When sharing faith means sharing germs

Thursday 3 February 2011

Baptism and the kissing of icons may raise health concerns, yet faith often trumps our modern obsession with hygiene.

Every day, between three and four thousand Catholic and Eastern Orthodox pilgrims queue to enter the Tomb of Jesus in the holiest site in Christendom, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

One after one, these pilgrims share lip space with devout strangers as they kiss the stone slab, known as the Stone of Unction, on which Jesus was allegedly anointed. Many close their eyes as they do so. In May 2009, Pope Benedict himself, during his visit to the Holy Land, endorsed the practice when he was photographed bending and giving the stone a reverent kiss.

Like the rest of the tomb area, the slab is cleaned weekly. Archbishop Aris Shirvanian, who monitors the Armenian areas of the church with the Greek Orthodox and the Franciscans, said: “It is washed every Saturday with water and paraffin. The paraffin is needed because of candle wax.”

Some visitors recoil from the practice of sharing oral secretions with unknown people, but many others trust in God to keep them safe from infection. Such an attitude is not the preserve of either Christians or this Holy City. Many will point out that Allah provides his followers with similar protection in Mecca without apparent ill effect. During the hajj, over three million Muslims attempt to emulate the kiss given to the famous black stone by the prophet Muhammad. And in Jerusalem religious Jews routinely share more than just lip space by immersing themselves in ritual baths, known as the mikvah.

George Shand, the minister of the Scottish Church, overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem commented: “I speculate on the paradox of a ritual bath at a holy site like at the Pool of Siloam, where the cleanliness of the water is somewhat questionable.”

But the habit of faith over the modern obsession with “germ free” philosophy is ingrained here. This was particularly evident during the Greek Orthodox Epiphany in mid-January when around 20,000 Orthodox pilgrims visited Qasr al-Yahud, the alleged site on the River Jordan where John the Baptist baptised Jesus.

 

There was no danger that the locals and the faithful from Greece, Russia, Cyprus and Romania who plunged into the river would drown. The reduced water level allowed anyone to casually wade across from the opposite bank which is part of the state of Jordan. The danger lay elsewhere. Drought conditions have exacerbated the pollution from untreated sewerage and run-off chemicals – insecticides and pesticides from agriculture.

Nothing, it seemed, would dissuade these pilgrims from re-enacting the baptism of Jesus. If they were aware of the warning from the Friends of the Earth they disregarded it. Monitoring had shown that so much sewerage has been dumped in this historic waterway that there were 340 faecal coliforms bacteria per 100 ml of water.

In awe of the moment pilgrims who did not immerse their bodies in the “holy stream”, hastily filled up bottles with water. Some drank it there and then; others took it home to relish later or to keep as a holy souvenir. Some bottles will await future christenings.

On the way back from Qasr al-Yahud to Jerusalem bus loads of pilgrims stopped at the romantic 5th-century monastery of St Gerassimos, between Jericho and the Dead Sea. In the ancient church they were not deterred in the slightest by any germs that may have been left behind by the previous kissers. Hundreds lined up to close their eyes and passionately kissed a picture.

This practice, however, is not without a little censure. Here in the Holy Land, especially in Jerusalem, so deeply rooted in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim identity, sometimes members of other religions and atheists show disdain towards the Christian habit of kissing shared religious objects, especially crosses and icons – let alone a chalice or common communion cup. Such criticism makes no impact on faith overcoming good hygiene practices, as is seen in the Greek Orthodox Church. During communion the priest uses just one spoon to deliver the Eucharist into the mouths of the congregation. Usually, the possibility of contagion from shared objects is dismissed with remarks, such as, “This has been carried out in the church for near on 2,000 years.”

But it must be remembered that in Jerusalem a fine layer of dust from the Judean desert covers everything, including often, truth and judgment, even faith.