For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘Jerusalem

Today marks one full week since my return from sabbatical. And by “full” week I mean FULL week. Last week was our monthly Council meeting, Ash Wednesday service, and the biggest event of the year, a Sausage Supper fundraiser where our little church fed over 700 people. Also, I returned to a nearly-completed construction project and four hospitalizations last week alone.

A full house for our Sausage Supper! I love these folks. (Photo by Ann Swilley)

The good news is: it’s great to be back. I was fearful that I would return half-heartedly, that I would long for the quiet days of sabbatical, or discover my passion had waned. None of those things has been true. It has been my heart’s joy to reunite with all the folks of the church. I struggled during sabbatical when major events were happening in people’s lives, and I was not a part of them. Now, I am able to return to my vocation, to offer pastoral support to people I have come to know and love, to be involved in the church I care so much about. There have been the requisite stresses and details that no one wants to have to handle, but those have been dwarfed by the joy of re-engagement. Leading worship on Sunday morning felt like coming home again, as though everything was right with the world.

The bad news is: the spiritual disciplines I so carefully cultivated during sabbatical were already washed up in the first week. And in Lent even! When I started the week, I was delighted to discover that my ritual of morning and evening prayer had become so much a part of me that I felt adrift without it. Rather than a burden, these spiritual disciplines felt like the anchors holding me steady in the hectic return. I was overwhelmed with conversations and news from people’s lives, and I craved the silence. However, at some point late in the week, I fell asleep exhausted without pausing for reflection. One day, I woke up with a migraine, and I just slouched out the door having barely opened my eyes, much less focused on praying a psalm. The next morning, I forgot altogether. The pastoral disciplines I had so ardently carved into my calendar didn’t make it through the first week either. I wrote my Ash Wednesday sermon in the pre-scheduled time, with great focus. But the time allotted for my Sunday sermon gave way to two hospital visits and an urgent meeting over an interpersonal conflict, which meant it was Saturday night writing again.

Here is the difference sabbatical has made: realizing that today I can pick up where I left off. Sabbatical was only a week ago. The personal and pastoral disciplines are not long-lost fantasies. So what if I messed up a few times last week? It’s Monday again, and I can start over. Today, I returned to the morning psalms, the page still bookmarked where I abandoned it. The distractions in my mind were more annoying than they were a week ago, but Psalmist’s words helped a great deal: “you encouraged me with inner strength.” (Psalm 138:3) After morning prayer, I realized that I needed to cultivate my inner strength by returning to my introverted ways. I needed to spend time writing this reflection, and so I did. I have made my list of tasks for the week (my first to-do list since I gave them up for sabbatical). I will include in my schedule a large block of time for sermon preparation before Saturday night, and hopefully this time it will hold up.

One of my readings at morning prayer said, "May you experience Jerusalem's goodness your whole life long." (Psalm 128:5, CEB) That is what spiritual disciplines help me do---experience to the presence of God in everyday life, just as I did during my pilgrimage. (Photo of a Jerusalem street, by me.)

Crazy, hectic weeks like last week will always be a part of ministerial life. They will always be a part of any life. The key is not letting crazy and hectic, or tasks and to-do’s, become the norm. It would have been very easy to wake up this morning and head straight into hospital visits, to-do lists and newsletter articles. Instead, I recognized I needed to stop and reorient myself. The gift of sabbatical has been to restore me to those disciplines that will sustain me in ministry. Prayer is called a “discipline” for a reason—it is a way of disciplining your self and your life in the shape of God. All those pressing tasks will get my time and attention, but not before God does. That’s why I got into this ministry thing in the first place. I was so in love with God and I wanted to find a way to show that love to others.

As I re-enter and re-integrate my spiritual life as a pastor and a person, I want to keep God at the center of every day. That’s easier said than done, but it is what must be done for me to continue to delight in this pastoral life. It’s good to be back—back to work, and back to the spiritual disciplines that sustain the work.

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The Dome of the Rock, looking from the front of the al-Aqsa Mosque

It’s hard not to be captivated by the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. The stunning gold dome and blue tile stand out boldly against the creamy white Jerusalem stone everywhere else, and its beauty is unparalleled in the city. I was fascinated before I even arrived. Having read so much about the history of the city, I had attached all kinds of sacred meaning to the historic Temple Mount, now known as the Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary. This giant platform hovers over Jerusalem, its activities invisible to those below except for the shiny gold of the Dome of the Rock.

The Dome of the Rock

This “high place” has a long and tangled history as a holy place. Although there is no archeological evidence and some scholarly debate, many believe it was the original site of Solomon’s Temple. It was definitely the site of the Second Temple, built by Herod the Great in the first century before Christ. Herod took a natural hill and extended it out with fortified walls into the 35-acre platform that still exists. In 70 CE, the Romans destroyed that temple as part of their attempts to quash Jewish uprisings. The only thing remaining from Herod’s magnificent temple is the Western Wall, which was one of the walls of the platform, not the temple itself. In the Byzantine era, the Christians ignored the remains, and even used the platform as a dump.

View of the Haram al-Sharif from the Mount of Olives. The small gray dome on the left is the al-Aqsa Mosque.

When Caliph Omar conquered the city peacefully in 637, he recognized it as a holy site and cleaned it up as a Muslim shrine. He adopted the Jewish tradition that the large outcropping of rock was Mount Moriah, site of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son (Isaac or Ishmael, depending on your faith tradition). He also began the tradition of the Temple Mount as the site of Mohammed’s night journey to Jerusalem, making it the third holiest site in Islam. Omar built a small wooden mosque at one end of the platform, the original al-Aqsa Mosque. Caliph al-Malik built the Dome of the Rock at center of the platform in 691, enshrining the rock outcropping. It has been restored and rebuilt many times. With the exception of the short occupation by the Crusaders in the 12th century, the Haram al-Sharif (the name of the whole platform, which means the Noble Sanctuary) has remained in Muslim hands and cared for as a holy site.

