Today’s journey took us to a touchstone common to all three Abrahamic religions: Hebron. There lay the Oak of Mamre, where the three mysterious Guests arrived at Abraham and Sarah’s tent. There also lay buried in a cave Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah.
Catholics hardly ever include Hebron on their itinerary, nor do most other Christians. Yet this seems to be one of the most significant sites for our faith, and what we encounter there is authentic, beautiful, holy, and deep. Since you may not see or hear about this experience otherwise, I'll make this post more lengthy.
Hebron is south of Bethlehem in the Palestinian Territories, and so we were careful to check on the safety situation, especially after yesterdays exchange of missiles with the Gaza Strip. Despite the battle in the south, life goes on up here in Judea. There turned out to be no particular signs of tension in Hebron, beyond the day-to-day struggles of this wounded and disputed city.
After Maritza rang the bell for our 6am wake-up, hummus, flat bread, and dates greeted us at the breakfast table, and then we gathered for a moment of silence and praise at a the terrace altar looking out onto the Temple Mount. We then sang to the angels to ask their protection as we climbed up and over Mt. Zion to the bus stop and boarded the Arabic public bus bound for Bethlehem. 45 minutes later, we transferred to a smaller public Arabic bus for a second 45-minute ride to Hebron.
It was already mid-morning, but the market streets were quiet and shops were just opening their doors, as the Muslims party at night and sleep in during Ramadan. In the late morning, a flood of Muslim pilgrims would be headed where we were going: Ibrahim's Mosque. We had to make it there be for 11am, as non-Muslims cannot enter during prayer times, and since during Ramadan the shrine is closed to non-Muslims the rest of the day.
In addition, we needed to beat the bottleneck traffic to pass through the checkpoint, since the Israeli army has set up this security check even for Muslims to access their side of the shrine. Going through the Old City market, the streets were sheltered by nets to catch the trash thrown down by the Israeli settlers who have bought up and built up the upper floors of the Old City. Today, both the Palestinian vendors and the Israeli soldiers seemed to us quite polite and hospitable.
Entering the holy place, we followed protocol, placing our sandals in the cubby holes, putting away neck Crosses and Bibles, and the women putting on burkas (rather more like Hobbit capes). This is the one mosque I know in the Holy Land where we as Christians are welcome--more or less. The first time I came here, I prostrated down on the Persian rugs towards Isaac's tomb and settled into to a time of mental prayer that only lasted a few minutes until the guard came and laid down the law--visit, take photos, but no praying allowed!
Try as we might to remain as tourists, the place moves the heart into wonder and praise. The enormous stone structure was built by Herod the Great in the same style as the Temple, with those enormous, well-cut stones. The Crusaders gave a gothic remodel to the interior, Christening it into a church. The Muslims, pre- and post-Crusader, added alcoves and fantastic pastel stained glass, and the huge carpets. Isaac and Rebecca's huge memorials are situated at the center of the Muslim side. A bullet-proof wall divides the shrine in two, with Abraham and Sarah's memorials accessible from both the mosque and the synagogue sides. But only on the Muslim can you peer down into the cave where four oil lamps are kept burning--the cave of Machpelah, where the six Patriarchs and Matriarchs are buried. According to Jewish tradition, Abraham chose to bury Sarah here because Adam and Eve were also buried here.
Left: the memorials of Isaac and Rebecca. Right: pit where one can look down into the Cave of Machpelah
Walking around the shrine through another security check, we visited the Jewish side, where Jacob and Leah's memorials can be found. Out in front, there is the hole where Israelis have excavated into the Cave. On this side we were permitted to pray and read the Scriptures!
We began by reading Genesis 18, at the Oak of Mamre, next to Machpelah, where Abraham and Sarah welcome three angels who prophesy to Sarah that she will bear a son and call him Isaac. The passage first calls the guests “them”, and later calls them “The Lord,” as if the three are One. This is why the icon of these three “angels” is a portrayal of the Trinity. We scrutinized the Word, digging into the meaning of God's love, hospitality, and fruitfulness.
We continued reading about the covenant that was sealed by the act of circumcision, and the promise for this People to be a blessing to all nations. Then it was surprising to read the long passage of chapter 23 following Sarah's death. Abraham insists on purchasing the land there at Hebron from Ephron the Hittite in order to bury Sarah, even though he is offered it without cost. We looked at the subsequent passages where Abraham, Rebecca, Isaac, and Leah are buried there. Finally in the last chapter of Genesis, we read that when Jacob dies in Egypt, Joseph carries out his wishes, bringing him all the way back to Machpelah for burial. Again, it is mentioned that Abraham had purchased the place by Mamre as a family possession.
Israelis cite these passages, as well as their ancient and continual presence of a Jewish community on site, to insist on their right to be in Hebron. Next to the Arab city, they have built a new city called Kiryat Arbah, which is another name for the place mentioned in the Scriptures. What is more controversial is that Israelis are purchasing and taking over the upper stories of the Old City, effectively building a settlement upon the Arab old city. Hebron has a history of tension, and even massacres, as the Muslims and Jews dispute over this site that is, for each of the two religions, the second-holiest site of the Holy Land.
Many Jews were praying at the memorials of Abraham and Sarah that were half-way visible, jutting through the bullet-proof glass wall. A typical synagogue set-up filled the space between these and the memorials of Jacob and Leah. Jews were rocking in prayer with prayer shawls and with "tefillin", the leather boxes attached by leather straps to their foreheads and forearms, containing the verses from Deuteronomy, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is your God..." A group of young women were there as well, silent, but fervently praying before Leah.
Christians rarely set foot in Hebron. A Russian Orthodox Monastery is the only Christian church there, and even so, I have yet to cross paths even with Russian Christian pilgrim in the five times I have visited. The only non-Jews/non-Muslims I have noticed have been small groups of northern Europeans who seem to be there more for the sake of visiting a place of injustice that they here about through pro-Palestinian media. I am sorry that the conflict seems to keep this place off the pilgrim itinerary. What an amazing journey into history, the heart of the Scriptures, and the spiritual challenge of faith and relationship.
We took time to pray, in the presence of these Patriarchs and Matriarchs so often cited by St. John, St. Paul and by Jesus himself. God offered his covenant love, his invitation to Abraham to follow his promises, his intention to bless this man, his family, and through them, all of humanity. Abraham makes bold acts of faith and, and to those mysterious messengers of God, he shows generous gestures of welcome. Here we found an inspiration for our pilgrimage and for life!
15x10ft Trinity Icon, ceiling of the Greek Catholic Church, Old City, Jerusalem