Our pilgrimage was just beginning, yet we felt as if we were already getting a taste of the culture of the Holy Land. At the Toronto airport, we spotted a group of Orthodox Jews, no doubt on their way to Israel too. They were hard to miss, as the men were all wearing very distinctive traditional garments – elaborate silken coats, knicker-style pants and leggings, and barrel-shaped beaver hats. Fr. Nathan explained that they were Hasidic Jews, a particularly pious branch of Orthodox Judaism.
More than once during the 11-hour flight to Tel Aviv, I noticed men getting up in the early morning hours to pray. Donning the tallit, an off-white, fringed prayer shawl, each man draped it over his head and shoulders and faced east, towards Jerusalem, prayer book in hand.1 I was fascinated by his ritual: how he prayed with his whole body, the long curling loops of his side locks swaying with each movement. His attire seemed even more unusual because of the small leather boxes strapped to his arms and head – the tefillin (or phylacteries spoken of in Scripture) containing verses from the Torah. Among the Westerners on the plane, these men clearly stood out, yet so immersed in their prayer they seemed oblivious to anything or anyone around them.
Once we arrived in Jerusalem, this image was multiplied a hundred fold. Now it wasn’t merely Jewish people who could be seen wearing traditional dress; it was nearly everyone! We soon discovered that for the various peoples living in the Holy Land, faith is very external. In Bethlehem, we encountered a large group of Muslim schoolgirls out on a field trip. They were all dressed very modestly in long skirts, long-sleeved shirts, and headscarves covering their hair.
Even many Christians were noticeable – priests wearing clericals and Roman collars; monks in long white or brown robes; and nuns in various kinds of habits and headgear. Seemingly everyone was in a sense “wearing” his or her faith – and so openly and visibly. Yet nothing about it was offensive or off-putting. On the contrary, it was rather refreshing! There was no pretense or self-consciousness; everyone seemed comfortable expressing themselves and their beliefs in this way.
In our Western, North American culture, we’ve gotten so used to keeping our faith under wraps. For whatever reason, it has become such a private thing. Many people are almost apologetic about their beliefs and don’t want to offend by any outward expression of faith. Yet throughout Scripture, we read that as Christians, we are called to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ…”2 If we’ve been baptized, we are said to have been “clothed with Christ.”3 In light of these verses, it doesn’t sound like God intends for us to keep it quiet! Perhaps we could learn a thing or two from the residents of Jerusalem – that our faith, if it’s genuine, cannot be silenced. Rather, it becomes part of every fiber of our being, compelling us to live it with conviction.
So how do we manage to do this? Do we cover ourselves in crosses or crucifixes – the bigger, the better? No, I think Jesus had something else in mind. One writer from the first century described Christians this way:
“Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.”4
Certainly we can wear a cross, crucifix, or religious medal, but whatever we choose should not be mere ornamentation. It should, above all, be an expression of something from within: our faith in a God who loves us personally and unreservedly, so much so that He sent His only Son to die for us. Jesus shows us what it is that should set us apart – not our dress or appearance, but our unconditional and sacrificial love. For this is how we shall be known – in the way we live our lives and treat those around us. An old hymn says it best: “Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
– Kelley Holy
1 There are two different types of tallit, some completely off-white and others with black stripes, depending on which tradition is followed.
2 Romans 13:14
3 Galatians 3:27
4 Excerpt from a letter to Diognetus (Nn. 5-6; Funk, 397-401), written c. 130 A.D. Accessed at http://www.vatican.va/spirit/documents/spirit_20010522_diogneto_en.html.