Covid-19 in the land where Jesus walked

Photo by Adam Kring on Unsplash

A flash of wings. That’s what I remember.

We had already been quarantined for weeks. My son, Sebastian, appeared stunned, a little boy unaccustomed to being secluded from the world for so long. A month had passed since Jerusalem was locked down; and we were waiting in our apartment, set on a campus among olive groves on the edge of the city, on a hill just before the checkpoint into Bethlehem. For days we had inexplicably stopped stepping outside, as though even the trees, even the earth could harm us.

Advertisement

“Let’s go for a walk,” I whispered.

He nodded, bending down to tie his shoes. He took my hand. He is 9 years old, and I wondered for how long he would agree to hold my hand. We made our way outside, moving together into the olive groves, his fingers pressing into mine. A flash of blue and white struck into our path.

“Look, a kingfisher!” Sebastian shouted.

We stopped and looked. Just a streak of color but enough to recognize that something from the outside had broken in.

“Never forget this,” I said.

“Look, a kingfisher!” Sebastian shouted. We stopped and looked. Just a streak of color but enough to recognize that something from the outside had broken in.

The virus had arrived in Jerusalem six weeks before that flash of wings, at the onset of a spring unlike any other I can recall. The almond trees exploded into pink and white blossoms, and the fields were blanketed yellow with mustard flowers and spotted red with anemone. At the end of February, I left our home to pick my children up from school and crossed paths with soaring cattle egrets, their wings fanning white as they lifted in sight of the traffic of the adjoining street.

I sent a message to my husband: “What are these birds?”

A few days before Ash Wednesday, we learned about the first cases of Covid-19. Our community priest, Father Russ, deciding that it might be too dangerous to press ashes to our foreheads, sprinkled them over our heads instead.

•••

The first week of March, I received a call: The virus had arrived in Bethlehem, and the students at the university where I was heading for a meeting were rushing home. The checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which we regularly crossed, was closing. I looked from our vantage of the hilltop, over the separation wall to Bethlehem on the other side, to houses lit up: friends, colleagues, the hospital where my children were born. That afternoon, the Church of the Nativity, where I had prayed during the pregnancy of each of my children over the place where Mary had given birth to Jesus, closed its doors. A week later, my children’s school in Jerusalem closed. The borders into the country shut soon after.

A world was growing slowly more restricted. My three children, Joseph, 12, Sebastian, 9, and Carmel, 4, unpacked their backpacks onto our dining room table and, like millions of children around the world, began their school days at home.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site where Jesus was crucified, died and was raised from the dead, closed to pilgrims for the first extended period in nearly 700 years.

When the virus hit, we were heading into our most sacred seasons: Easter, Passover and Ramadan.

Even as I write this, I am still shaken. Our world is one of gathering, of touch itself. I have taught my children to kiss the icons of the saints as we enter churches. Our Jewish friends touch the mezuzah as they pass through doors. Our Muslim friends prostrate side by side at Al Aqsa Mosque for their Friday prayers, the word “Friday” in Arabic coming from the word for “gathering.” When the virus hit, we were heading into our most sacred seasons: Easter, Passover and Ramadan.

Had I understood, I might have slipped into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to light one last candle while I could. For years, I had lived within walking distance of the church, which stands in the heart of the markets of the Old City. Today, Christians are only an estimated 1 percent of the population of the Holy Land. Like others who live in Jerusalem, I did not simply pray at the Holy Sepulchre. The church anchored me. I stopped to light candles on the way to buy carrots or to bring home a chicken, the empty tomb beneath elevating the mundane chores of my days, binding them up with eternity.

Now no longer. The government announced that we could venture no farther than 100 meters from our front doors, save for emergencies.

•••

“Love calls us to the things of this world,” the poet Richard Wilbur wrote, to the here-ness and the now-ness of God. The hilltop where we lived had become our entire world. I knew that we were lucky to have trees. We were even luckier to have one another. But I was accustomed to basing my life in urban centers, and I had never really embraced our current home, to which we had moved four years ago for my husband’s work. This Lent, I would have to rediscover what it means to be a pilgrim in a land in front of our door.

I took my children’s hands, and we ventured to discover the immediate world. Cars disappeared from roads. Carpets of cyclamen called out. The first tender shoots began sprouting on fig trees, and green furry almonds appeared. My boys climbed into lemon trees, scraping their hands on the thorns, to throw down yellow bulbs for us to carry home.

The world narrowed, and every fruit we touched tethered us in a suddenly frightening reality. This would be our cathedral. 

The world narrowed, and every fruit we touched tethered us in a suddenly frightening reality. This would be our cathedral. My daughter led us each afternoon to a trail of ants, and we carefully climbed over them, anxious not to do them harm. The world now seemed to be asking only one thing of us, that we hurt one another as little as possible.

