What can you say about a day that began with the Muslim call to prayer echoing through the streets and ended with an exuberant Catholic liturgy celebrating the Resurrection?
That marked Saturday, my first full day in Amman, Jordan. To call it memorable would be an understatement; this was a day that I will not, cannot forget — and it is for days like this that I wanted to make this particular trip.
I’m here, really, by chance. I was invited to represent CNEWA as part of a group of a dozen other bloggers and journalists to take part in a tour sponsored by the Jordan Tourism Board. In addition to visiting some famous sites — the Dead Sea, Bethany, Petra — we would be in this corner of the Holy Land during one of the most sacred times of the year, as Catholics and Orthodox here together celebrate Easter (according to the Julian calendar). Later in the week, I’ll get a firsthand look at some of the projects CNEWA has been supporting over the years — notably at the Italian Hospital in Amman — and get to meet some of the people we’ve writing about in ONE magazine and on this blog. The opportunity was impossible to resist.
Friends and family, when they heard about this trip, were baffled — and a little alarmed. “Aren’t you scared? Isn’t it dangerous? What are you thinking?” But the fact is: Jordan remains one of the most safe and secure countries in the Middle East; tensions and wars rage around her borders, but Jordan remains stable. (Local businesses are doing their part: Our hotel, as do many in the region, requires that everyone entering pass through a metal detector, submit bags to be x-rayed, and consent to be lightly frisked. It’s like going through security at the airport, every day.)
So… after arriving Friday afternoon and settling in, I awoke early to the unfamiliar but haunting sound of the Muslim call to prayer. I rolled over and looked at my cell phone. It was a little after 4 in the morning. I had slept fitfully anyway — a 10-hour flight and seven-hour time difference will do that to you — so I decided to get up and, answering the call, pray Morning Prayer. I clicked on my breviary on my iPad and began my day.
Our group spent most of this first day on a bus, driving two hours north of Amman to visit the ancient city of Umm Qais, overlooking the borders of Syria and Israel. The day was cold and rainy; we couldn’t see far (though we were told, on a clear day, you could actually spot the Sea of Galilee many miles to the north). Umm Qais was also known at one time as Gadara, and it is believed by some scholars to be the region where Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, drove demons from a man and into a herd of swine.
The cold steady rain had a very different effect on our group, though. It drove us from the open air and into the bus.
Unquestionably, the highlight of the day came in the evening, when we experienced two Easter Vigils, from two very different Catholic traditions.
Our evening began at St. Peter’s, a Latin Catholic Church in Amman, where we arrived in a space full of flickering candles as the deacon stepped into the ambo. He took a breath. And in the hushed silence, he cried out the first phrases of the ancient chant that I know so well, the very chant I had proclaimed just a week earlier at my parish in Queens: “the Exsultet,” or Easter Proclamation. “Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven … exult, let angel ministers of God exult. Let the trumpet of salvation sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph…”
Every note was familiar to me. I knew it by heart. But I had never heard this before: The deacon was chanting the proclamation in Arabic. This moved me in a way I hadn’t expected; here was the universal church, our faith, unfolding before me. What I had sung in a parish in Queens was now being sung in this parish in Amman — and in countless other churches large and small, in languages ancient and new, throughout the world. I found myself blinking back tears. To be a part of this moment was an extraordinary gift.
After a little while into the Mass, we had to leave to head to another vigil, this one Sts. Peter and St. Paul, a Melkite Greek Catholic Church a short drive away.
This was only my second experience of an Eastern liturgy; it included copious amounts of sprinkling, singing, processing, chanting and incense.
I found it spellbinding and beautiful. One of the writers on our trip, David Rupert, a Protestant, captured the essence beautifully on his blog (old/broken link: https://www.redletterbelievers.com/the-unlikely-pilgrim-day-2-no-longer-strangers/), describing the view of an outsider who nonetheless felt a sense of belonging and kinship:
I walked into the Melkite Greek Catholic (old/broken link: https://catholicchurch-holyland.com/?p=840) church in downtown Amman, Jordan, graciously invited by others. The Sts. Peter and Paul Church was small, with probably 150 people already gathered. We were late. The service was led by the Rev. Nabil Haddad, a gracious man who is working at bridging the gap in the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian world as the leader of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center.
I resisted the urge to find a way to make my way outside. I was so out of my element. This was a different culture, a different faith expression in a Middle Eastern tradition. And the service was in Arabic. To an outsider it was nonsense. Chants. Singing. Repetition. Kneeling. There was no music except for the melodic, hypnotic voices of chants that seemed to bring in a mix of Gregorian, Semitic and Arabic influence. I irreverently imagined a Jew in a vestment singing from a minaret. It was disruptive and disquieting. But as the service continued, it was powerful.
Across the Middle East, the birthplace of Christianity, believers are becoming a smaller and smaller slice of the population, losing the baby war. And they are oppressed and tormented and killed in some places. Yet, they survive and even thrive because of their love for each other and for God.
So here I am, standing among Christians who have been in the area for more than a thousand years. I am unworthy, ignorant, and just a little shocked. Who do I think I am? I have no idea what these people have to endure on a daily basis. and yet they embrace me and call me “brother.”
After the liturgy, we had a chance to spend time with Father Haddad and some of his flock. He’s a longtime friend of CNEWA, and was delighted to meet someone from the agency. He promised to get in touch the next time he visits New York.
I rode back to our hotel weary but grateful — and stirred by so many emotions. Several days back, overwhelmed with a thousand details demanding my attention — getting through the Triduum, finishing our taxes, ironing out all the details for this particular trip — I told my friend and editor Elizabeth Scalia that maybe I should back out of the Jordan trip. It was getting to be too much.
“You know,” she told me, “maybe you should look at what God has for you in the trip. There is a gift somewhere.”
After my experience Saturday night, I realize: She was right.