encouragement, and a way to structure an otherwise empty day. To those at home stuck in their homes: we feel your pain! May I commend the Book of Common Prayer to you?
Finally, we have dwelt in a much deeper way in the Christian gospel of spiritual freedom amidst worldly confinement. We are keenly aware that our loved ones at home are unable to gather for the Eucharist and receive from the cup, and that we will join in those abstentions when we eventually return, which makes our continued ability to do so here a privilege. The joy of sharing the Body in embodied worship, always taken for granted before, is a freedom made all the sweeter by our fleshly confinement in this space.
It’s like when one is fasting from sweets, and suddenly fruits like strawberries explode in your mouth. Here, surrounded by hostile fear (that we nevertheless understand and forgive) and hemmed in on every side, peace and joy and love and victory – all the things that I now find contained in the Christian word, “freedom” – explode in our mouths as we receive the Sacrament of the Resurrection. It is indeed for this very kind of freedom that Christ has set us free, and to which we long to return when we go to our home beyond our homes, the shore beyond the sea over which we will fly.