Aerial view of the Haram al-Sharif, showing the gardens and smaller buildings surrounding the Dome of the Rock.

Unlike all the other sacred sites in Jerusalem, it is forbidden to wandering travelers. You must pass through extra security to enter, and non-Muslims are only permitted on the Haram al-Sharif for a few hours in the morning. The rest of the time, it is reserved for prayer for the Muslim community. I had not realized before our trip that it was open to visitors at all, so I felt privileged and amazed to walk around and see it with my own eyes.

Security to enter the Haram. On the left, security to get to the Western Wall. On the right, to the Haram.

The Haram itself was a beautiful array of buildings, gardens and fountains. The beautiful Dome of the Rock is at the center, and the oft-rebuilt al-Aqsa Mosque takes up the southern side. On the surrounding sides are an array of smaller buildings used as Qur’anic schools and administration buildings, along with several smaller shrines and statues. The whole place did indeed feel like a sanctuary. Gathered in small circles on plastic chairs, separate groups of men and women sat studying the Qur’an and praying together. The trees and the gardens, the buildings and the people invited peaceful attention to the glory of God. Unlike the gawdy gold domes on many state capitols here in the U.S., the ornate blue tiles and reflective gold dome did not feel like an ostentatious display. It was the crown jewel of the city, the most beautiful human space to complement and glorify the beauty of God’s presence.

Circles of women gathered on the Haram for Qur'anic study

A group of men gathered at another spot on the Haram. These small gatherings made the whole platform feel like a church campus.

We were met by Dr. Mustafa Abu Sway, a scholar of Islam at al-Quds University and a friend of one of our leaders. He gave us a rich insight into the history of the holy place, but what stands out in my memory is the perspective he offered on the present realities of Muslim life in Jerusalem. The Israeli police have confiscated more and more buildings on the Haram, for use as security outposts. Although the site is Muslim property, there are uniformed, armed police everywhere. The government has instituted age limits for permission to worship at the mosque on Fridays (the Muslim holy day). The age limits vary between 40-50, and they are always announced on Thursday evening. No one under that age is able to come to worship at the Haram. Israeli security claims this is an effort to prevent demonstrations and violence. Palestinians must have a special pass to enter Jerusalem at all. In 2008, the government revoked the rights of more than 4,500* Palestinians to enter the city. Many of them were lifelong residents of Jerusalem, and lost their employment when their passes were revoked. Even more, they lost their right to pray and worship at the Haram.

Dr. Mustafa Abu Sway speaking to our group in front of the al-Aqsa Mosque

Dr. Abu Sway told us about the bureaucratic tangle of building permits for Palestinians in Jerusalem. For Jews, a building permit is easy to obtain and costs less than $2,000. For Palestinians, the process takes many years and costs over $30,000. He and his wife finally got permission to build a home for themselves after five years of waiting for a permit, and their home was to be built on land that his wife’s family had already owned for many years. Many of his friends have become impatient with the permit process and constructed homes without a permit. Just a few weeks back, one of his fellow professors had his home of ten years demolished when the authorities discovered it was built without a permit.

Dr. Mustafa Abu Sway climbing the steps toward the Dome of the Rock

As non-Muslims, we were not permitted to enter the Dome of the Rock or the al-Aqsa Mosque. This has nothing to do with Islamic custom, attire, theology or anything else. Always in the history of Islam, non-Muslims have been welcome to enter any mosque, and even to pray there in their own tradition. However, the holy spaces on the Haram have been closed to non-Muslims as an act of solidarity with Palestinians in the West Bank, who are forbidden from entering Jerusalem and praying there. The leaders of the community felt that it was unfair for non-Muslims from across the world to have access to this sacred site when faithful Muslims a few miles away were denied the right to pray and worship there.

Listening to these stories, I felt even more grateful for the opportunity to visit the Haram at all. It felt like an act of gracious hospitality to open the Noble Sanctuary to visitors, even in a limited way. It was indeed a forbidden space, a place of mystery to many—to Orthodox Jews who are not allowed to enter because rabbis have declared it too sacred; to Muslims in the West Bank denied the right to pray in their own holy place; to Christians and tourists too intimidated by the security restrictions; to all those faithful pilgrims so caught up in their own holy sites that they do not venture into the holy site of another faith.

When the Psalmist writes about the tribes going up to pray together in unity, this is the glorious mountain of which he or she speaks. Dr. Abu Sway said that, before the restrictions, more than 400,000 people would gather on the Haram for Friday prayers during the last week of Ramadan. Imagine such a mass of people gathering at one place in peace. Imagine the nations of the world, with their many names for God, coming together to pray as one. This is the spot where the Psalmist imagined it could happen. The faiths of Jerusalem exist side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder, yet we cannot yet unite our voices in prayers and in peace.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.”
For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say,
“Peace be within you.”
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.
 —Psalm 122 

*Corrected number: I originally remembered this as 400,000, instead of 4,500. Thank you to Dr. Abu Sway for the correction. See a link with more information in his comment below.

By the time we finished Hana Bendcowsky’s tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we were on information overload and sensory overstimulation. Thankfully, it was time to go to lunch. We didn’t realize, however, that our lunch was going to be an even more worshipful, insightful, emotional time—and would last well into the afternoon.

