All opinions expressed are those of the writer.
The Church of St. Anne sits in the Old City in Jerusalem just steps away from the ancient location of the Pool of Bethesda. In this very spot, Jesus healed a crippled man, who yearned every day for a miracle to grant him the ability to walk and rejoin society after years of isolation.
The church was built to commemorate the event and is famous for the vow of silence observed by its caretakers and all who enter. The site is a favorite among Passages participants because, although words must not be spoken within the beautiful sanctuary, songs of praise and worship are allowed instead.
While I sat in the chapel for the first time next to students I’d just met from all over the country, I must admit most of us felt a little awkward in the initial silence. It seemed foreign when compared to the hustle and bustle of the rest of the Old City, which stirred with tourists, shopkeepers, and students. But sure enough, we were soon struck with the feeling that the silence was speaking to us, beckoning us to sing.
As we began to sing the hymns of our youth, I was reminded of the reason I agreed to travel across the world with so little knowledge of Passages. In my first two years of college, I had to go through the pain of deconstructing my faith, rediscovering the truth of God and the story of Jesus through my own eyes. I was burdened with hopelessness for the church in America. I had experienced time and time again the divisiveness, polarization, lack of love, and apathy that has left many young Christians, like myself, feeling disenfranchised, isolated, and without a place to belong. I’m sure the cripple of Bethesda could relate better than anyone and felt these to a much greater degree.
The sound of our voices reverberated throughout the sanctuary, and something special began to happen. I’m even inclined to think it might’ve been a miracle. Each of our voices, many of them off key and tired from the week of travel and exhaustion, began to blend and mix. Soon we were perfectly engulfed in the melodies and harmony of the song we sang. Those of us who were off key were suddenly in tune, and our voices sounded as if they were one.
As we sang, I reflected how Jesus came to enable us to be the kinds of humans we could never be. He came to recreate us from the inside out, to renew us in our vocation of stewarding this world as an extension of the Kingdom of God. In a way, he teaches us daily the melody of the Gospel, and it’s that melody that works itself into every aspect of our lives. The product of this Great Maestro is a people who experience unity, not uniformity. Each member of the choir and orchestra has a unique part to play that makes up one unified song. Their differences make it all the more magnificent.
Growing up as a Christian among congregations that seemed to choose legalism over love, I’d never seen believers of different backgrounds working together, or truly living as if they were a part of the same body of Christ. I saw churches and communities split over disagreements time and time again, with each party isolating themselves from anyone who deviated from their way of thinking. It was easier to fragment than it was to stay and work within the tension, and community after community suffered for it.
What I missed my whole life, I found in Israel. My bus was filled with every kind of Christian imaginable, from Pentecostal to Catholic, along with a mosaic of ethnicities. As we traveled from site to site, we were surrounded by Christians from all over the world with traditions and beliefs that looked so very different from my own. Yet, by the end of the trip, I knew that we were one, and that they were my family.
In the Church of St. Anne, I realized that the far-flung branches of Christendom, each with their own beauty and complicated history, found their roots in the land beneath my feet. The very place I was sitting was saturated with the songs and prayers of countless pilgrims over centuries of time, from every tribe and tongue, all searching to find their identity and the source of their faith. Feeling that reality in our bones made our differences seem so much smaller, and our song so much more glorious. For the first time in my life, I began to believe the words of Paul in Ephesians could ring true: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Today as I look around and see the divisions plaguing our nation, our families, and our church, I think about the miracle of the Church of St. Anne. I think about the need for Christians to experience the ministry of pilgrimage, to have their eyes opened to the global body of Christ and the origin of the faith. Pilgrimage is the antidote for sectarianism and the remedy for those it wounds. Through it, Christians become exposed to ancient truths that begin to transform them from the inside before expanding outward to their families, communities, and wider societies, thus claiming them as new extensions of the Kingdom of Heaven.
My pilgrimage taught me that somehow God is making this mess of a world into a melody, just like he’s been doing throughout human history. Even more importantly, he wants to do it through the Church he died for, flaws and all. It’s a lesson that I must return to often, and it strengthens me to play a part in his diverse but united symphony, joining all of the saints in cultivating redemption and unity throughout all of creation.
Here is a clip of my Passages group singing “How Great Thou Art” in the Church of St. Anne: