The Candle

This blog entry about the events of Friday, June 19, 2009 was originally posted on June 21, 2009.

DAY 6 (PART 1):  There is a scene from 30 Rock where Tracy Jordan (played by Tracy Morgan) decides to convert to Catholicism and has a discussion about it with his boss, Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin).  Ultimately, Jack tells him, “Even though there is the whole confession thing, that’s no free pass, because there is a crushing guilt that comes with being a Catholic.  Whether things are good or bad or you’re simply… eating tacos in the park, there is always the crushing guilt.”

Unbeknownst to me until I already had non-refundable ticket months ago, I would be on this trip in the Middle East during my new adorable niece’s baptism ceremony back in New Jersey.  Mia (daughter of my brother markyt1030) would be officially welcomed into an organized religion to freely open Christmas gifts in the winter and search for Easter eggs in the spring — or rot in eternal damnation otherwise. 

Of course, I was raised Catholic and inherently have the Catholic guilt Alec Baldwin spoke of, and so, with my absence at a big family occasion, I had to do something to alleviate it.  I was already The Godfather to Logan, my nephew and Mia’s older brother, but for Mia I would be a messenger, spreading good faith and tidings from the holy town of Nazareth to Teaneck, New Jersey through the power of the Holy Spirit — plus a digital camera, a laptop computer, a wi-fi connection, and the internet!  I would light a candle for her in the Basilica of the Annunciation, take a photo of it, and post that picture in conjunction with a blog entry.

ZVI WAS TO PICK US UP at the convent at 9:30, which would have given me a good hour to do this if my alarm clock had gone off on time, which it didn’t.  In a crazed panic, I packed my bags and rushed off to the church with only about half an hour to spare. 

The Basilica of the Annunciation, the Middle East’s largest Catholic Church, was already in full swing with tourists and Christian pilgrims coming in to check out its history, its sacredness, and its decor.  During a reconstruction, different countries had been invited to donate an artistic interpretation of the Virgin Mary with Jesus, like Mexico, Australia, Spain, Portugal, and a gaudy one from the USA, with a 3-D Virgin Mary popping off the wall “hovering at the dawn of our sacred and cosmic destiny.”  My favorite was the offering from Japan, where the baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary are actually Japanese and dressed in kimonos(Konichiwa Jesus-san!)

But I had no time to admire them, I was on a mission.  A holy mission.  I asked the nice African woman working there where I could light a candle, but the offertory area was on the other side of a chained off area, unpassable until mass had finished.  Currently there was a special mass going on, for what I reckoned was a Christian pilgrim tour group, at the underground alter right at the grotto where the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her she was pregnant with God’s son (Luke 1:26-38, a gospel citing according to Lonely Planet).  She asked permission from a nearby monk, who told me I should go to nearby St. Joseph’s, the church at the north end of the compound.  I dashed up a spiral staircase to the upper church like Robert Langdon, ran outside, and raced up the hill. 

St. Joseph’s, built on what is believed to be the site of Joseph’s carpentry shop, was empty.  There were a few candles lit in a corner, but there were none that I could just light and give an offering like I’d be accustomed to in other churches.  Time was running out — and if it did, the Catholic Guilt Bomb would explode. 

“Do you sell candles?” I asked frantically at the gift shop within the church grounds

“No, you have to get it from the outside.”

Outside?  What what what?  You have everything else here — rosary beads, prayer cards — and there’s NO time!  Give me a candle now! I thought in my inner monologue with the voice of Jack Bauer.

I ran out of the shop and back onto the street.  It was 9:20 and I ran back to the convent to tell Lily if I could have twenty more minutes.  But she wasn’t there.  So I ran back down the hill, cut left and into the Arab market.  Luckily the first store had Christian tourist souvenirs. 

“Do you have candles?”

“Yes, we have.”

“Okay, I need one.”  NOW!

“We have this one,” the woman said showing me a big one in glass, “and this.”  It was a bundled wad of skinny candles melded together with lots of wicks on them. 

“This?  How do I light it?”

“You just light it like this,” she answered, holding the wad down and then up.  “[Make sure you melt some wax on the floor so you can stick it in and stand it up so it doesn’t fall.]”

“You sure that’s okay?  I don’t want to burn the church down.”

“Yes, all of the tourists by this one.”

“Okay.”

Candle in hand, I ran back into the church.  I showed the African woman my big multi-wick candle and explained the situation.  She said mass was almost over, and I could just wait ten minutes to go over to the offertory candle area in the actual church with the sacred grotto.  Yeah, my niece deserves to have a candle lit here, on the main stage of the Annunciation.  Fortunately I ran into Lily on the way back to the church, who gave me news that Zvi was running a tad late.

I attended the last few minutes of the Catholic mass, ironically wearing the Jewcy magazine t-shirt I got via Lilit, with a Hassidic guy playing double dutch with some black girls (a shirt concept I’d wish I thought up of).  Soon, mass was over.  “[In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit…]” ...and GO!

The African woman let me pass and I went over to the corner where other candles were placed on the floor and lit, under a crucifix with Jesus Christ.  As instructed I lit all the wicks on the wad of wax, let enough wax melt on the floor to build a sticky base, and stood it up on the floor.  The candle was lit.

Mission accomplished, I thought to myself.  The flame grew high, but steady.  More wax dripped down the sides, adding to the sticky base, so I was sure it wouldn’t topple over.  Yeah, look at that, Mia!  You have the biggest candle flame in all of Nazareth!  I took the photo with a pride, feeling a sense of connection with Catholics everywhere.  Woo!  Fire it up! Fire it up!  This one’s for you, Mia!

The big fire started to die down to a manageable flame (picture above), but suddenly a deacon(?) with a indistinguishable European accent rushed over and in panic, took a can with a candle in it, and extinguished my niece’s holy flame.  My heart sank.  “Hey, that’s MY candle!”  The black smoke from the extinguished candle rose up into the air.

He turned to me, all pissy.  “What IS THIS?!” 

He took the can and my big extinguished candle to the nearby back room and threw it out.  Right in front of my eyes.  My heart and faith sank to a new low.  How could he do this to me, on this, The Day Of My Niece’s Christening?

“That was mine!  How am I supposed to light a candle now?!”

“A regular candle!” he growled.  “What is this?!”  He was so disgusted with me that he left, leaving me speechless and dumbfounded. 

Time had run out; no time for an alternate candle.  Instead, I just put a shekel coin in a slot and lit one of the ghetto electric light bulb candles nearby.

“That counts,” Lily consoled me when I recounted my whole disenchanting encounter with the Catholic Church to her.  I could only hope that deacon guy feels guilty for the rest of his life.






Next entry: What Would Jesus Do?

Previous entry: War of the Salads




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This blog post is one of sixteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Holla! In The Holy Land," which chronicled a two-week journey through Israel, with jaunts into Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian West Bank.

Next entry:
What Would Jesus Do?

Previous entry:
War of the Salads




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