Sunday, November 7, 2010

Old Jerusalem, Garden Tomb, Farewell

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The last days in Jerusalem sped by quickly.

On arrival, we checked into our hotel and had dinner. Dave and I decided we couldn't wait to look a round a bit, so we got a map from the front desk and plotted a route into the old city. David came along as we began to walk down the Nablus road towards the Damascus gate of the old city. We passed the turn into the Garden Tomb, and couldn't believe where we were. (Later we discovered that this road used to be called the road to Damascus, where Saul had a vision and became Paul.....) It was about 8pm, some stores were still open, and the market stalls in front of the gates were open, fruit sellers, kebabs, falafel and trinkets could be had. Entering the gates was a surreal experience, and thrilling. We walked into another age, a place where many call home, and many others see as a place to re-live history.

At nighttime, most of the tourists are gone. We walked past people carrying groceries home, children playing soccer, Hasidic Jews walking briskly from work toward their homes, and shopkeepers whiling away the last minutes of the day in conversation with their neighbours. In some of the alleyways it was pretty dark, but it never felt dangerous. People were walking by, arm in arm or singly, all ages and stages of life. There is a vitality to the place, even as the early evening turns into night.

Consulting the map, we decided to turn a corner, and make a 'U' turn onto the next street. Looking up to find street signs, we realized we were on the Via Dolorosa, the way of the cross. By tradition, this is the route Jesus took, carrying the cross to Calvary. Hardly anyone else was about. Just a few shops were open. How strange to head out for a walk and find ourselves here, in this place, of all places. Like walking into a storybook, to discover that the characters weren't fiction, here we entered a real space, lived history, a life story we Christians, three members of the clergy, know too well.

Much of our journey was made from a desire to be in the place Jesus had lived, to see the sights, sounds, smells that bring the Bible to life. It is strange to go from Holy Book to Holy Place, strange when all of a sudden, things we have only thought about become tangible.

Some fear running into reality. Some of what they considered holy might evaporate when brought into the light, some might vanish under the glare of a streetlight, or be trampled by the feet of a crowded holy place now made into a tourist attraction.

I found that the crowds often did get in the way of the view, but I also marveled at the motivation behind the gathering of the crowds. Jesus can still cause a traffic jam on the road from Jericho, he still packs in crowds where he gave the sermon on the mount, there are lineups to see the place he was born, and the place he died. Tourists, pilgrims, skeptics and seekers packed churches and filled boats on the Sea of Galilee. There is something of the Spirit found moving in the crowds.

I found reality reassuring. Looking at the shoreline of the Galilee lake, seeing the contour of the land, standing in Nazareth and looking down into the valley below, and sitting pondering in a garden on the Mount of Olives, the man Jesus became more real than ever for me. Strangely, he became more real as I realized that I didn't know the flesh and blood man. The Jesus I know is the Jesus of the New Testament, the Jesus of the church, the one I know as Prince of Peace. I'm pretty sure I'd like to have met the flesh and blood Jesus, but while standing in the streets of Old Jerusalem, I knew that if he walked by me in the street, especially because of all the artists renderings through the ages, I wouldn't recognize his face. This knowledge is reassuring to me. It may sound strange, but when I know I haven't met the flesh and blood man, I also know that I haven't conjured him up out of my imagination. In the streets of old Jerusalem, Jesus was suddenly human, tangible, a person who could be just a few strides ahead of me, whose sharp intake of breath could be heard in startled air, one who, with me, catches the scent of spices, falafel, the incense used in worship. I looked at the hills around the sea of Galilee and saw a landscape he knew well. In the air of Old Jerusalem I walked in dust stirred up by his feet.

I'd never met this Jesus before, the one who knew this landscape, the cool nights of Jerusalem and the lush garden landscape of the Galilee so well. I hadn't considered the long uphill road from Jericho to Jerusalem, the road Jesus walked up for that last Passover celebration. I couldn't see in my minds eye the view from the Mt. of Transfiguration, across the valley to Nazareth. Imagine this transcendent experience happening within view of home.

