I never expected to get a tattoo. Until two months ago, I fully expected to go to my grave ink-free.
Then, as my wife and I were planning our just-completed vacation to Israel, I came upon a newspaper story about a Christian Palestinian family in Jerusalem that for hundreds of years has been tattooing Orthodox Christians as a permanent commemoration of their pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I showed the story to my wife, and she voiced the thought that had popped into my head: “You should do it!”
I was dubious but increasingly enticed. I discussed the idea with a few of my Orthodox friends. All were very supportive. My ninety-seven-year-old mother was aghast, but my nieces and nephews were enthusiastic about this new side of Uncle Wesley.
I emailed Wassim Razzouk,who currently carries on the family tradition near the Jaffa Gate. We made an appointment. Still, I wasn’t sure—I mean, at sixty-five, I’m not exactly a hipster.
My continuing efforts to talk myself out of it collapsed when Debra and I took a guided tour of Jerusalem, beginning at the Mount of Olives, winding through the Garden of Gethsemane, and reaching its dramatic end at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, in which are contained (according to tradition) Golgotha and the Empty Tomb.
As I walked through the church, I was moved deeply by the open and worshipful devotion of the thousands of other Christians there. With them, I climbed the steep stairs leading to Golgotha—where there are now Orthodox and Catholic shrines—and waited in line to venerate the very spot at which the Holy Cross is said to have been raised. I touched a marble slab placed at the spot where Jesus’s dead body is thought to have been wrapped, watching as the more demonstrative kissed the spot or even laid themselves upon it. I received a blessing from a Coptic heiromonk (priest/monk) in a small chapel built into the walls of the structure containing the Empty Tomb. (There were so many people waiting in line to see the spot of the Resurrection, I couldn’t get near it.)
It doesn’t matter whether these are the actual sites of Jesus’s death and resurrection. The point is that the church’s shrines forcefully focus and strengthen faith, almost compelling the believing visitor to contemplate the Christian command to love. In short, my hour in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher transformed me from a tourist to a pilgrim.
That’s when I knew I would get tattooed. The next day, at the appointed time, with Debra providing moral support, I met the very personable Wassim at his private studio in the Christian Quarter. I wanted something subtle, so I decided on a small cross on my inner arm, with “2015” under it to mark the year of my pilgrimage (in the traditional commemoration tattoo manner). We showed Wassim my own Armenian-style cross—the one given to me when I converted. He had the pattern and so set to work.
As Wassim injected the ink into my arm that will be with me until the day I die, he told us about a 101-year-old Ethiopian Christian he had tattooed the day before. He showed us the photo he had taken with her. She was beaming: She had waited her whole life to visit Jerusalem, and she wasn’t going to miss out on her tattoo!
In the days that followed, as we toured the Judean wilderness, visited the site where St. John the Forerunner baptized, and entered Galilee, I contemplated my tattoo. We live in an anti-Christian age in which blood martyrdom is a gruesome reality—as close as an hour’s drive from where I slept peacefully on Shabbat in Tiberius. In the West, orthodox Christians are threatened with social exclusion, ridicule, ostracism, and decline.
It is very sobering. I have declared myself a part of that Christian tradition, and the symbol of my faith is now imbedded on my body in indelible ink.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and a consultant to the Patient’s Rights Council.