Posts Tagged ‘pilgrimage’
Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, by Marcus J. Borg, HarperOne, 2006, 343 pp.
As I prepared to travel in the Holy Land, I thought I would want a historical resource book (or two, but I never even opened Crossan’s Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography) to accompany the places and Gospel readings in the experience. I didn’t dig into it until the final few hours of the airplane ride home, so it became more of a way to assimilate all the information. Much to my surprise and delight, Borg also offered a way to process the faith experiences and God-moments that I experienced on the journey. As he has consistently done in recent years, Borg writes about both the historical Jesus and the living Christ with faith and insight.
Much of the content of the book was familiar to me, having read many of Borg’s other books such as Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, The Heart of Christianity, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time and The Last Week. Borg covers his familiar territory about the pre-Easter versus the post-Easter Jesus, the earlier paradigm versus the emerging paradigm of Christianity, basic Gospel source theory and the difference between John and the synoptics. After this familiar territory, he draws on his lifetime of study of the Gospels, their history and social context to draw a portrait of Jesus in his world.
Borg begins with the factors that influenced Jesus, including the domination system of imperial Rome and the Jewish practices of his day. He then draws out how Jesus experienced God, and portrays him as a Jewish mystic. Only then does he enter the synoptic vision of who Jesus was and what his ministry was about, giving a summary of the pre-Easter Jesus as a Jewish mystic, healer and exorcist, wisdom teacher, prophet and movement initiator. Examining the parables and aphorisms of Jesus, Borg then details what Jesus taught and believed about God. I appreciated the way Borg separated Jesus from God in this way. Christian doctrine claims (and I affirm) that Jesus was God incarnate, and so we often look at Jesus without looking as closely at the one to whom he pointed. Borg pulls out and clarifies what Jesus taught us about what God loves—God loves justice, and yearns for shalom in this world.
Borg summarizes Jesus’ message and mission as an invitation into a way of life, a way that centers on God, dies to self, repents and sees with new eyes, and loves what God loves, which is the world. Christ’s crucifixion was a culmination of following that way, confronting the domination system and overturning conventional wisdom. The stories of the resurrection have a two-fold purpose: they vindicate Jesus’ death, and they continue the movement. His followers realized that the way of Jesus did not die with him, that they still felt his presence among them, and continued the work he had begun.
What I appreciate about Borg, as always, is his ability to hold both the scholarly conclusions about the historical Jesus and the faithful conclusions about the living Christ. As he says about the Easter stories specifically:
The factual question is left open. A parabolic reading affirms: believe what you want to about whether the story happened this way—now let’s talk about what the story means. (280)
That was exactly the perspective I needed upon my return from the Holy Land. As I was reading Borg’s book, I was able to understand and interpret the scenes in the Gospel in new and deeper ways, having seen the land and the ruins with my own eyes. He helped me sort out, from all I had seen and heard, what were likely claims of the pre-Easter Jesus and what were the church’s claims about the post-Easter Jesus. Yet he does not dismiss the post-Easter Jesus as less-than or unimportant. The post-Easter Jesus, the living Christ of the church, is the ongoing experience of the mystical presence of God, like Jesus himself experienced.
As I said many times on my pilgrimage, I came looking for the Jesus of history, but I discovered instead the living Christ of faith. Borg describes it this way, specifically describing the story of Emmaus:
The risen Jesus opens up the meaning of scripture. The risen Jesus is known in the breaking of bread. The risen Jesus journeys with his followers, even when they don’t know it. (286)
This book was a great way for me to relive my pilgrimage experiences and the Gospel readings. Instead of just reminding me of the limits of historical knowledge, Borg gave me language to describe my experiences of the post-Easter Jesus while in the Holy Land.
His writing is a great gift to those of us who accept and appreciate the work of historical-critical biblical scholarship, who incorporate its wisdom and insights into our theology and understandings of scripture, yet still nurture a living faith that believes encounters with the living Christ are still possible, and strive to follow the way of Jesus even now.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
*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.