I take comfort in tangible things. The sights and sounds, the cadence of Hebrew and Arabic in the air, the smell of falafel and kababs cooking, the ripe pomegranetes in the marketplace. Women making traditional crafts, weaving and needlework, children playing soccer or simply clutching their mothers' skirt. These are things Jesus would have known. The landscape, the geology, the trees, the warmth of the sun on skin in the daytime, and the refreshing breeze of dusk. The people in the marketplace, the crowds from the street. The cathedrals and sacred 'spots' Jesus didn't know at all, they came after his time.

The Roman occupation is replaced with the 'mid-east mess' today. Roman soldiers have traded places with Israeli soldiers with machine guns, police forces in Israel and the Palestinian territories. People still struggle for land, for security. Questions about 'whose land this is' will never be answered, as long as people continue to think God sees an 'us and a them', 'the good guys and the bad'. In Jerusalem there are three faiths who believe, all of them, in one God. It is sad that people of faith cannot break down the human made boundaries which separate us. The challenge for people of faith is to see ourselves as part of one creation, all of us, Muslim, Christian and Jew, along with all peoples and all faiths or no-faith, made in our Creators image, enlivened by the Spirit, all part of a greater whole. Jesus said 'My kingdom is not of this world....' which is a statement that still challenges us today, to see beyond ideology, politics, and religion, back to the flesh and blood which ties us, in creation, to one another, and to the one who has brought all of us life.

Saturday, November 6, 2010


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Church of Nativity

Map of Old Jerusalem

From the Desert into the City.

There are a lot of things you can learn, being 'on the ground'. On the ground in the Jordan river valley, you learn about the danger of being in a valley, vs the safety of being in the hills. You learn about dust and sand and being thirsty. You learn about history, some sad, much of it heroic, some, just plain human, in the seeking of power, and the 'lenses' we can wear that change our perspective.

Being by the dead sea, one cannot help but be inspired by the story of survival for any who lived in this area. The salt sea creates its own climate, it seems to me. Hot, dry, and the salt makes you notice your need for water. Being below sea level, on the lowest spot on earth, your body is holding more oxygen in your blood, sort of like being in a hyperbaric chamber. There is the possibility of healing, from the sea itself, and there is also the possibility of death from the severe challenges of the atmosphere you are in.

The lake sparkles blue from a distance, and beckons with a promise of refreshment. I didn't notice the lack of green by the water until the expanse of taupe became tiring. Everything is brown, the hills, the lakeshore, even the sky above has a haze to it. Visiting the ruins of Masada, I was impressed by the ruggedness of the site, the sheer hutzpa needed by any who decided to live in this isolated place. Herod must truly have been paranoid to build all the places of refuge that he did. Masada's location and luxury points to his character, if none of his other palaces and fortresses do. The mixture of history, from Herods time to later years when Masada was a place of refuge from Romans by Jewish refugees is tied to a story of heroics and a national morality tale for the state of Israel which both inspires and chills at the same time. The story tells of the decision of 1000 to commit suicide rather than be captured by the Romans. It is a story which speaks to national pride, and inspires patriotism. Whether the story told is actually true is another question. Why would the Romans spend all that time and energy building a ramp, then take a night off, just as they have breached the walls? Listening to the story of Masada leaves one with many questions, and much to mull over.

Qumran, where a desert community sought purity through lives of 'right worship' is another story. Their heritage, given to us through the discovery of the dead sea scrolls less than 100 years ago, is priceless. Religious zeal and trying political times in this challenging landscape are a potent mix. Again, their story is both sad and heroic, a mixture of deep faith and fervent zeal.

Both at Masada and Qumran I wondered about fundamentalism, both religious and political, about leaders who seek to control others, and the teaching of some that God demands sacrifice, even pain, for sanctification.

Masada, Qumran, Dead Sea, Jericho

Jesus Boat, Mount of Transfiguration, dinner in Bethlehem.