Melkite Church, Christian Quarter, Jerusalem's Old City

Melkite Church, Christian Quarter, Jerusalem’s Old City

The demographic for this fall semester at Tantur Ecumenical Institute is unusually weighted toward the host Roman Catholics (23 RC’s and two Protestants). The other Protestant is Anglican, a tradition more Catholic than Baptist. (I have told these folks they should appreciate me, since I give them the right to call their place “ecumenical”!)

We have 30 minutes of prayer most every evening, just before dinner. The members of the “C.E.” (continuing education) group are individually responsible for two or maybe three of these services. And because we are so heavily Catholic, most prayer gatherings take the following form: recite the readings from the “Shorter Prayer” book, moving antiphonally, first one side of the chapel, then the other, back and forth we read. Conclude readings according to formula: “in the name of the Father . . . world without end, Amen.” Maybe sing an unsingable (I’m just sayin’) Catholic hymn. Receive mostly generic prayer requests (world peace, the health of the churches, etc.). Read or sing the Song of Mary (“My soul magnifies the Lord”). Conclude with The Lord’s Prayer and passing of the peace, ie. “Peace be with you.”

While participants in my own program aren’t normally expected to lead prayer, my C.E. colleagues have asked me to do it once, just to mix things up. I’ve told them I’ll do it, but they’ll be disappointed, so simple would be our evangelical approach to a group prayer gathering.

Last Sunday I accompanied Father Pat, an Alabama priest, to the Melkite (Greek Catholic) Church in the Old City. The archbishop was there and presiding, moving back and forth between an altar back of an ornate screen (“iconostasis”) and a raised platform at the front of the nave. The choir of half a dozen elderly men and women sang loudly in Arabic, while the archbishop “censed” (wafted incense smoke around) the altar and other worship accoutrements, and rang the bells that were attached to the chain of his “thurible” (censer).

I would have been completely lost amid the foreign language and the “smells ‘n bells” if it hadn’t been for the warm, pastoral spirit that the archbishop displayed when he presented the brief “homily” (sermon). Yet even had I understood everything said and done, something within me would have gone away longing for the familiar–the way and the tradition that I have known and loved.

Encountering and engaging “the other” is a valuable exercise. All the more because the world is shrinking day by day, and people from different cultures and traditions are living and moving alongside us at work, at school, at play. We need reminding of our common humanity and–in the case of other Christians–of our common conviction that it is God in Christ who answers the world’s greatest need.

But even more, encountering the “other” serves to remind us of the value and the satisfaction of our own place, our own tradition, our own way of locating the presence of God. I’m glad to be a Baptist, happy with our comparative simplicity, and grateful to have been called to and claimed by the tradition that we Baptists share together.

Till next time, Shabbat Shalom! Steve