Today was our free day in Jerusalem. Apart from morning prayer and evening prayer, we had no obligations for the day, and we were free to explore on our own. While some in our group were eager to take in new sights, I felt overwhelmed by the rich experiences so far. I needed solitude, silence and space more than anything.
The one thing I did want to see was the Garden Tomb, so I walked a short distance from the hotel with a group first thing in the morning. The Garden Tomb was the discovery (invention?) of Major General Charles George Gordon, a British general in the late 19th century. Whether from historical doubts or simply dislike of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Sepulchre, he identified an area on the east side of Jerusalem, near the Damascus Gate, as the “true” site of Golgotha and the tomb of Jesus. The rock face does look a lot like a skull, even though it is currently covered up by a bus depot. There is a tomb there, and quite a large one, along with a large cistern and Roman-era wine press.
Scholars have since expressed major doubts about this site as a possible true location for Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, but the site still attracts major groups of pilgrims from across the world, especially Protestants. Yet still I wanted to come. Yet still they want to come. I suspect that their reason is the same as mine—whether or not the Garden Tomb has any historical or archeological connection to Jesus, it still looks just like I always imagined Jesus’ tomb would look. The site may not fit history, but it fits the picture in my head.
The caretakers of the site have transformed it into a luscious garden, with multiple gathering spaces for tour groups. They offered our small, disorganized band the opportunity to celebrate communion together—they provide the elements, we perform our own liturgy. Unlike the noisy, jostling competition at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Garden Tomb was quiet and invited solitude, rest and contemplation. Although it was no less man-made than the Holy Sepulchre, it was like an Olmstead park, designed to look natural and create a sense of peace and communion with the natural world. I loved it. I don’t know what it actually looked like when Mary Magdalene mistook Jesus for a gardener outside the tomb, but this is what I wanted it to look like.
There is reason to be cautious, of course, when holy sites conform too readily to our expectations. In some ways, the Garden Tomb felt like a Walt Disney production, designed to make all those who entered feel like it was the “happiest place on earth.” Its conformity to all my fantasies made me doubt it even more, and question what those fantasies said about me and my theology. Yet it offered me a great deal of solace to contemplate the resurrection story taking place in this beautiful, tranquil location. As I have been saying throughout this trip, it’s not about what may or may not have happened here 2,000 years ago (or more). It’s about connecting the ancient story to the presence of the living Christ in our midst. The beauty and serenity of the Garden Tomb gave a visual aspect to my faithful imagination of the resurrection story.
From there, one other member of the group departed for the other side of the city. He wanted to walk the Via Dolorosa, and I wanted to revisit the Church of St. Ann, which is at the start of the Via. When we were there on our first day in Jerusalem, we sang as a group. People urged those of us in the group with strong singing voices to take our turns at a solo, but I was not ready. In the moment, I felt like my voice wasn’t ready, and that it would feel too much like a performance and not enough like prayer. Still, I was haunted from the time we left by the desire to sing Mallotte’s “The Lord’s Prayer” in that space. It felt like an offering I needed to leave in that place, so I returned with only one companion.
When we arrived, another tour group was gathering to sing. Their faces were Asian, but they sang in perfect English, “Amazing Grace” and a contemporary praise song about “my chains are broken.” They might have been from anywhere in the world. When they left, there was a break. I offered my companion the chance to sing, since he is also a musician, but he declined. I knew I might not have another chance, so I closed my eyes, moved to the front, and began to sing “The Lord’s Prayer.”
Since I was a little girl, I have sung songs to God as my most intimate form of prayer. Even now, I will go to the church I serve when no one else is there, just to sing into the silence of the sanctuary. It felt like such an amazing gift to be (almost) alone in such a busy place, with tour groups filing in and out. My voice was far from perfect, because I was battling a cold at the time, but the space was so resonant it sounded full anyway. As the song worked through to its high notes and climax, I kept my eyes closed, but I could hear the scuffle of feet as people entered the sanctuary. Even in those few seconds, I could feel the tension—should I stop and make room? I didn’t want to perform for people, could I just quit? I decided that this was my offering, my prayer, and I should finish what I had begun.