Our lunch was hosted by Wujoud, an organization dedicated to remembering and honoring Palestinian culture and especially empowering Palestinian women. Turning off one of the crowded stone paths of the Old City, we entered a building that you wouldn’t know existed from the street. Inside was a small museum, but we went upstairs where we could smell lunch cooking. It wasn’t a restaurant, simply a small kitchen and a few tables set up for us in one room. The women in the kitchen were preparing a Palestinian dish called “upside down,” which was made of cauliflower and carrots and onions on the bottom, rice on top, cooked all together in one pot. The trick is then to flip the dish over and keep the rice standing in the shape of the pot—hence the name “upside down.” Our cook was a master, and it was both beautiful and delicious. Although all the meals we have had have been delicious (especially lunch, which is at a local restaurant, as opposed to breakfast and dinner at the hotel), this one was one of the best. Not just because of the good, homemade food, but because it was prepared with love and served with warm hospitality. The environment felt more like a church supper than a restaurant in a foreign country. We all treasured the space they had created for us and the meal they had prepared.

After lunch, they invited us to tour the museum, but not before we met Noora Qertt, the director of the organization. Noora is a Palestinian Christian, and she has dedicated her life to preserving the culture of her people, empowering Palestinian women, fighting for justice every day, and living her Christian faith as a daily witness to peace. Her witness, her energy and her courage were awe-inspiring. Her organization has a collective of 550 women doing embroidery at home to sell in her shops and in collaboration with churches around the world. They have women learning to be professional chefs and jewelry-makers, and playing in sports leagues, along with many other programs.

Noora Qertt sharing her inspiring stories.

Noora told us about the building we sat in, which was a gift from the Orthodox church to her organization in recognition for all her good work. However, the building was falling apart when she received it, so she had to raise half a million dollars to restore it. Once she had the building, she went to people’s homes and looked through the old things and furniture they had representing life among the Palestinian people, then she talked them into donating it to the museum. The walls were covered with old photographs of Palestinian life before 1948. Downstairs, there was a room divided in two halves, like two Palestinian homes, one wealthier and one poorer, with a hearth and furniture and food and the things of home. They had amazingly beautiful hand-embroidered clothing, baptismal gowns and hats, along with furniture and woodwork from Palestine’s past.

One of the sample hearths in the small museum

The name of the organization, Wujoud, means “existence” in Arabic. Noora’s work, first and foremost, is to help the world hear from the Palestinians: “we exist.” They are a real people, with a real heritage and culture and faith—some Muslim, some Christian. Noora had worshipped alongside us just a little while earlier in the Arabic Orthodox Chapel at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where she has worshipped her whole life. Regardless of your opinion on the State of Israel, its current actions and history, or the way forward, Noora made powerful claims about the history of her community in this place. Just as an example, she said that when she gave a lecture once, someone asked her, “How long have you been a Christian?” She answered curtly, “Since Pentecost.” The Christians in this area claim their roots worshipping Christ here since the first century.

View from the roof of the Wujoud building, looking down at the street.

That story was one among many Noora told that showed her courage and refusal to be diminished, in spite of occupation. She told the story of a building project that her organization was doing in the West Bank, building a gym or school or other community building. The engineer was stopped at a checkpoint and asked to strip down. He refused the command in order to maintain his dignity, choosing instead to return to Noora with his resignation from the project. Instead of letting him go or telling him, “this is just how it is,” she asked him to accompany her back to the same checkpoint. When he pointed out the officer who had made the demand, Noora got out of the car and began walking up to him. Every gun was trained on her, but she showed that she was carrying nothing and kept moving slowly forward. She approached the officer, and told him about what had happened. She did not beg him, she did not plead with him. She explained that her organization and what they were doing in the West Bank would help eliminate violence by giving productive work and community, and she needed her engineer to be able to pass with his dignity intact. The officer was unmoved. She appealed to his humanity, “I can see you are not this man with a gun. You are a faithful man with a family back home that you want to return to. Tell you what I’m going to do for you. I’m going to pray for you. I’m going to pray that you get to go home from here safely, back to your family, that you never again have to pick up this gun and work at this checkpoint anymore, and you get to return to your life again.” With that, the officer relented, “Go, go,” he said, and let her and the engineer pass through smoothly.

Noora told many other stories like that one, and what I heard in all of them was how dehumanizing the Palestinian occupation is, not just for Palestinians, but for the Israeli Defense Forces guarding the checkpoints. Noora’s story was an account of the everyday work of making justice and peace. It was not about solving the thorny mess of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it was about restoring the dignity and humanity of her engineer by restoring the dignity and humanity of the soldier, using her body and her prayer as a path to one moment of peace and justice.

I have long preached that peace and justice begin with each one of us acting in the world with love and compassion, but Noora’s stories gave me a whole new appreciation for what that might look like. In my daily life, how do I restore dignity and humanity to those around me, so that we can approach one another in a just relationship? In situations where I am powerless, do I work to reclaim my own humanity by speaking to the humanity of my antagonist? In situations when I am powerful, how do I restore dignity to those who are powerless? Would I have that kind of courage and imagination to act outside of the rules, and thereby change the situation altogether?

Sitting and listening to Noora was like being in church, and I felt the Spirit in our midst.

Noora’s work and her example made a profound impact on me. The hour at lunch and hour listening to her stories felt more like church than anything else we had experienced so far that day, on what was supposedly the most holy site in all of Christianity. Her faith inspired her to act with love even for her enemies, to be courageous in the face of great danger, and to refuse to let anyone but God tell her who she is and what she is worth. I am grateful for her witness.

