Today felt important. I believe it was important. There were quite a few interesting learning experiences. But there were three points when I felt personally connected in a way that leaves the world changed for me. Will I be a better person for them? I don’t know. But it feels significant.
The first point was at the Western Wall. Placing my hands and face against the wall and praying – laying my sins and failures on the wall, praying for mercy and blessing for myself, for those dearest to me, and for all those entrusted to my prayers – was like pouring my hope and concern into a great river of humanity’s prayers, a river flowing through the centuries. Each day, I pray for the Church, especially the Episcopal Church and Katharine. I pay for Joseph and Machakos, for Alex and Santiago, and for the Diocese of Nevada, our parishes and our people, naming those in special need. My prayers for the Church have changed recently as I’ve gotten more of a sense of how Jesus called the religious to repentance from their religiosity into an authentic love for God and God’s creation. At the Western Wall today, my attempt to pray for the Church immediately ricocheted into a prayer for people of all faiths that we might repent of our divisions and be united in an authentic commitment to each other’s well being. I left the Wall feeling considerably different than I had when I first touched it just a short while before.
The second point was in the Church that Western Christians call the Church of the Holy Sepulcher but Easterner Christians call the Church of the Resurrection. We did not stand in the long line again to pray in the aedicule over the spot where the Church commemorates the burial and resurrection of Jesus. I am not persuaded that is the spot. The piety people practice there confuses me. See JMHH Part 1. Moreover, the tomb that was discovered there in the 4th Century crumbled away long ago. That space is now a lovely vault artificially manufactured to evoke religious emotions. But tucked back in a dark less frequented area of the church, you can scrunch down and virtually crawl down through a tiny tunnel to two genuine 1st Century tombs. Some say that one or the other of these tombs may have a better claim to being the actual burial place of Jesus than the place under the aedicule. Even if they are not, it was a place like this where his body lay and the miracle happened.
Two of us led the way, half crawling our way into that cramped stygian hole. I knelt beside the tombs not out of reverence but necessity and held the flashlight app of my I-phone on the tombs while each members of our group came down one by one to see the burial places. These tombs had not been aesthetically designed to evoke piety. They were just the gloomy place of despair where hope was buried and reborn. I felt especially privileged to be shining light into the tombs so that my fellow pilgrims could see them.
A brief educational digression from this spiritual confession: The burial practice in the first century was to place the body in such a tomb and enclose it with a rock. Then after the body had been given time to decompose, about a year, the family would remove the bones, clean them, and place them in an ossuary.
The third point of reference moment for me today was at Golgotha. There is something of the Protestant historian about me that frets over whether a sacred place is where something really happened. If a place is deemed holy just because we feel it is holy, that works for me. But if we say it is holy because something happened there, I want to know whether that’s true. Golgotha is the real deal. This is where it happened.
There are two chapels – one Roman, one Orthodox – located over the rock of Golgotha. Linda and I went to the Orthodox chapel. As we approached the altar, we could look down through a glass floor at the rock. Under the altar was a hole in the floor. Like each person before me, I knelt under the altar and reached down through the floor to place my hand on the rock. There I prayed for forgiveness for all my failings and to be changed into the person God would have me become.
There are many theologies of the atonement; a lot of explanations of what difference Jesus’ death, descent, resurrection, and ascension make for us. There are eight such theories on two pages of Romans. They make my head spin. I loved a sign I saw today at St. Anne’s Basilica: “No explanations inside the Basilica.” I have some explanations of the atonement I sometimes think are helpful. But today, I only knew there is one specific atonement doctrine I don’t believe and another vague one that I do. The specific one is that God needed someone to pay the price for our forgiveness. That would not be the God I believe in. The other is that there is something written into the order of things – karma is a good enough name for it -- so that sin has consequences. Blood cries out from the earth. A price must be paid – just not to God – it was a thousand years after Jesus before anyone said the price had to be paid to God. But I know my failures to love, my selfishness, my cowardice, my duplicity, my envy, my pride, my greed, my faithless fears, my many, many sins of omission and commission – and I know they deserve consequences. To trust that God in Jesus has taken those consequences into himself for my redemption is my hope for this world and the next. With my palm against the rock of Golgotha, this was not an abstract idea. It was as palpable as stone on flesh. All the other atonement doctrines may be interesting and even helpful on some other day in some other place. But today at Golgotha, I understood redemption simply in my heart. And I trusted that by the power of all Jesus did and does, I will not only be forgiven but also transformed.