When I opened my eyes, there were three Greek orthodox priests in full beards and vestments standing a few feet away, looking stern and surrounded by a large group of pilgrims. I quietly slipped to my seat, and they proceeded forward to sing and pray an entire short service together. I listened with delight to the echo of their strong chants from the rafters, the murmured prayers of the faithful circling the walls, still a bit nervous from having been overheard in my own song. When they finished, I bowed my head as they began to leave, trying to be inconspicuous. Suddenly, one of the stern-looking priests tapped my shoulder, “Bravo! Bravo!” he practically shouted, grinning widely and surrounded by gestures of approval from all the pilgrims. One of the last, an older gentleman, asked me if I was Czech. I told him I was American, and found out they were Bulgarian.
My companion left to continue down the Via Dolorosa. Even though my mission was accomplished, I felt such a sense of peace and joy that I did not want to leave. One by one, more groups came and went from the chapel, and I sat and listened to their songs. A group from Malaysia sang “How Great Thou Art” and the doxology. A group from Texas and Mexico offered “Sing Alleluia to the Lord,” and “Alleluia, Alleluia” in English and Spanish. Two members of the group began a duet in Spanish with many verses. Everyone else left, but they continued singing. The tour guide returned to urge them on once, twice, three times—but they concluded their song without leaving. A German group sang one tune I recognized, and one I did not. An English group sang “Amazing Grace,” with all the verses.
When I knew the songs and they sung in English, I joined my voice to theirs. Otherwise, I just sat and listened. My soul reached a deep level of bliss in that place. From all over the world, people came and made their offerings in many languages. I meditated on all the prayers and songs those walls had heard, reflected and absorbed over the centuries. The sanctuary itself is simple and plain, with grayish white stones stacked high. Its true beauty is only made known when people come inside and begin to praise God. The acoustics take over, and even mediocre voices are transformed into glorious praises.
After nearly two hours there, the priest and I were the only ones left. He told me that the groups were finished for the day, but invited me to stay for as long as I desired. Alone, I returned to the front of the sanctuary and began to sing again—a reprise of “The Lord’s Prayer,” “It is Well with My Soul,” “I Love You, Lord,” and more. My songs were my prayer, from a place of deep joy and ecstasy in praising God in that place. Soli Deo Gloria.
I found space, solitude and silence, but I also found music and movement and beauty. Thanks be to God.
The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred, by Phil Cousineau, Conari Press, 1998, 254 pp.
I purchased two books on pilgrimage before my trip, to read along the journey. I wanted this journey to be more than exciting travel—I wanted to encounter the Spirit there. As you can see if you’ve been reading the posts surrounding this one, that hope was more than fulfilled. Cousineau’s book offered the right insights and provoked the right questions to open me to the pilgrimage experience.
Cousineau does not write from a Christian perspective, and he takes a broad view of pilgrimage. A pilgrimage, he says, is a “transformative journey to a sacred center.” (xxiii) That might be the Holy Land, but it might also be any ancient ruins, or a natural phenomenon, or the home of a favorite author, or the grave of a pop star, if those places are sacred for the traveler. This book aims to help travelers become pilgrims by bringing them to mindfulness or “soulfulness, the ability to respond from our deepest place.” (xxvii)
Through storytelling from famous pilgrims, mythical travelers and ordinary people, Cousineau walks through the various stages of the pilgrimage experience. First, there is longing—the inward desire to see the world differently, to be challenged and changed, to find themselves anew and live life more fully. Then comes the calling and the departure, followed by more about the way of the pilgrim. Unlike tourists, pilgrims travel with intention, with the desire to see the sacred in every moment and discover meaning in every encounter. As such, the practices of reflection, walking, reading, writing, and being present in time become as much a part of the journey as the sights themselves.