It’s Sunday again, and we got an early start to worship at the holiest pilgrimage site in Christianity—the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We were led by Hana Bendcowsky, who is Director of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, which handles relationships between Jews and Christians right here in Jerusalem. Although she is Jewish, she is the foremost expert on the Church, and the chief appreciator of the Christian worship that takes place in it. The history of the church is one of inter-Christian conflict, as churches vie for every inch of space they can claim in this holy place.

In the course of two hours, we made a progressive worship journey through six different services, all taking place within the various chapels of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, right on top of one another. There was a seventh service also happening, but it was a Roman Catholic Mass, which all of us have attended before (although maybe not in Latin). As a group of Protestant pastors, all the various orthodox forms of worship were completely foreign to us, as were the languages in which they were performed. Yet we found ways to connect with each of them in different ways. (There are no photographs from these worship services, because I attended to worship, not to tour, and it felt inappropriate to take pictures. The photos are from the visit we made on Saturday, or on Sunday after worship was completed.)

We began with the tiny Ethiopian Orthodox chapel on the roof outside the church itself. The Ethiopian Orthodox used to have a place in the church, but they did not have enough money to pay their taxes, so they were kicked out. They forcibly occupied their current chapel less than 50 years ago, and the local authorities have ruled that they can stay. We entered toward the conclusion of the service, as the bishop was offering the blessing. Even though the service was in a foreign language, with foreign customs, we all recognized immediately what was going on, as each member of the small congregation (less than 25 people) removed his or her shoes to enter the altar area, and then approached the bishop. They kissed his cross, and he blessed them. While the custom and power of the bishop is foreign to Protestants, the act of blessing at the end of worship is just like home.

The tiny chapel of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church

From there we moved on to the Coptic Christians, who have permission to use the very back side of the structure above the tomb, but only until 8:45 a.m., when they have to be out of the way so the next service can begin. This service was right out in the center of things, where tourists were beginning to roam, but the faithful gathered around carefully. They were very welcoming to us, once they realized we were with Hana and we were attending with the spirit of worship. As we arrived, the bishop was sprinkling everyone heavily with water, to remember their baptism. People received the abundant water with prayerful glee, rubbing it over their faces and into their scalps. A large basket emerged from a back storage room, overflowing with fresh, round bread, similar in size and shape to a pita. The basket moved hand to hand overhead to the bishop, who blessed it. Then the worshippers crowded in, hands extended, reaching out for bread, pushing their way forward (gently) to get a piece. It was a huge basket for just 25 or so worshippers, so everyone got a big piece. We held back, unsure if we were allowed to partake. Hana whispered that this was not communion (which would be closed to us), this was blessed bread, and if they gave it to us we could have it. And give they did—generously! Each of us received a big hunk of bread to taste and enjoy. I don’t know what the symbolism or meaning of the blessed bread is for the Coptic Christians, but for me it was a symbol of welcome and inclusion. It reminded me of Jesus feeding the 5,000—there is bread enough for anyone who is hungry, and it has been blessed just for you. It tasted great, too! Later in the morning, we crossed paths with the Coptic bishop again, and he invited us up to his home for tea. Although we had to decline, I knew his welcome was warm and sincere.

The booth that holds the altar of the Coptic church.

Behind the Coptic space, buried in a tiny chapel, was the Syrian Orthodox worship service. We visited their empty chapel on Saturday, and saw its shameful state of disrepair. The altar was falling apart, the glass covered in dust, the walls covered in soot. All this stems from a dispute between the Syrians and the Armenians over the chapel. The Armenians claim ownership of the chapel, but the Syrians have a right to worship there. To clean the chapel is to claim rights to it—so the only way they have kept the peace is to have no one clean or repair it. When we returned on Sunday, however, the whole chapel had been transformed. Bright tapestries covered the crumbling walls, altar clothes rendered the broken wood invisible, and the red and green and gold vestments of the clergy made it the most colorful service we had seen. We could only peek inside, because the door landed us at the front of the chapel and there was no non-intrusive way to enter.

The chapel used by the Syrian Orthodox, in disrepair on Saturday.

My glimpse at the Syrian transformation reminded me of all the storefront churches I’ve known. A Haitian church that I worked closely with in Boston worshipped in a former synagogue. An African-American church met in an abandoned grocery store. My college church met in a transformed bank building. They all renovated and transformed the church with decorations and furniture to make it feel like a sanctuary. Sacred space need not be built-in, it can be created in any kind of space where people gather.

From the Copts and Syrians we made our way to the large Greek Orthodox chapel, where their mass was in its final stages. There were only a few worshippers scattered around the edges of their space, the largest of all the chapels. Our group was far larger than the gathered congregation, but they had occupied the edges of the sanctuary. We were trying not to block their view, to be quiet and respectful and inconspicuous, but it was difficult. As I tried to pass by toward an unoccupied piece of wall, one of the nuns stepped forward and said sharply, “Down! Down!” Another colleague and I dropped to one knee instantly. When it became clear that we were going to be there awhile, we switched to two knees. That was not any more comfortable on the stone floor. At one point, I started to get lightheaded, and slumped down to reposition for a moment so I didn’t pass out. The same nun rapped me on the shoulder immediately. “No good! No good! Up! Up!” Back to my knees I went, and there I stayed until it was time to depart.

