On May 12 I planted my feet on Golgotha. I am not being metaphorical or poetic; on this Sunday morning I literally stood at the top of the Place of the Skull, and knelt before the Cross. That is, through the kind generosity of a friend, I travelled with him from Vancouver to the Holy Land, and spent the next week or so visiting and venerating the holy places there. Our first stop, jet-lagged, overwhelmed, and joyful, was the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Like one in a dream I climbed the steep steps which led up to the Cross and bowed down at the holiest site in the world. I will not attempt here a description of what I felt. But I would like to offer a brief reflection of that brief visit to Jerusalem and the Holy Land. We visited Galilee and Jericho and other holy places in the Judean wilderness, but most of our time was spent in Jerusalem.
As all the guide-books say, “Jerusalem is a city sacred to the three great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam”. That happy sentence might give the impression that these three religions dwell there in peaceful coexistence, each content in their own particular devotions, sharing that sacred space with equanimity. I have seen that it is not so. Jerusalem is not only a city. It is a cauldron. In it are mixed and thrown together the adherents of the three major monotheisms, and they swirl together as in a boiling cauldron, and the temperature is not cooling down.
First and ascendant are the Jews—or perhaps more accurately, the Israelis. Doubtless there are many secular Jews in the wider Jerusalem and in Israel, Jews rather more like the Jews I am happy to know in Canada. But the ones in the Old City are rather different. The Old City teems with very visible Orthodox Jews, clad in their black and white suits, hats, with swinging ear-locks. It seems that their black and white suits reflect their black and white approach to life, an approach that eschews tolerance as weakness. While walking in the Old City with my diaconal companion, both of us dressed in cassocks and I with my usual pectoral cross, I was repeatedly spit at by them. That is, when one of these Orthodox Jews walked past in the narrow streets, he audibly spit at me (or, as I think, at my cross. I was also asked to hide my cross from sight before being allowed to enter the Jewish “Tomb of David”.) It was not an unusual occurrence; my dear deacon was counting, and said that he figured it happened about a dozen times in the three days or so we were in the Old City. Even little children participated in the spitting, in imitation of their fathers. I was surprised, but not traumatized. I only commented to my companion, “They are probably not working for the Israeli Department of Tourism.” This proud exulting in ascendancy is not only seen in the religious Orthodox Jews there. It is also the official policy of the State of Israel, which continues to build illegal Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, harass the Palestinians with petty humiliations, and fence them in with a forbidding wall. When we were there, the authorities closed the Muslim shrine at Hebron, because it was a Jewish holy-day. That is, they closed it simply because they could, and to demonstrate their ascendancy.
Then there are the Arabs, most of them Muslim, but some of them Christian. Like other oppressed people, they are in a tight spot, and react to this with a combination of a desperate solicitation of tourists in order to survive, and a proud clinging to their Islamic faith. I cannot object much to either, though the desperate solicitation meant that we got financially hosed a few times. And when we tried to walk along the city wall, we were turned back once by some youths, who said that the place we were about enter was “just for Muslims”. It was nonsense, of course, and tours regularly took tourists down this place. But that day was a tough one for Muslims, since the road to Hebron was closed and some masked youths near Jericho had burned tires in the streets in protest before the police showed up. (We drove past them quickly, and I did not ask our driver to stop so I could take a photograph.) That day an Israeli and a Muslim clashed, and one of them died. I could well understand their Islamic objection to us; wounded pride lashes out where it can.
On the Temple Mount we again saw this proud clinging on the part of the Muslims, as well as the delight of the Jews in their ascendancy. After passing through the inevitable metal-detector, we entered the Jewish area, the so-called “Wailing Wall”. We could go a little ways towards it, but could not approach directly. That is, only Jews were allowed to stand by the wall to pray, and a large sign warned non-Jews not to come any closer. As we left we passed another sign that read (with unintended irony) “My House shall be called a House of Prayer for All Nations” (Is. 56:7)”. We then came into the area containing the Dome of the Rock, sacred to Muslims everywhere as the third holiest shrine in Islam. Once again, we could approach, but not enter: when we began to take our shoes off as a preparation to enter the Mosque, we were again told that only Muslims could enter. (Admittedly there was no sign advertising the Mosque as a place of prayer for all nations.) We did take some photos of the exteriors of those beautiful buildings.
Then there are the Christians of Jerusalem, many of them milling about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Here finally was the true house of prayer for all nations, for we heard a multitude of languages, and rubbed shoulders (literally) with a multitude of colours and races. Some people were obviously just tourists, some were devout believers. I saw more than a few weeping at the Stone of Anointing and at the top of Golgotha. I heard that Jews also had entered the holy Christian place in peace, and doubtless Muslims would’ve been equally as welcome. There were no metal detectors to pass through, no signs warning off non-believers. Sometimes apparently the various Christian groups who use the sacred precincts quarrel loudly (in the Middle East, all quarrelling is done loudly), and this lamentably makes the news. But here was a place where all could come, and bow, and pray, and find acceptance. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre may or may not be the omphalos or navel of the world, but it is certainly the heart of the world. In a dry world it is a fountain of grace; in a tumultuous world, despite all the noise and bustle of the place, here one could find peace.
I enjoyed my brief visit to the Holy Land more than words can express, and will carry the memory of venerating its holy places to the end of my days. But I was not unhappy to leave the cauldron that is Jerusalem and the State of Israel. Whatever political arrangements in the Middle East are cooked up by the great international powers, our Lord’s words about Jerusalem remain, and the holy city is still trampled underfoot (Lk. 21:24). We still set our hearts on the true and eternal Jerusalem, the Jerusalem which is above, and is free (Gal. 4:26). I rejoiced to see the historical and holy places there. I rejoiced also to return home, and plant my feet once again on the splendid sanity of Canadian soil.