“God, pretty much all the time, ambushes me. His presence catches me unaware, surprises me.”
It had been a long day in Jerusalem, as had every other day since our arrival. We were four days into a six-day whirlwind press tour of Israel. My body was tired, my brain was overloaded, and I’d had enough. Then the bus stopped again.
Our day had begun with a stroll down the Hosanna Road that descends from the Mount of Olives to the boundaries of Jerusalem. Gaining momentum from our downhill journey, we attacked the city, stopping at every possible attraction along the way. Dutifully, I poked my head into each church and shrine commemorating the events of Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem: Dominus Flevit (“the Lord wept”), the chapel that commemorates where Jesus wept over Jerusalem; the Church of All Nations which enshrines a section of bedrock where it’s believed that Jesus prayed on the night of His arrest; the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu (“cock-crow”), with a golden rooster set atop its sanctuary roof, built to remember Peter’s cowardly denial of Jesus; and the Cenacle or Upper Room, a second-storey room venerated as the site of the Last Supper.
I must confess: as the morning wore on, I found myself fighting my natural bent to cynicism. The endless press of homogeneous baseball caps trudging after sign-toting tour guides overshadowed any possible significance of these sites for me. I don’t do well in crowds. I usually work my way to an outside edge; I lag behind and take pictures of flowers. I tried to keep reminding myself: “He walked here in this city.” “He did weep over the city—somewhere close to here.” “He broke the bread and shared the wine in a room somewhere near here.” I did work at it, and there were moments when the soberness of Jesus’ final days, His final hours before the cross, hit home and I found myself thinking, It really did happen—here!
Refuelled by a lunch of falafels in a pita, we charged into the afternoon. Karl, our guide and fathomless fountain of information, led us on to the Israel Museum and the Shrine of the Book that houses the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit. The closing hours of sunlight were spent at Yad Vashem, the National Memorial and Museum of the Holocaust. A sobering two-hour journey through that horrific history finished me off. Wrung me out. Did me in. My feet, legs and back ached from walking on stones and concrete all day. Both my head and my heart were full from all I’d experienced. I wanted my bed. “Supper,” I told myself, “I can soldier through.” But I’d drawn a heavy line on the itinerary through the Night Spectacular show at the Tower of David. No more.
And then the bus stopped.
“Ein Karem,” announced Karl. “We’re going to see the spring where, it is believed, Mary met Elizabeth.”
I didn’t want to see the spring where Mary might have met Elizabeth. It was getting dark. What was there to see? One more pile of stones and mortar erected over one more questionably holy site? The only springs I wanted were in my mattress back at the Inbal Hotel—and I could hear them calling me. But I got off the bus.
The evening air was cooling and light of day, as it does in that part of the world, was fading fast. We wound our way from the bus down a cobbled street toward a small stone building on which hung a simple sign: Mary’s Spring. The sound of trickling water lured us, 19 in all, under the canopy that covered the spring. Like weary nomads at an oasis we settled ourselves along the waist-high outer wall. Someone asked for a Bible and that same someone began to read: “In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah ...”
And then it happened. This tale of an aged rustic priest and his aged barren wife and the meeting of two miracle-laden moms wound itself around me. I’ve always loved this story, but this night, in this place, it loved me back. Zechariah and the angel Gabriel, Elizabeth and Mary, they walked into my heart and warmed me up like unexpected company on a lonely winter’s night. At the end of the reading, Karen, one of the women in our group, stood up. “Thank you for stopping here,” she said in a voice balancing on the verge of breaking. “We chose the name Luke for our son because of this story.” Her heart was too tender to tell us about much more than a late marriage and a later still miracle son—but it was enough. We understood why we had made this final stop. And there, in the descending Judean darkness, 19 people—who, four days earlier, had been perfect strangers—prayed together. And I basked in the communio sanctorum—the mysterious communion of the saints—that brings together those made holy by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. There is nothing like it for breathing new life into tired feet and weary souls.
God, pretty much all the time, ambushes me. His presence catches me unaware, surprises me. You’d think I’d be on to His tricks by now, but I’m not. I’m like the child who, no matter how many times you pop out from behind your hands and say “Boo!” is startled by your sudden appearance. But like that child, I’m happy to play along, happy to feel my heart race, and to break out in a silly grin each time it happens.