A nun sweeping the floor, a sacred act, in the Greek Orthodox chapel at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

It was a strange experience. Unlike the Copts, this nun went out of her way to make us feel uncomfortable in their worship service. We were uncomfortable already, trying to be respectful and not knowing what to do or where to go or what was being said. It was even stranger because, next to us and the disciplinarian nun, there were three nuns chatting and talking and sharing needlework designs—so close that their skirts kept touching my arm as I kneeled. I’m not sure why they could stand in her way and talk, but we had to kneel. My knees hurt and my legs fell asleep while I kneeled there, so I meditated on the sacrifices and hardships of all the pilgrims who have come before. This was a small measure of discomfort by comparison. Even more, I thought of the people I have known over the years that are just like that nun—and how much I appreciate them, even as they are a pain in my knees. There are always those people in the church who strive to protect the decorum and honor of the worship service because they passionately believe God deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. For this I admire them, even if I wish they would learn how to be more welcoming and hospitable to those who are seeking to worship, but don’t yet know quite how.

Pilgrims performing devotions at the Stone of Unction, a tradition that at first seemed unfamiliar and made me uncomfortable.

I was grateful to finally get up off my knees and move on to the Armenian service on the second floor. All these services happen simultaneously, and the Armenians were by far the best singers—we could hear them singing everywhere we went, which sometimes made it hard to hear the rest. They had plenty of room to worship—or so we thought. The all-male choir was about 30 strong, and they were arranged in two lines in a U-shape, facing the altar. The room stretched back behind them quite a way, so we filled in the back, only to discover that the choir was about to make a procession right where we were standing. A verger of some sort gently instructed us on how to move out of the way. Shortly after, they began something we all recognized immediately—the passing of the peace. The peace began with the bishop, who put his hand over his heart and gave the kiss of peace to the two priests on the chancel with him. They then passed the peace in the same way to the choirmaster, who started it around the circle in the choir. The peace was not simply a greeting each person initiated with his or her neighbors, it was a sacred blessing that was received from the bishop and passed through you and on to the next person, until everyone had received it. I loved the idea of passing the peace in this way, hands on hearts, one by one. It reminded me of the light of the Christ candle on Christmas Eve, the way one light is passed from one hand to another until the whole room is illuminated.

Our final stop was with the local Palestinian Christians, who conduct a mass in Arabic in a small chapel just outside the door to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. These are the Christians who have been worshipping in this part of the world since the time of Jesus. Unlike the other worship services, which are mainly attended by a few monks and nuns and the priests or bishops who officiate them, this was a parish church. There were families and people of all ages. The chapel did not just host the formal weekly masses of a shrine, but baptisms and weddings and confirmations. We were greeted immediately, even though the service had already begun, and the women in the back section moved over to make room to squeeze all 22 of us into a few benches. Rather than simply ignoring us, these women in the back pews pointed out what was happening in the service, and tried to explain it in a few short English words. The moment I most felt God all morning was when one of the women squeezed my hand and whispered in my ear, “Paternoster,”—the Our Father, the Lord’s Prayer. We all opened our palms to the heavens, imitating the gesture they made, and listened to them pray the same prayer of Jesus we all pray, in another language, yet still the same Christ.

My overwhelming impression upon worshipping (however briefly) with all these communities at the Holy Sepulchre is that my own branch of Christianity is just so small. Our United Church of Christ is one branch of Protestantism (which is not even represented at the Holy Sepulchre), and only in one country, the United States. My understanding of how to worship and of the language of God is but one tiny sliver in the grand scheme of Christianity.

There was much that was foreign about worship at the Holy Sepulchre, but it is the moments of familiarity that I will remember most. In spite of our many languages and diverse music and different theologies and divergent aesthetics, we know Christ in the passing of the peace, the sharing of bread, the creation of beauty, the reverence of worship, the Prayer of Our Savior. Thanks be to God.

Jesus looking down from the ceiling of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

(This marathon post represents only the first half of our day, and doesn’t scrape the surface of the lecture and information Hana shared with us. I’ll write another post about the rest of Sunday’s activities—look for it tomorrow.)

This morning we awoke to the sounds of Jerusalem—the call to prayer being sounded from the minaret, the monks singing down the hall, the traffic horns beeping outside.

After breakfast and morning prayer, we rode the bus to Augusta Victoria Hospital, a Lutheran mission outpost in Jerusalem serving the Palestinian population. We delivered over 1200 books to be distributed among the four schools they operate here. The books were collected by students at Wartburg Seminary, and we brought them over with us as an extra checked bag. A local pastor and an intern greeted us and introduced us to their work with the schools and the hospital, the only hospital were Palestinians in the West Bank can receive radiation therapy for cancer treatment, and the only pediatric oncology and dialysis available to the Palestinian community. I was grateful to hear their story, because the discrimination against the Palestinians is often invisible in tourist quarters. I thought about our driver, Talib, who lives in Jerusalem with his wife and six children. If they ever needed medical care, this would be the only place available to them. Even though our part in the effort was very minor, we all felt a great sense of gratitude for being able to contribute in some small way to this effort.

Standing atop the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem.

From there, the bus drove us to the top of the Mount of Olives, with a panoramic view of the entire Old City, including the Dome of the Rock, Al-Aqsa Mosque, Church of the Holy Sepulchre and more. I felt like I was staring at a postcard, and couldn’t believe it was the real thing. The place has been so legendary in my mind, and what I see all around me match so well to the images in my mind that I struggle to believe I’m really here.

One of many postcard-perfect pictures of Jerusalem.

