Monday in Jerusalem
Israel is two things: a very dense 1 square kilometer old city in which everything significant happened, and also a place of sites that have been traditionally identified as “the actual spot”, most of which are covered by elaborate churches. Some of them have a good shot at being either authentically “the spot” (meaning, the layer of rock you can see is actually the 1st century Jesus/Roman layer) or else built on layers above the spot at the same location, which has been destroyed, built over, destroyed, and built over again for centuries. It has, after all, been 2,000 years; and for the first 313 years of Christianity, we were illegal, persecuted, and in hiding – not building pilgrimage sites and publishing maps. But Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and his devoutly Christian mother, queen Helen came to the Holy Land and asked the locals “where did it happen?” At times they were able to say “here” or “under here” (under this pile of rubble). It is relatively certain that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built on layers of destruction above the spot of the tomb of Jesus. If so, then the place we visited today, the Garden Tomb is not the correct site. However, this must be said; these two locations are not more than 1/2 mile from each other. The more “authentic spot” now has a huge church over it; the probably inauthentic spot has the advantage of looking more like what it did in Jesus’ day: it’s a lush garden; quiet with tall trees shading walkways lined with blooming flowers, and it is home to a private tomb of a rich person. Not only that, it is adjacent to an outcropping of rock that looks vaguely as if it could be “Golgatha” – the place of the skull. So, maybe the Garden tomb is 1/2 mile from the real garden – but it has the look and feel of the real thing, which makes visualizing it easier. At the Garden we held a communion service, each of us pastors in turn taking the cup and bread and offering it to the next until all were served. In the background, I heard another group of pilgrims in the Garden singing “Slava Gospodu” or Praise the Lord” in a Slavic tongue – Russian I think(?) – reminded me of our days in Croatia.
Next we made our way to the Western wall, or the wailing wall. What a party palace that was. Think of an African village having a major feast: the sounds of drums and singing in celebration filled the air! Several families were coming through the gate in succession celebrating a son’s Bar Mitzvah – when a Jewish boy turns 13 he takes on the “yolk of torah” and becomes a son (Bar) of the Commandment (Mitzvah). What a festival; dancing, singing, carrying around the boy on shoulders, blowing the shofar (ram’s horn) – and drums! Two drums at once, conga-like; and as I said, sounding like something I always associated with African rhythms. One of our group said “baptism should be like that”. Dead-right.
Another one of those authentic and not spots is Caiaphas’ house where Jesus was said to have been scourged. The church there now sits over a dungeon which was made for torturing prisoners as the Romans seemed to be good at (there are no new ideas). The dungeon has only one entry point: a round hole, like a street man-hole, down through which a prisoner would be lowered. Inside the dungeon there are actually holes in the rock wall near the ceiling for tying up a person to be scourged and left hanging. Clearly this would have been a perfect place to identify as the site of Jesus’ scourging. But in the first century it was probably not where the Romans did that – but then again, it’s very close to it, and looks very much as it must have looked. The totally authentic part of it is that there are steps going from that palace down the hill towards the Kidron valley towards the opposite hill called the Mount of Olives that are indeed 2,000 years old. Yes, it is quite likely that Jesus walked those very steps in the 1st century.
In the afternoon we toured the Citadel, a castle ruin. Now what you can see are walls built by the Crusaders, but the defensive towers are authentically Herod’s. In other words, when Jesus looked up and saw Herod’s palace, he saw those very towers.
As we gathered this evening for worship we sang a song that I wrote for this trip called (in haste, for lack of a better title) The Israel Song whose refrain is:
All through these years,
All through these empires,
stacked on one another,
I can still hear,
Your voice calling, calling,
“Come weary pilgrim,
Come to the waters…”