Cousineau uses the metaphor of the labyrinth to understand the pilgrimage journey, inviting pilgrims to get lost in the deep places of their spirit, including room for brooding. I read this chapter just after Day Ten of my pilgrimage, and I connected with the struggles he described as a part of the transformative nature of the journey. At the center of the labyrinth is the arrival, the experience of arriving at that sacred place, both inward and outward.
I especially appreciated the final chapter, “Bringing Back the Boon.” Cousineau recognizes that a pilgrimage is not just about the pilgrim. If we are given the opportunity to be a pilgrim, it is not just for ourselves—we have a mission responsibility to return back and share what we have learned and experienced. There is work to be done when we return to help us remember the journey, and all that we learned. I feel like I am doing that work now—looking at pictures, completing blog post reflections, reading and reflecting, preparing to share with my congregation.
Cousineau’s book is an excellent resource for anyone who is interested in moving from a tourist to a pilgrim, and yearning to make their travel a more sacred experience. Pilgrimage doesn’t require a journey halfway around the world. You can engage a pilgrimage spirit for a trip into your own backyard. Cousineau will help show the way.
After the deep emotional and spiritual work we had been doing on our first few days in Jerusalem, all of us were relieved for a day of recreation in the desert. The day’s agenda included a trip to Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered), swimming in the Dead Sea, a cable car ride to the Monastery of the Temptation, and exploring the Tel as-Sultan in Jericho. All of these destinations were fascinating, but they did not carry such a burdensome weight of spiritual history. I was ready to engage the day with the joy and delight of new experiences.
We drove out of the city by going over the Mount of Olives, which is 2600 feet above sea level. In less than 20 miles, we dropped nearly 4000 feet—the shores of the Dead Sea are almost 1400 feet below sea level, the lowest place on earth. Our ears were a-popping! On the way, we again took one of the new roads built by the Israelis to facilitate Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which ran like a direct highway into the Judean wilderness. Our driver, Talib, pointed out that Palestinians were not allowed to drive on this road, but used the old Roman road that wound through the towns of Bethany, Bethphage and more. Everywhere you go in Israel/Palestine, you are confronted with the struggle over control of land and property.
We also saw many Bedouin encampments along the way. Israel has given the Bedouin citizenship rights, but demanded that they settled down from their nomadic practices. The encampments we saw in the Judean wilderness were rudimentary, although we saw evidence in the Galilee of towns and schools built especially for Bedouin communities. The major cultural shifts away from nomadic life among the Bedouin have not come easily, and poverty is in evidence everywhere.
The highlight of the Bedouin territory, especially for those of us who are the parents of young children, were the camels. There were camels everywhere! They caught us by surprise on the way down, but we vowed to have our cameras at the ready for our return. We all wanted a photo of the camels to show our children when we returned.
Our first stop was Qumran, where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by a young Bedouin boy in a cave in 1947. Between 1947 and 1956, nearly 1,000 scrolls were found in nearby caves, preserved almost perfectly for 2,000 years. They represent copies of Hebrew Bible books, along with community rules and logs from the Essene community. The scrolls have made major impacts on biblical scholarship, and it was fascinating to look out on the hillside and see the caves where they were found. Next time I see a note in my study bible about “Q4,” I’ll know that it refers to a scroll found in Cave 4, which I saw with my own eyes.
Qumran has since become a site of major excavations, uncovering the community life of the Essenes. The Essenes were a Jewish sect that existed from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century CE. They chose to withdraw from the Second Temple practices and follow a stricter community rule which included common meals, ritual baths, celibacy and group living. Many think John the Baptist had some connection with the Essenes. The Qumran site has uncovered their cisterns, aqueducts, dining area, and many ritual baths, along with artifacts and Dead Sea scrolls that detail life in the community. It was fascinating to imagine a community living in the desert in such ascetic conditions.