After snapping a few (dozen) pictures, we began to walk down the Mount of Olives, through the Garden of Gethsemane, across the Kidron Valley, and back up into the Old City through the Lion’s Gate, then followed the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is the same path Christ would have followed during his last week, according to the biblical narrative. On Palm Sunday, he rode down the Mount of Olives into the city through the Lion’s Gate. Then he and his disciples left the city to pray on the Mount of Olives in the Garden of Gethsemane, and he was arrested and returned to the city again, then carried his cross out of the city down the Via Dolorosa. The crucifixion took place on Golgotha, outside the city gates, and he was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimithea. Both of those traditional sites are housed within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

I had expected the sites in Jerusalem to be packed with pilgrims from every nation, unloading from tour buses just like ours. I had expected the sites to be laden with the things of Christendom, packaged and enclosed in darkened sanctuaries. I had expected the onslaught of vendors trying to sell us every kind of souvenir as we went. I also expected to feel somehow connected to the story of Jesus, his crucifixion and resurrection along this journey. My first three expectations were met within moments of arriving at the top of the Mount of Olives. My last one took more effort to discover, but I did find God’s presence throughout the day.

Our first stop as we wound down the hill was at the Dominus Flavit (Jesus Wept) chapel. This beautiful little chapel reminded me of the sites in the Galilee—a simple church with a beautiful clear glass window framing the city of Jerusalem, reminding us that Jesus sat on this hill and wept for Jerusalem. With the window framing both the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the state of Israel, it was poignant to contemplate that Jesus would still be weeping over this city and its conflicts. As in the churches in the Galilee, I was touched by the way this simple shrine connected the ancient story of Jesus to the ongoing story of God in the world. It was my favorite spot on the whole route.

Dominus Flavit Church, looking through the window to the city of Jerusalem.

From there we arrived at the traditional Garden of Gethsemane. The garden is a small, fenced-in grove of olive trees, no bigger than a nice suburban backyard. Biologists claim that some of the trees were alive at the time of Christ. They were beautiful in their gnarled branches and teardrop leaves and shady trunks. We were only allowed on the perimeter, so we could not touch them or enjoy their shade. There were also many other tourists packed in around us. Still, as we read the story from the Gospel, with a little imagination you could picture Jesus and the disciples relaxing in the shade after a long day of preaching and walking through Jerusalem. Next to the small garden was another church, supposedly built upon the rock where Jesus prayed before his arrest. The church was always kept dark, to simulate night in the Garden, but it was simple and lovely.

Olive trees at the traditional site of the Garden of Gethsemane

Mass underway at the church of Gethsemane

We crossed the Kidron Valley and began to make our ascent into Jerusalem via the Lion’s Gate (which was covered over for construction). As soon as we arrived, the energy and crowdedness of the Old City closed in on us. The Lion’s Gate enters into the Muslim Quarter of the city, so there were many Muslims entering the city to pray at the mosques in the Old City.

The Lion's Gate, under scaffolding

Our first stop was at St. Ann’s Cathedral, a Crusader church next to the excavation of the pool of Bethesda. The church might once have been covered in beautiful art, but now it was just a simple stone building (having survived during the Muslim rule by being turned into a Quran school). The building’s true beauty is aural—its acoustics are stunning. We were the only group gathered at the time, so we stood in a circle and sang, first a round in Hebrew called Hava Nashira, then Holy, Holy, Holy. God felt so near in the beauty of the sound resonating off the walls and echoing in our worship. The 1,000 year old church delivered us into the Divine Presence not because of the antiquity it enshrined, but because it was a vehicle for our voices to sing praise now.

The acoustical ceiling at the Church of St. Ann

Just a few short blocks away, a man was carrying dozens of circular loaves of sesame-covered bread on a platform on his head. One of our group leaders wanted a taste. She didn’t have proper change, so she just bought three loaves. In the middle of the crowded street in the Old City, we broke the bread and passed it from one to another. It was fresh and delicious, and it was communion. Together we broke bread, and shared it, and Jesus was in our midst.

There were no words of consecration, but this sure felt like communion to me.

From there we followed the Via Dolorosa, which was a crowded street full of vendors vying for our attention and our dollars. The various stations were enclosed in churches along the way, but one blended into the other. To be honest, I was more fascinated by the color and sound and smells of life in the street than I was in remembering a solemn walk from 2,000 years ago. There were mostly Arabs, but also a few Jews and lots of pilgrims from all over the world. I could smell spices and incense and lunch being cooked. I could see all colors of skin and styles of clothing. I could watch people making the trip of a lifetime next to people making a daily trip to the market. God was present to me not in the ancient blood and suffering, but in the beauty of the people and their lives today.

The Via Dolorosa

At last we arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Crusader church housing the traditional site of Golgotha and of the empty tomb. There are no words, no photos that can capture the immense sensory experience inside. (On Sunday, we returned for worship and a more complete tour, so I will write more about it then.) The building is falling apart, and the various Christian groups inside have been vying for space and ownership for so long that they cannot agree to repair it unless it is absolutely critical to safety. It is dark and cramped, but worn with pilgrims’ prayers. Everywhere you look, you can see someone kneeling, someone praying, someone else taking a picture, someone else looking lost.

One of the chapels in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Once upon a time, this site would have been an outcropping of rock outside the city walls. It may have been the site of the crucifixion, which meant it would have seen many other executions during the Roman era. For thousands of years, it has also been revered as the site of Jesus’ tomb, which meant it would have been a graveyard for many others. Today, it is an enormous religious edifice, the site of prayer and pilgrimage, the cause of much of what is ugly and shameful in our Christian history (like the Crusades), and the reason for ongoing conflict between competing Christian groups.

The structure (inside the main church dome) covering the tomb that supposedly belonged to Christ.