“Consider the lilies of the field.… Look at the birds of the air.” For the first time in my life, I took these words not as suggestion but directive.

As for “Do not worry about your life,” this seemed impossible. I had no idea how to navigate a world in which danger might come to my family from a doorknob, an embrace, a song sung too close by. We were cut off from our loved ones in the United States and France—the borders between us closed. News arrived: two friends, worried about chest pains; my brother, an essential worker, manning long shifts; my husband’s cousin testing positive; a friend on a ventilator; another recovering after catching the virus on a plane; the fragility of a world upended. It had come to France first, my husband’s family watching in dread as it headed to us. It came to us, and I watched in dread as it headed to the United States.

I walked with my children among trees. Jesus, too, had taken solace in nature. After the execution of John the Baptist, he left on a boat in search of solitude. On the night before his death, he prayed among trees. He was a man who climbed mountains and hills. Now I felt him walking with us in our loneliness.

“Consider the lilies of the field.… Look at the birds of the air.” For the first time in my life, I took these words not as suggestion but directive.

Look at the birds of the air. We learned their names: the brown chukar, sprinting across the path, green parakeets, the black and white hoopoe fanning its crown.

I woke up one morning and discovered, in the middle of Lent, that it was the feast of the Annunciation.

We moved and held and loved and waited. We drew one another near. When you are only allowed to embrace a few people in the world, you recognize the gift of it.

•••

The government announced the strongest restrictions yet as we entered into Holy Week. On any other Palm Sunday, we would have climbed the Mount of Olives to join the procession from Bethphage into Jerusalem, waving our palms alongside thousands of pilgrims, the parade a beautiful mess of competing choirs and languages walking in the footsteps of Jesus. This year, I awakened early, walked to the garden and sliced a few palm fronds from a lonely tree.

As I carried them, a memory flashed back to me: of folding the fronds into green crosses we would hold in the pews of the Our Lady of Lourdes Church when I was a little girl. I picked up a frond, folded, turned, hesitantly, to fashion it. I had not forgotten.

We moved and held and loved and waited. We drew one another near. When you are only allowed to embrace a few people in the world, you recognize the gift of it.

My husband, a deacon in the Syriac Catholic Church, draped a pale sash over his shoulder, and we gathered the children. Each held a palm. We set out onto the path circling the property, waving our branches in the air, parading by ourselves. My daughter brought a plastic drum she wouldn’t stop beating.

“Hosannah in the highest!” she cried.

We lasted a few turns before we collapsed in the backyard. My 12-year-old, normally cynical, remarked: “I think that God is proud of us.”

And I smiled. Smiled at my son, seeing God seeing us.

•••

That week, I watched live videos on Facebook of the photographer and conservationist Amir Balaban at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, ringing (banding) birds before releasing them: a white-breasted kingfisher, a lesser white throat, a reed warbler. Something about those birds, still crossing borders while the rest of us remained home, helped me breathe.

Then I turned to videos posted by Adeeb Jawad Joudeh Al Husseini, the custodian of the keys to the Holy Sepulcher, who was unlocking the door to the church for the few members of the clergy still allowed inside. He provided proof: brown-robed Franciscans processing through with their masks, and Greek Orthodox priests. If we could no longer light our candles, at least someone could.

Holy Thursday arrived. We ate a solemn meal as a family. When we finished, my husband left the room and returned with a basin of warm water. We knelt and washed one another’s feet—shy and unfamiliar and quiet, and I found myself saddened and moved by us in our human bodies, trying and failing and still trying to love one another.

We lit a lantern and set out into the olive trees.

•••

On Good Friday, I cut the branches of the hawthorn tree with a knife, for tradition held that the thorns for Christ’s crown had been made from that tree or perhaps the jujube, also growing nearby. I had never noticed them before.

I was learning about so much I had never noticed. Since we were unable to walk the Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa this year, we decided to draw them. As I sat down in front of pen and paper, I struggled to remember them. I passed those stations so often on the streets that I no longer gave them thought. The idea that I’d grown accustomed to the Passion made me uncomfortable. Now Carmel, 4 years old, drew Jesus falling down. She took another sheet of paper and drew the scene again. She hates to fall. By the third sheet, she asked if she might take a Band-Aid from the medicine cabinet, and she pressed it reverently on the paper in place of a drawing: Jesus Falls the Third Time.

It took a 4-year-old to teach me what it means to really walk beside Jesus, to long to heal his wounds, to provide friendship in the darkest hour.

Then she turned to sketching Jesus on the cross, the two lines, the simple body. When she finished, she announced: “Now I will draw his friend standing beside him.”