Those were the big moments spiritually. But there were other points of real engagement with the Jesus story. One was the Pool of Bethesda where Jesus healed the paralytic who was not entirely sure he wanted to be healed. Bethesda captured my attention because, like Golgotha, this place is the real deal. We know without a doubt this was the Pool of Bethesda that was a sort of Waters of Lourdes in Jesus’ day. This is where people came to be healed. What I don’t know much about is the ruins that surround the pool – except that quite nearby at a higher level is a Shrine to Asclepius, the Roman God of healing. My one learning from the visit was that it was not easy to get down to the pool in the first place. I used to think of the paralytic as a total slacker. I now see him as someone who had almost made it to his destination, then lost his drive at the very edge of the place he had been trying to go.
Earlier in the day we visited the Church of St. Anne, which purports to be the site of the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary. According to the agreed statement of the Anglican – Roman Catholic International Consultation, the traditional Roman doctrines about St. Anne (Immaculate Conception) and the Dormition of Mary point to theological truths we Anglicans affirm. Belief in those stories is a permissible Anglican piety – they are just not dogmas for us as they are for Roman Catholics. Personally, I am fine with Joaquin and Anne. But if the BVM was bodily assumed into Heaven, I need the story line to be coherent, which for me means she needs to have lifted off from Ephesus. I have been to her house there. (I don’t know that it was really here house. But if she was in the care of the Beloved Disciple and he was the leader of the church in Ephesus, it would have been a perfectly good place for her to live.) So my mythical Mary spent her final years in Ephesus. She spent precious little of her life in Jerusalem. I just can’t see her ending her mortal life here. Jerusalem was not a great place in those days. Ephesus had the sea and was the only city on earth with streetlights.
We passed by the Armenian Orthodox Church that purports to have the Upper Room in it. Again, my skeptic kicks in.
We also visited the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Temple Mount – that is we were outside. We were not allowed inside the Mosque or the Dome of the Rock. But I did learn something that changed my feeling about that place. The Temple Mount is a large flat open area atop the mountain where Solomon’s Temple stood in 1000 and Herod’s Temple stood in the time of Jesus. The Dome of the Rock is a magnificent Islamic Building that occupies a central portion of the Mount. It is in an important place because it stands over the rock on which Abraham may have almost sacrificed Isaac (or Ishmael depending on which holy book we are reading) and Solomon’s Temple may have extended over this area. But it does not cover anything alike the total area of Herod’s Temple. It does not cover the area believed to have been the Holy of Holies.
Herod’s Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. Christians regarded that destruction as fulfilling the prophesy of Jesus. Jews for the most part replaced Temple sacrifice with Torah study and observance (something the prophets had been advocating for over 800 years). When the Christians took over Jerusalem the first time during the reign of Constantine, we had no interest whatsoever in the Temple Mount. We used it as a garbage dump. When the Muslims displaced us, they scrupulously refrained from desecrating any of our holy places. But they restored the Temple Mount as a holy place. When the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem, they sacked the Mosques. But when the Muslims came back, Saladin refused to disturb the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Muslims have preserved the Dome of the Rock – which they hold to be the place Mohammed ascended into Heaven. We need to remember they didn’t take it away from us. It was never ours.
A final head-shaking note on the Church of the Holy Sepulcher: six different Christian denominations laid claim to the building during the days of Muslim rule; so the Sultan divided the place up and gave each denomination jurisdiction over a part of it. The border skirmishes are intense. On an outside ledge, some construction workers left a ladder 160 years ago. It’s still there. They can’t decide whose job it is to move it.