One of my colleagues said, as we stood under one of the enormous domes, “I don’t really feel God here. I feel us here—the weight of 2,000 years of history piled on us in this place.” That was my experience exactly. When I arrived at the Holy Sepulchre, I felt the weight of Christian history upon my shoulders. Jesus left us a living legacy, an invitation to sing praise to God, to break bread in his name, to serve one another, to love all people—and we have built a shrine on the site of a tomb and an execution. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre made me want to ask for forgiveness from God for all the unholy things we have done in Jesus’ name.

Jesus escaped the tomb, but the church has not. We still worship at tombs—not just the shrine at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but in liturgies that care more about preserving the past than conveying the gospel into the future, with buildings that are falling apart because no one can agree on what color the new carpet should be, in church business that cares more about preserving the church than serving the community. I saw Jesus today not at the tomb, but out walking around, resurrected—in songs sung to stones, in books given in peace, in bread broken with love, in people of every color and language. I am moved to confession over the ways I have not always followed that Jesus, and inspired to rededicate my life to the living Christ.

The door to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Jesus is not held in or out by any door.

Today was the longest, busiest day by far since we arrived in Israel. I feel overwhelmed by the depth of information and experiences to process today. I was thinking earlier that I felt like I covered 5,000 years of history today, and I realized that’s about right. We left the Pilgerhaus this morning at 7:45 a.m. (after a 6:45 morning prayer service and 7:00 breakfast). It was a terribly early hour, but it enabled me to catch the sunrise over the Galilee before we left, which was spectacular.

Sunrise over the Galilee

From there we went to Megiddo, which is a tel above the Jezreel Valley, between Mt. Carmel and Mt. Tabor. The city was occupied from approximately 4,000 BCE to 400 BCE. Archeologists have excavated 28 separate layers of occupation, from the Canaanite period, the Israelite period and beyond. The site has a horse stables and training ground, a giant below-ground granary, a Canaanite temple, an Israelite palace, city gates from the Bronze Age and Iron Age, and connections to the kingdom of Ahab and Jezebel. By far the most impressive feature, however, was the underground water system. Similar to the one at Tel Hazor, this was an underground pathway to a spring to maintain the town’s water supply during times of siege. It also dates to the 9th century BCE, but the tunnel was longer and deeper than the one at Tel Hazor. The ingenuity and engineering is amazing.

Below-ground granary at Megiddo. Notice two steps of steps around the outside---one going up, one going down.

Looking down into the entrance of the water system. It didn't look like a big deal to walk down.

Until you get inside, and realize you've only just begun your descent.

When you finally get to the bottom, you have to walk through a long, dark tunnel, around 10-15 yards long.

Until you at last reach the water source. (And then you have to go back up.)

We travelled on to Caesarea Maritima, which was built by Herod the Great as a way to please the emperor in Rome and prove his loyalty. It is also the city home to Cornelius, whose conversion by Peter is told in Acts 10. The site has the ruins of a theater and hippodrome, a Roman aqueduct, Herod’s palace and more. It also has remains from the Byzantine and Crusader eras, including massive Crusader walls and a fortress. Best of all, though, Caesarea Maritima was a harbor city, with the first century’s largest Mediterranean harbor. That meant we got to see the Mediterranean Sea, and even had 30 minutes of free time just to walk on the beach. And, you know by now, that meant I was in the water up to my knees and splashing all around.

The Roman theater at Caesarea Maritima

Oh no! The ancient lion head is about to eat me!

The remains of the hippodrome (racetrack).

Roman aqueduct at Caesarea Maritima

Posing before the remains of Herod's palace, by the Mediterranean Sea.

Splashing around in the Mediterranean waters

After that brisk sea walk, we piled into the bus for the two-hour ride into Jerusalem. We could see the landscape begin to change very quickly. The peaks grew less mountainous, and the ground grew drier and more full of rocks. Traffic got thick in Jerusalem, as everyone hurried home in time for Shabbat. We entered from the northwest side of the city on the road from Tel Aviv, and passed through several neighborhoods of orthodox and ultra-orthodox Jews. Apparently, the police even close the roads in those neighborhoods during Shabbat, since orthodox Jews do not drive on the Sabbath.

Driving into Jerusalem toward the Old City, we caught a glimpse of the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the walls of the Old City. We are staying at the Notre Dame, which is right across from the New Gate (only 100 years old) into the Old City. The first thing I noticed is the noise. In addition to the traffic and city noises, there seems to be music everywhere. Walking down the street, sitting in our hotel room, in the lobby or out in front of the hotel, you can always hear music coming from somewhere. Usually, it sounds like prayer, but it’s hard to tell if it’s in Latin, Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, or something else entirely.

The New Gate into the Old City of Jerusalem (built in 1889), which is across from our hotel.

We had 45 minutes to check in to the hotel and change clothes before heading to Shabbat service ourselves at Kehillat Yedidya. The description of this particular synagogue made me think at first that it was an oxymoron: a progressive orthodox synagogue. Indeed, that was the perfect description. The members of the synagogue followed orthodox practices such as seating men and women separately and following kosher and Shabbat laws with the strictest attention, but they also expressed a desire that their religious practice would make them more open and inclusive to the world, not less so. Debbie Weissmann, a founding member of the congregation, gave us an introduction to their vision and philosophy, but she also preached the sermon in this rabbi-less congregation. Tomorrow, they have planned a women’s service, where women will even read the Torah. Their facility and worship is specially designed to be welcoming to people with special needs and disabilities, and they see welcoming visitors (especially non-Jews) as a core part of their ministry. She even used the word “inclusiveness” repeatedly, which made me feel like I was back home in my United Church of Christ. I never imagined that I would find an orthodox congregation that shared our values, although lived out in such a different way. It was so refreshing to hear that message that is at the core of my own ecclesiology reflected in another tradition. Even though the service was in Hebrew, so I couldn’t understand it, I followed along in the English-language prayer book and felt a profound joy in knowing that the message proclaimed there echoed back home in my own congregation.