It took a 4-year-old to teach me what it means to really walk beside Jesus, to long to heal his wounds, to provide friendship in the darkest hour.

The world was bound up in sadness. Thousands were dying alone of the virus each day. We took in the shock of health care workers and bus drivers and the elderly, of mothers and fathers and their children, of priests and religious, of workers and teachers. The cross had never been so apparent—nor had love. We kissed Christ’s body on the cross, took it down and placed it away.

•••

Holy Saturday, called the Saturday of Light in Arabic, passed. Easter arrived. We feasted. We sang Alleluia from our front porch in sight of two neighboring families, who sang from theirs. We lifted Jesus from his resting place and kissed him and draped him in white to welcome him back to us.

Yet we did not walk to the Holy Sepulchre, as we normally would, to light a candle beside the empty tomb. In fact, I cannot remember such a lonely Easter as this one.

We knew that Christ was risen. But I did not really know it.

Days passed. We stopped going outside—until that morning when my son Sebastian came to me. He appeared stunned, like a boy taken from the world for too long.

[Don’t miss more stories like this one. Sign up for our newsletter.]

“Let’s go for a walk,” I whispered.

He nodded, kneeling down to tie his shoes. We made our way into the trees.

A flash of blue and white wings.

“Look! A kingfisher!”

We stopped. Something had broken in. The beginnings of Easter.

We continued walking. After a while, I said: “You know they say that the kingfisher is the symbol of Christ, don’t you?”

“But why?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe because Christ is King? And the fisher of men?”

“That makes sense,” he answered, and squeezed my hand.

•••

My daughter, Carmel’s, school reopened. I filled her pink backpack, her water bottle. I took her temperature, fastened her mask and my own, and we headed into a city I had barely seen in months. At the school parents paced, summoning the courage to let their children go. The world revealed itself to be frightening and beautiful; and once again we were in it—walking on tip-toe, trying not to touch too much, to break or get broken in the process.

Carmel pointed skyward. “Look mom, swallows!” A flock was circling overhead.

I let go of her hand.

I descended the hill, until I arrived in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The door remained closed. But the faithful were kneeling on the pavement, praying in front of the closed door. A young man from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in white robes knelt in a corner, reading from a prayer book. Two Russian Orthodox Christians laid prostrate. Pedestrians approached the door and kissed the ground before continuing on their way.

The world revealed itself to be frightening and beautiful; and once again we were in it—walking on tip-toe, trying not to touch too much, to break or get broken in the process.

I watched, overcome by their fidelity.

A few days later, Sebastian summoned me for another walk. I could tell that something had been on his mind.

We were almost home before he spoke up, hesitantly. “Mom, can I ask you a question?”

“What’s that, Sebastian?”

“It’s about the kingfisher.”

I had sometimes wondered if it had even been a kingfisher that we’d seen that day—perhaps it was a jay striking into our path. But my son had held onto the flash, like a promise.

“Mom, do you think that kingfishers fish for people?”

I asked him what he meant.

“I mean, I know that they fish for fish, but do you think that they also go fishing for people? I mean, do they go looking for us, so that they can show us a sign from God?”

I stopped on the path, startled.

“Yes, Sebastian. I think that they must.”

This is what I will remember, about this season of heartbreak and hope, of terror and waiting, when we could not be there at the empty tomb. It would take time to recognize the world given back again, the bread vendors still standing outside Damascus Gate. The holiness in a bus ride shared. The father, pushing his little girl on a bicycle. Apricots coming into season. These ordinary miracles, revealing themselves for the first time. The boy who took me walking, to show me that God makes a pilgrimage to us.

Advertisement

The latest from america

The Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Ind., from June 2001: William Emmett LeCroy, 50, on Tuesday would be the sixth federal inmate executed by lethal injection here this year. (CNS photo/Andy Clark, Reuters)
U.S. bishops call the application of capital punishment “completely unnecessary and unacceptable.”
Kevin ClarkeSeptember 22, 2020
Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Father Tony Flannery (CNS photo/Paul Haring/CNS photo/Irish Catholic)
The C.D.F. said today: ‘We did everything possible to dialogue with Father Flannery. It wasn’t always easy.’
Gerard O’ConnellSeptember 22, 2020
The Covid-19 pandemic is adding to the financial woes of Catholic schools in inner cities. But better management and creative fundraising may save them, writes Lance L. Lee, a parent of two children in Catholic schools.
Lance LeeSeptember 22, 2020
Sixth-graders sit at their desks on the first day of classes of the new academic year at Our Lady of Victory School in Floral Park, N.Y., on Sept. 8. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
With many public schools still in virtual mode, parents are taking a new look at Catholic education. But Michael O’Loughlin reports that the reprieve from declining enrollment may be temporary.
Michael J. O’LoughlinSeptember 22, 2020