From Qumran, we completed our descent to the shores of the Dead Sea, where we donned swimsuits and took a dunk in the famous salt and mineral-laden waters. Swimming in the Dead Sea was just pure fun. Each of us cast aside our concerns about body image or looking graceful, and just acted like children at the beach. Any hope of dignity soon disappeared when the knee-deep mud at the water’s edge caused most of us to fall in immediately, covered in the (supposedly beautifying) Dead Sea mud. The 28.5% salt and mineral content makes it impossible to sink in the Sea, but it also is challenging to get any parts of your body to stay under the water! As a group, we laughed and laughed as each of us tried to shift our weight and get our feet underneath us into a standing position, only to see them bounce to the surface again. Once we got the hang of floating, we even engaged in some synchronized swimming, much to the amusement of ourselves and our colleagues on the shore.
Like our “polar plunge” in the Sea of Galilee, floating in the Dead Sea felt like the healing waters of baptism. Casting off any cares and concerns, I just let my body get covered in mud and float around awkwardly in the water. Our tour guide told us, with a wink and a smile, that a swim in the Dead Sea minerals will make you look 10 years younger. I’m not sure my skin felt that much smoother, but my heart definitely felt lighter from the joy and playfulness of the place.
After cleaning up and changing from our swim, we headed into Jericho (part of the West Bank). You wouldn’t think that the forbidding monastery built into the cliff cave on the Mount of Temptation (traditional site of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness) would also be a site of joy and playfulness, but when you have to take a cable car ride to get there, it has a certain amusement park feel to it. Our group piled into three cable cars to make the five minute ascent to the top. We laughed and took pictures of the amazing view, and someone even started a light-hearted Hava Nashira, with each car singing one part of the round.
The monastery is only 350 meters above sea level, which doesn’t sound like much until you remember that you’re starting near the Dead Sea, which is nearly 1400 feet below sea level—so it’s actually a steep climb. At the top, the monastery itself hovers out over the sheer cliff face, looking over a series of caves that have served as hermitage sites for Christian monastics since the first centuries after Christ. We got our exercise with more switchback steps on the mountainside, but it was worth the workout to see the spectacular view from the monastery. On the right were the hillside caves, and on the left were the monastery cubicles built off the side of the mountain. Although this was first developed as a monastic site by the Byzantines in the 5th century, it was abandoned and destroyed and not rebuilt until the late 19th century. This site was not for those who are afraid of heights!
After a cable car descent, lunch and a little shopping, we explored Tel as-Sultan, the site of historic Jericho. The signs all claim that Jericho is the oldest continuously-occupied city in the world, dating back at least 12,000 years. As we climbed the archeological site, we saw the remaining walls of mud brick dwellings from several periods before Christ, along with black layers indicating the city’s destruction. Despite the wealth of archeological information found in the city, there is no evidence of that the famous walls ever “came a-tumblin’ down.” The most interesting and impressive find doesn’t look like much in the photo, but it is a Neolithic tower, a stone structure built sometime around 10,000 BCE, probably for worship. It was amazing to stand on the hilltop and imagine that human beings had been making a way of life in this desert for millenia.
When we piled back into the bus to return to Jerusalem, the air was full of laughter and joy. The tour guide teased us for our obsession with the camels, and we teased each other for rocking the cable cars, buying goofy souvenirs, getting stuck in the mud, and not losing as many wrinkles as we had hoped after our dip in the Dead Sea. We agreed that, even if the outside didn’t show it, we all felt younger at heart after our boisterous fun. Friendship, laughter, playfulness, joy—these are part of the pilgrimage experience, too. This day of recreation was just as holy as the days of serious contemplation, and we were re-created, renewed in joy and love.
Oh little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light,
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
Philip Brooks certainly could never have imagined modern Bethlehem when he penned those lyrics in 1867, but today’s Bethlehem represented for me the meeting place of hope and fear, the place where everlasting light shone in dark streets.
Today’s Bethlehem is in the occupied West Bank. To visit the place of Jesus’ birth, we had to pass through the Israeli checkpoint and giant security wall erected to prevent the Palestinians from having access to their land or Israel. After listening to Noora’s story the day before, we had a chance to see with our own eyes the conditions of occupation.
