My name is Jessa, and I live in the city where Jesus died. It's also the city where Jesus rose from the dead, and every day hundreds of pilgrims travel long distances from all over the world to visit the site where this happened, and to contemplate this grand and beautiful mystery of our faith. For me, it's just a twenty-minute light rail ride to the Old City of Jerusalem.
And today, Ash Wednesday, Catholics all over the world begin our forty-day journey to Easter, the day we celebrate this mystery. Also, today is possibly the only day anyone in this country will know for sure that I'm Catholic.
When my husband and I first arrived in Jerusalem a few months ago, our landlord, a well-meaning secular Jew (that is, a person who identifies as Jewish through family history but is non-practicing), gave us a tour of the surrounding neighborhood and lauded its many qualities. "It's a good neighborhood," he said. "It's full of secular people like you and me."
I'm not at all what I would consider a secular person. Every week I have to clean the tops of my shoes after wearing them to kneel in church. I pray before meals, and in fact, many of my days are a long string of prayers to a God I consider a close friend. With my Protestant background, I can quote a relevant scripture whenever it's called for. Every morning, I take my temperature instead of the pill. My husband and I recently renewed our wedding vows for the fourth time in three years of marriage because we have this faith-nerd habit of attending marriage retreats on a regular basis. And last month, we spent an imprudent percentage of our disposable income on a beautiful nineteenth century icon with numerous saints and a tiny tableau of the Transfiguration on it. And I was as giddy as I would be if I had purchased a pair of really cool shoes instead. (Better, in fact, because I don't have to clean the top of the icon after kneeling.)
No, I'm not a secular person.
But I live in a city where most people can be matched to their religious affiliation from a distance of 100 yards or more. Most people, but not me.
Jerusalem sits right on top of an invisible border between two countries, or a country within a country. It is a two-mans land, or no-mans land, however you'd like to see it. The change from one country to another is almost imperceptible, but in the space of a few short blocks, you look up and all the Hebrew has been replaced with Arabic, all the sheitels have been replaced with hijabs… and you're in Palestine.
Wait, what's a sheitel, you ask? What's a hijab? Certain types of faithful in Jerusalem dress in certain ways. Observant Jewish women must wear skirts, pantyhose, and shirts that reach at least to their elbows and collarbones. Married women cover their hair, either with a hat or scarf or a special wig called a sheitel. There are also ultra-Orthodox haredi Jews who never wear colors, are almost always dressed in black and white, and always have a distinctive business-attire look about them. In contrast, the way that Muslim women dress varies greatly on their country of origin, their status in life and their age. Some wear body-skimming floor-length coats that hide everything, while others consider long pants and long sleeves modest enough. But almost all grown women have one thing in common: the iconic head-and-neck covering, called a hijab.
But what about Christians? Can you identify a Christian as soon as you see one? Sure, a habited nun or a white-collared priest or a Franciscan in his distinctive brown robe can be spotted from far away. But what about the rest of us, the lay people (or the consecrated people without distinctive clothing)? A crucifix here, or a saint's medal there. Here in Jerusalem, many Christians wear a beautiful distinctive cross with arms of equal length and four small crosses in the angles: The Jerusalem Cross. These small outward signs are beautiful, but they can only go so far. However, we might have something better.
The Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) and Jewish sacred teachings in the Talmud, and the Muslim holy book, the Qur'an, contain various laws for looking and behaving a certain way. But as Christians, we believe that "Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty" (2 Cor 3:17). As Christian women, we are free to dress as we like (though many of us choose to dress modestly in order to honor and respect our gender and ourselves). We are free to leave our hair uncovered (though women in some Orthodox denominations and even some Catholics choose to cover their heads while in church). But, to the outside world, including my landlord, our freedom might leave us looking, at first glance, just like all the "secular people," who have a different kind of freedom. While the Muslim and Jewish holy books will tell you to keep your arms covered, ours instead tells us how to act toward one another. In fact, Jesus says in the Gospel according to St. John, "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:34-35). We are not meant to be seen from a long way away. We are meant to interact, to mingle, to get close enough to love.
In fact, perhaps one of the things so politically dividing Jerusalem today is the fact that you can place any given person into their group before even talking to them. As a result, most people only stick with people from their own group. We Christians are the free agents.
Here in Jerusalem, people see me from a distance and immediately identify me with the group I most look like: the secular Jews. But all over the world, we Christians face the same challenge: to stand out from the secular world with the love we show for others. To get close enough to others to live by example. To get close enough to show love, instead of staying far enough away to show a head covering. To be close enough for them to see the cross necklace and realize where your love comes from.
…But all the same, maybe sometimes you do just want to wear a less subtle sign that says, "I'm Catholic."
So we give thanks for Ash Wednesday. The day that we smear the mineral residue of incinerated palm fronds on our heads as a symbol of how the death and resurrection of Christ will bring us new life. Forget the wig or the scarf. You don't get any more "in your face" (literally) with your faith than walking around all day with a big black smudge on your head. The ashes are a choice, not a requirement. We are not required to go to church today, and if you do, you're not required to accept the ashes. But even though it's not a Holy Day of Obligation, it's one of the most widely attended holy days for Catholics worldwide, and I've often thought that this external sign is why. When you leave church today, you are marked with a sign of your Catholic faith. People can, for once, identify you from a long way away. Do you act differently with that sign on your face? Do you think twice before an unkind word or action? Do you feel more Catholic when people know that you're Catholic?
Maybe today, someone will ask you a question about that spot on your head and you'll get the chance to tell our story. Maybe the ashes are the catalyst to turn a life lived in love into a life spreading the Gospel. But the rest of the year, you will be called to show your faith differently, through love alone.
The rest of the year, I may be mistaken for a secular Jew, or a Russian immigrant, or a new Israeli. The rest of the year, I may just be a kind face, or a kind word accompanied by a glimpse of a Jerusalem cross. The rest of the year, I'll just be the only blonde girl in the Muslim Quarter, or the only girl in pants on the train.
But today, I'm the Catholic.
Watch for me.
I'm Jessa, and I live in Jerusalem, in the land where Jesus lived. I'm an American Catholic girl and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. I'm a graphic designer, a crazy creative type, and a young wife to my best friend, the 6'3" Ecuadorean astrophysicist. I'm relatively new to the Church; I went through RCIA in college and became Catholic in 2006, and I'm still learning about the rich and beautiful tradition that is our faith. I also blog about my adventures in Jerusalem over at www.shalomsweethome.com.