The tinny strains of a Bach concerto split the night wide open.
My eyes blinked and blinked, but for a moment I wasn’t sure that I had even opened them. It was still so dark, the inky pitch dark of the bedroom with the lowered shutter in the silent hours long before the sun rises. No train. No cars. No sound but that tinny Bach concerto. Rodolfo reached over and switched off the alarm.
It was 3 a.m.
We rolled out of bed and put on nice clothes and set off on foot, walking four kilometers through the deserted streets. In the eerie silence, we had the whole of Jerusalem to ourselves.
We found Michal near the shuk, a place always so bustling, now eerily deserted. We walked along the deserted train tracks together.
Who, may you ask, would ever be crazy enough to get up at 3 a.m. to hike four kilometers?
Only a pilgrim.
After catching a van at a local church, a nondescript building surrounded by a high fence in the City Center, followed by a ten minute drive through the dark, we arrived at the Mount of Olives. More specifically, at the Chapel of the Ascension.
Almost two thousand years ago, forty days after Jesus’ resurrection and the first Easter, He ascended into Heaven from the Mount of Olives. A thousand years and a number of wars later, the bones of a tiny chapel that stands to this day were built by Christian Crusaders on an earlier destroyed Christian site that had commemorated that event. The church was built without a roof, because the Crusaders really took it literally when they said in the New Testament that Jesus “will return in the same way as you have seen Him going into heaven.” (Acts 1:11) The building was seized in a subsequent Muslim invasion, and the new Muslim owners added a mihrab (niche facing Mecca) to the building, in addition to a few other architectural improvements, and turned it into a mosque. (They also added a roof to the building, you know, just in case.)
In time, the mosque was decommissioned to allow for visitors of all faiths and prayers of none. The much larger mosque immediately adjacent was built specifically for Muslim prayer on the site and in reverence of Jesus. (Jesus is also revered as a minor prophet in Islam.) As we entered the courtyard, the strains of the hymns of the previous Mass in Spanish were being drowned out by the pre-dawn call to prayer.
Catholics revere this day, 40 days after Easter every year, as the Feast of the Ascension, and every year, on this day, is the only day of the year that Catholic Mass is allowed to be held in this chapel. (The rest of the time, it remains a decommissioned mosque, open to passing visitors.) And so the Christian community crams as many 30-minute Masses as they possibly can into this one day.
Since the chapel itself is so small, canvas tents pitched in the churchyard serve as makeshift sacristies for priests to don their vestments and prepare for Mass.
When it was time for our Mass, we all filed in to the tiny chapel and circled around the temporary altar, oriented to the east. The walls were covered in a rich red tapestry to cover the mihrab and give the usually stark chapel a festive appearance.
The gathered faithful sat on the floor for the reading of Acts 1 and the Psalm, being careful to avoid the candles set up in the spot revered during the Middle Ages as the place where Jesus’ feet last touched the Earth and left footprints in the dust.
We almost didn’t notice through the high, small windows, but the sun had begun to rise as we celebrated Jesus’ presence on Earth, His glorious resurrection and ascension into Heaven. And when we departed, another group had taken our place and, within moments, were beginning their own celebration in another language.
As a group, we walked to the nearby panoramic lookout and looked west to the amazing view of the Old City at sunrise. The thousands of graves stretch out below for what feels like forever, and then you see the Old City, the golden, eternal city, right before you and looking you in the eye like an old friend. The dawn gives everything a bluish cast. It was a color I had never seen on the city before.
Three and a half years ago, Rodolfo and I had stood on this very spot as visitors. He had put his arm around me and we had squinted into the setting sun as I had asked him, “What would you think of living here someday?”
“Oh, no,” he had answered. “Never in a thousand years.”
In a way, I think he was right. It feels like a thousand years since then.
I had taken a picture from this observation point and placed it neatly in a photo book; the only photo large enough to take up two pages. I had set it aside as a memory of a dream. I had never thought, in those same thousand years, that I would be standing here today, in the same place, looking over the city from a new angle, in a different color, and calling it home.
“Sing for us a song of Zion!”
But how could we sing a song of the Lord in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget.
May my tongue stick to my palate if I do not remember you.