Holy Land Part 5
Jerusalem. What word conjures such holiness, division, hope, despair, healing and pain? All that deriving from its history, its politics, current, past and ancient and its religions. Jews have claimed that it is the center of the world. A couple of days of walking through the streets, hearing its sounds and feeling its thick religiosity make that statement hard to argue. It is reflected in all pilgrim experiences in the holy city of extremes.
Jerusalem is a strange place to want which makes it ironic how deeply it has been and is desired. Far from the water or easy access to commerce, this isolated city was chosen for political reasons rather than natural resources. The Jebusite people controlled it until King David conquered the city that had never known Jewish rule. This made it a perfect place to build the new capitol since neither the Southern kingdom from which David came nor the defeated Northern Kingdom could claim it as their own. Its greatest asset is its height. Built on three different hills, it was easily defensible even if terminally vulnerable to sieges.
Our first stop was at the Pool of Bethesda, a deep cistern only recently discovered where Jesus cured a crippled man. We were there because it stood at the head of the Via Delarosa, the Way of Tears, which traces station by station the way of the cross. The first two stations are most likely the most accurately placed until the end of the journey. The Antonia Fortress (named for Mark Anthony) was where Pilate held court during the Passover festival. Here is where Jesus was convicted and received his cross in what is now an appropriately dark and spare church with a window depicting the Lord in shackles. Emerging from that first street, the path deters from the straighter one Jesus most likely took to accommodate the modern lay out of the ancient city. As I progressed along the way, I was struck by two ordinary things that somehow still surprised me. As business people and families came out of their apartments, I recalled this not just a holy path but is now and was then a busy city with people doing their own thing oblivious to our prayers and perhaps oblivious then to the dire situation of the Galilean carrying a cross. Bread was brought from a cart and cars whistled down narrow alleys as we prayed each station.
The second surprise is more embarrassing to admit. Did you know that you have to go uphill to Mount Calvary? Of course you did. But to feel it in your feet, your legs and to imagine the burden of a cross and the bleeding of the scourging, makes every step that much more heartbreaking to contemplate. Up, up we went through the city, through the shops (Fifth Station souvenirs!), through a myriad of vendors, recalling the familiar stories but seeing it in brand new ways until we arrive at the holiest place on earth.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is not a quaint or recent chapel. It too has known the scars of the city having been a Temple to the Roman God and destroyed and rebuilt by many a conqueror. Any serious doubts about its authenticity have long been set aside. Its large dome encompasses Christianity’s two holiest places, the site of the crucifixion of Jesus and the tomb from which he rose. It is shared, often contentiously, by five denominations, the Latin Catholics, the Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Coptic and Ethiopian. Entering through its proud wide doors (and just beyond the Israeli police “Holy Sepulcher Division”) we climbed up yet more until we slowed at the chapel of the crucifixion. The line moved haltingly as a dramatic silver lined crucifix dangled over an altar. In a congestion of sacred drama, just before the altar is reached, a slotted stone is glass encased. These are the rocks that supported the cross. Beneath that altar is a stone. As you approach it, you bend down under it and place your arm though a small hole where you can touch the spot upon which the cross stood. Upon which hung our salvation. It is a dizzying and fast experience; emotional and heart pounding. I could not make sense of it until the tomb. But thus it always was.
We took our first steps downward in forever until we came to the slab of stone upon which his body was prepared for burial. Incredibly, it is available for venerating touch. A few yards away is the Christian holy of holies: the tomb of our Lord Jesus Christ.
St. Helen, the first Christian pilgrim to Rome and the mother of the Emperor Constantine, was guided to this place by the small surviving Christian community that had been worshipping and remembering it for three hundred years. She built a surviving obelisk like form over the tomb which itself remains two-thirds buried and is covered over in marble. We stood on a mercifully short line, roughly a fifteen minute wait. This is the province of the Greek Orthodox and a monk strongly regulates access. Within the tomb, and only there, we were told no pictures allowed. The decision seems holy and correct. The small entrance way is beautifully festooned with candles and icons. Three or four people are allowed in at a time, first to a small antechamber and then through an even smaller passage into the room of the tomb. The tiny room is nothing more than a kneeler and the marble top of the tomb. Its power is humbling. Here I literally had a touchstone moment: for all the troubles and suffering and heartache and pain and fear we face, the easiest thing to forget is that we have already won. Easter is forever. Our life and our freedom are guaranteed. So much of our lives are consumed by the struggle. Even the noblest ones for peace and justice cause a strain. And indeed we are called to carry the cross and to walk our Via Delarosa. But the cross always leads to the place of redemption; death always leads to life; tears turn into joy. It would be callous to ignore the needs of others, unChrist-like. It would be insensitive not to be aware of the pain of others and our own lives, inhumane. But it is foolish not to consider that we are not the final arbitrators of love; peace is ours to work for, but it is a gift from God. My touchstone moment as I pressed hard on that monument is not that the struggle is wrong. It is the struggle that imagines the destiny is ours alone that tells a lie. How much greater is the weight when we forget the victory has been won, the price has been paid, the darkness has been defeated and even death has met its match. The temporary amnesia that makes days feel like Good Friday restrict our ability to love; it limits our capacity to carry the burden and endure the struggle. The voice of the Lord said to me, “Be free. Be free. Be free. I have already won.”
How do you follow an experience like that? Jerusalem always has an answer. How about the holiest site in Judaism and the third holiest in Islam? Through the streets first constructed in the first century by the Emperor Hadrian, we headed to the Temple Mount. It is at this place that King David first instructed his son Solomon to build a Temple to God. Destroyed by the Babylonians, it was rebuilt under the auspices of the Persian king and reached its greatest splendor at the time of Jesus under King Herod.
Once it was destroyed by the Romans in 70AD as Jesus had predicted, Jews longed to be among even its ruins. All that remained of the massive structure was its Western Wall. For most of 1000 years, Jews pined to return to the site of the glory and as close as possible the spot where the Ark of the Covenant stood which contained the two tablets on which were written the commandments, but the rule of Christians and Muslims prevented them. It was not until the Six Day War of 1967 that the modern state of Israel regained access to the wall and it has become the center of Jewish life in the city. Segregated by male and female, Jews pray fervently by the wall and cram their written intentions in to the small crevices between its massive stones. Its rise of 100 feet speaks to the massive size of the Temple and the devotion of the people speaks to the pull and the power the place still holds. I was honored to approach it, embarrassed as a breeze carried my paper yarmulk off my head as I began to pray and humbled to pray where so many have cried, hoped and celebrated.
Above the wall on the Temple Mount, where the heart of the Temple had lain is the Majestic Dome of the Rock. There is but one mystical experience in all the Koran. The Prophet Muhammed dreamed the Angel Gabriel escorted him to the Temple Mount and from there was to be taken up to heaven in a chariot as was the Prophet Elijah. In the sixth century the shrine with the golden dome was built to commemorate the ecstatic travel of the Prophet. To this day, the Dome of the Rock dominates the Jerusalem skyline. A more traditional mosque with a black dome, Al-Asqua takes a prime position to the East and therefore closer to Mecca. The site has restricted visiting hours for non-Muslims and we were not able to walk in the courtyard. But surely there was as fervent prayer beyond the Western Wall among the mosques as there was at the base of the Wall – all praying from a similar tradition. We can only pray that the unity of prayer can overcome the sharp divide of the wall.