It’s no wonder I feel exhausted at the end of the day. We were on the go from sun-up to sundown, and we crossed thousands of years of history. At one point in Megiddo, we entered the city gate and then walked up a short staircase, no more than 10 steps. Claudia, our tour guide, said, “We just went up 1,000 years on that staircase.” That’s what this day has been like. In just a few short hours, we have traveled from Canaanites to the Israelites to the Romans to the Crusaders to modern Israel, and even to cutting-edge Jewish religious practices.

The Notre Dame Hotel at night.

That’s a perfect metaphor for the City of Jerusalem, and for this land as a whole. “We just went up 1,000 years on that staircase.” This place exists simultaneously in past and present and future dreams, as well as in our mythological imagination. As we move from one place to another in the city, we will be journeying across years of history in just a few short steps. That is the uniqueness of Jerusalem, and its power.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World, by James Carroll, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011, 418 pp.

James Carroll’s book is like the inverse of Karen Armstrong’s book. Armstrong carefully catalogs the facts of history, and lightly draws inferences of some overarching themes in Jerusalem’s history and lore. Carroll sees mythic stories at work and uses the facts of history to document a narrative of the psychic and spiritual idea of Jerusalem. One is a primarily a historian of religion who is also an adept writer and storyteller. The other is primarily a writer and storyteller who also engages in the history of religion.

I will not try to weigh in on the accuracy of the history as Carroll retells it, but I did not read anything that seemed shockingly different than any of the other histories I have read in recent weeks. What was far more surprising about this book is how little it said about the history of Jerusalem at all. Much of what Carroll discussed in this broad, sweeping tale of human history was the history of sacred violence, from the first hunters who killed to eat to the temple cults of sacrifice to monotheistic theologies to American wars for the mythic ideal of freedom. Carroll attempts to document the phenomenon of “Jerusalem fever,” a captivating obsession with fantasies about what Jerusalem is and what it means. While sometimes that Jerusalem fever intersects with the history of Jerusalem itself, Carroll’s narrative talks as much about prehistoric hunting as it does about King David, more about Abraham Lincoln and John Winthrop than it does about Saladin and Sulieman, and most of all about the human psychology of sacrificial violence.

In the end, I thought Carroll told an interesting story. Like a good journalist, he took the facts and made them into a narrative. He used the idea of Jerusalem throughout history to explore and explain the connection between violence and the sacred. He hypothesizes that religion is born to make sense of the sacrificial killing (38), but the Bible enshrines a counter-narrative of peace, that “God does not sponsor violence, but rescues from violence” (54) and monotheism, when God is the God of all people, offers an opportunity for conflict resolution (61). The book often feels like traveling down a series of rabbit holes, like following an interesting train of thought and ending up somewhere unexpected.

There were several of these explorations that were particularly interesting:

  • The Holy of Holies in the Jewish Temple originally held the Ark of the Covenant. After the first destruction by the Babylonians, the Holy of Holies was forever left empty. That emptiness expanded with the destruction of the temple, and then the Western Wall, where people come to pray for what is not there. With this nothingness comes the theology that God is beyond all representation, all idols, all human knowing and captivity—an idea that has potential to overcome conflict and violence. (303) This actually reminded me of a thesis in one of Karen Armstrong’s other books, A History of God.
  • He documents the move in Christian theology from the worship of Jesus for his life and ministry to the worship of Jesus for his sacrificial death and resurrection. That shift is intimately connected with Constantine’s rebuilding of Jerusalem and the “discovery” of sacred sites there, which is directly connected to the relationship between Christianity and empire.
  • He connects the 15th century explorers to the legacy of the Crusaders, including a letter from Christopher Columbus in which he expresses his desire that all the bounty of his discoveries be spent in the recovery of Jerusalem. (153)
  • Lincoln resurrects the vision of America as a New Jerusalem, creating the narrative of the quest for freedom, in order to justify the enormous bloodshed of the Civil War. National “union” was not enough to merit such sacrifice, but a vision of freedom and a New Jerusalem was. Apparently, Lincoln spoke to his wife of his desire to see Jerusalem just moments before he was shot by John Wilkes Booth. (231)
  • Jerusalem was the imagination and inspiration for Britain during World War I, as General Allenby desired to inspire the people by conquering the city as a “Christmas gift,” and poet Wilfred Owen compared the sacrifice of Isaac to the sacrifice of soldiers in war. (235)

In his conclusion, Carroll projects a struggle between “good religion” and “bad religion.” Good religion promotes peace, equality, unity, tolerance, and revelation of God. Bad religion involves coercion, violence, dominance, and salvation from God. This struggle is the story of Jerusalem, in myth and in reality.

While I enjoyed reading this book, it was a challenge to follow Carroll’s many threads. There was no clearly developed or cohesive argument that I could outline, just a general thesis about the connections between the ideas of Jerusalem, religion and violence. Carroll is a good storyteller, and I appreciated the tale he wove in this book. He is also dogmatic in his pacifism and in constant struggle with his Catholic heritage, and both those strident attitudes came through strong in the book, for good and for ill. I’m not sure I gained a depth of understanding about its history, but I learned a lot of interesting bits and pieces about how Jerusalem functions in the dynamics of Western history, politics and national psychologies.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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