I know, I know. It’s been forever. Where the heck have I been? Would you even believe me if I told you?
I’ve been working on an archaeological dig…
I’ve been seeing every inch of the Holy Land with literally over a dozen friends and family members that have come to visit over the last several months…
I’ve been gallivanting all over Europe…
In fact, I’ve been hanging out a lot with my buddy Pope Francis. First, we went and saw him in Rome…
And then he reciprocated by coming to visit us in Bethlehem.
I’ve even been to China. CHINA!
I’ve been learning to love people and places that are impossible to explain… and yet I’ll never forget them.
And… I’ve been preparing for an international move.
When we first moved here three years ago, we were taken aback by how different life was here. Israel is a first-world country, right? How different could it be?
I remember the first few weeks of shopping at the Shuk, our open-air market in Jerusalem. I remember my first visit to a kosher butcher in the market, who delved his bare hands into a squishy pile of ground beef, licked his bloody finger to separate a plastic bag, and then handed me my change with the same bloody hands.
I almost fainted.
Hand sanitizer… hand sanitizer… hand sanitizer…
(Public service announcement here, folks. Kosher means pure, not clean.)
And it took me about three hours to find a decent tomato on that first trip to the market. In the absence of the picture-perfect, genetically modified, always-available-even-out-of-season produce I was used to in the States, I would carefully comb through a huge stack of tomatoes, discarding based on the various blemishes I saw…
Bug hole, nope… Stretch mark, nope… Yellowy spot, nope… Squishy sides, nope… Oh wow conjoined twin tomatoes… nope.
Now it’s a little more like this (and yes, the gratuitous Hebrew slang is necessary):
What I’m trying to say is, our standards changed. We adapted. We learned to eat in season. We learned not to be so picky. We developed iron immune systems. We learned to stand up for ourselves, to elbow through crowds, to not get suckered. We learned how to hike home through a horrible blizzard and then survive the freezing temperatures with no central heat and, on some nights, no power at all.
We learned to hiss through our teeth at the first asking price of a taxi driver or Old City vendor. We learned how to dive for shelter in a basement, a back room, or the side of the highway, when the rocket sirens start blaring. We learned to survive.
I want to thank everyone who has reached out to me in the past month or so to make sure that we are alive and well in this difficult time for the Middle East. I do not discount that terrible things are happening in some places and that the region is in dire need of our prayers. But also, it’s important to note that the news sometimes inflates things for dramatic effect. And yet, the thing I keep telling people is…
“Normal” has a different meaning here.
It’s a magical “normal,” a miraculous “normal,” where you can picture Jesus and the prophets around any corner. Where you can pluck 2,000-year-old glass from the dust with your bare hands. Where the books open backward. Where the colors are so bright it’s like the Saturation on the world has been turned way up. But it’s also a “normal” with rotten tomatoes, air raid sirens and bloody hands holding out your change.
I look back at our reaction to our first air raid sirens, and I sort of have to laugh, along with all our neighbors who thought we were insane.
We have changed. We have learned.
And now… we have to learn again.
We are moving to Indiana. Rodolfo is starting a promising new postdoc at a wonderful university. But it is a town we have never seen, and yet, I can bet you money that it will be a very far cry from Jerusalem. I am a little worried about the frozen-solid winters; the quiet, small-town life; seeing the world only through a windshield again. I am afraid of the drabness.
We leave Jerusalem in one week’s time. But before we take up that quiet small-town Indiana life for the next three years, we are headed off on (yet another) adventure of a lifetime. For the next couple of weeks, we’ll be exploring Kenya, India and Cambodia, with a few other stops in between. We plan to “skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke” and enter that small-town life whooping and hollering, with scraped knees and bruised pride and enough stories to keep you up all night over a bottle of limoncello the next time we see you.
This morning we had our last Mass inside Christ’s empty tomb at the Holy Sepulchre. It was a beautiful Mass with lovely friends: a wonderful American priest who has become a good friend; a sweet English widow who has been a wonderful auntie to us; an awesome Canadian couple with whom we always manage to get hopelessly lost and have amazing adventures; a sweet American seminarian; and a lovely Ecuadorean and her beautiful four-week-old baby.
The Gospel reading was the risen Jesus meeting two disciples on the road to Emmaus (a road we actually hiked on Easter Monday this year with a German Franciscan who hiked in sandals and repeatedly handed out gummy bears to everyone, but that’s another story).
“Now that very day two of them were going to a village seven miles from Jerusalem called Emmaus, and they were conversing about all the things that had occurred. … And Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him. He asked them, “What are you discussing as you walk along?” They stopped, looking downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, said to him in reply, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know of the things that have taken place there in these days?” And he replied to them, “What sort of things?” They said to him, “The things that happened to Jesus the Nazarene, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, how our chief priests and rulers both handed him over to a sentence of death and crucified him. But we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel.” … And he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke! … Then he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the scriptures. As they approached the village to which they were going… they urged him, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” (Luke 24)
In a series of various votive Masses with our many visitors, we have heard numerous Resurrection stories in the last few months. But this one is special. This one is important. In this one, for the first time, the risen Jesus meets his followers, his loved ones, outside of Jerusalem.
As Father Andrew pointed out in his homily this morning, the gospel of John tells us, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” (John 12:24)
It has to end, so that greater things may begin.
We may travel, we may walk long and far down a dusty road. We may stop, looking downcast; we may feel lost and disappointed. We may be foolish and slow of heart. And yet, there are wonderful surprises ahead. Miracles, even.
The magic travels with you.
And no matter where you go, no matter where you make your home, no matter where your children are born or whether you ever put down roots or when you happen to finally “skid broadside in a cloud of smoke” into the afterlife…
Nothing will ever be “normal” again.