As tourists, we were not subject to the same scrutiny as local Palestinians, but we saw the long lines as we passed by the checkpoint. We saw the teenagers with machine guns looking warily at old men and young women with babies. We drove on a road built for the Israeli settlers, a road that Palestinians were not allowed to use to access their own towns, a road whose impassibility created a barrier that separated families from one another. The wall cut across the land like an ugly scar. Once we got inside the wall, we saw the passionate expressions of resistance painted on it.
This is the town of Jesus’ birth.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus too was born under an occupying army, cut off from his family by a Roman decree that sent them on the road to Bethlehem.
The Church of the Nativity, which preserves the traditional site of Jesus’ birth, is built like a fortress. It’s the oldest surviving church in the country, built by the Byzantines in the fifth century. It was only saved from destruction by the Persians because it had a mosaic over the entrance featuring the three wise men. Their image resembled the Persians themselves, so they left the church intact. When the Crusader armies became the occupiers, they built major fortifications around the building, and expanded the church with new art and decoration. They even blocked up the doors so they were only four feet high, so that no soldier on horseback could enter in battle. Jesus’ birthplace looked a lot like the checkpoint—one narrow entrance into the space behind the high wall.
The church itself was dark, and the supposed site of Jesus’ birth was buried underground in a tiny grotto, laden with tapestries and candles and stones and silver décor. It didn’t feel to me at all like a humble stable. Like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, it was oppressive with the weight of Christendom, rather than the light of the living Christ.
But the everlasting light does shine in the dark streets of Bethlehem today, bringing hope into this place of so much fear. The Christ-light is alive and well at Diyar, the Palestinian Christian organization founded by Dr. Mitri Raheb, author of I Am a Palestinian Christian and pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem. We met with Dr. Raheb for an hour, and listened to his theological reflection on what it means to be a pastor in Bethlehem today. His words, his presence, his church’s ministries are giving birth to hope in Bethlehem today, and they inspired us with hope as well.
Raheb himself was immediately impressive as a theologian with the heart of a pastor and skill of a visionary leader. I was captivated by his analysis of contextual theology for Palestinian Christians, who dwell in the land where it all began. He spoke powerfully of the deep losses sustained by the Palestinian people since 1948. The greatest loss, he said, was not the land—it was their narrative. They had lost their story, their continuity of worship from the time of Christ, their culture as a people. This, he said, was far more important to reclaim—and, thankfully, reclaiming it is not dependent on political liberation, change from the outside or the end of the occupation. That work begins right now.
His congregation, Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, stepped out in faith to begin this work in their community, to become an outreach community by founding Diyar. As he told the story of Diyar’s founding, his church could have been anywhere, in any location. They were a small church, only about 220 people. When he first had a vision of launching a community outreach program, the congregation was hesitant. They were already struggling to pay the bills—how could they take on more? Weren’t they there to worship God first? How could they reach out to others when they were barely taking care of themselves? Shouldn’t they just hunker down and do their best to keep the church going through occupation? Instead of those questions of scarcity, they focused instead on the theological questions of mission: Where is God? Who is my neighbor? What is the vision of the best possible future, and how do you get there? Christ’s call to service prevailed, and God’s grace has been abundant.
Founded in 1995, Diyar now serves more than 60,000 people a year (Muslims and Christians) through their programs. Diyar means “home,” and they describe themselves as a “Lutheran-based, ecumenically-oriented organization serving the whole Palestinian community.” They offer cultural programs and civic engagement training, health and wellness ministries (including a women’s sports league), higher education, and programs for children, parents and seniors.
The congregation itself is still small (no one can move into or out of the West Bank, conversion is not a reality in Israel, and the community is predominately Muslim), but they no longer see themselves as barely holding on. Their ministry to the community has revived their sense of mission and their vitality as a congregation. Following God has given them a sense of freedom and purpose that no amount of oppression or occupation can suppress.
All the fortifications of occupying armies and all the might of empires, whether past, present or future, cannot keep hope from being born again and again and again in the City of Bethlehem. The hopes and fears of nations and their peoples meet in this tiny place. May God’s everlasting light continue to burn brightly there.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.