Friday, March 30, 2012


Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Over Spring break I was blessed to make a visit to Israel as part of a Jewish-Christian dialogue program. The discussions were good and have given me a lot of food for continued thought. I’ve had to dive right back into classes, but thought I’d offer some simple meditations on the “pilgrimage” side of the trip.

As one would expect, visiting places associated with Jesus’ life forces me to re-focus on the fullness of His humanity. As with so many other things, a doctrine that I’ve pondered and thought about can suddenly seem foreign and radical.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre: above the Rock of Calvary
Two experiences in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre drove this home for me. We first went in as part of our larger tour of the Christian quarter of the old city. We were moving from place to place quickly so I didn’t quite know what was coming. I knew the Church was associated with where Jesus was buried, but once we went inside and climbed some stairs I remembered that the Church is also identified as where He was crucified (although now inside the “old” city, the Church would have been outside the city at the time of Jesus). And it felt odd to all of a sudden realize that I might* be in a place that I’ve tried to imagine in my head so many times, the place where the central event of history took place. It was, of course, crowded with tourists and cameras. The moment is that false start, that balk, where I realize that everything about my emotional and physical posture doesn’t seem appropriate if this is really that place. *And I said “might” because believers can also be somewhat skeptical, or at least I can be. The false start was exacerbated by my sudden flurry of thoughts about what the chances were that this was the spot, and to what extent it mattered.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre: to the right of the Rock of Calvary

Later during free time I returned to the Church. This time I stood in line to be able to kneel and reach through a hole to touch the ground at that spot—the “Rock of Calvary”. And the amazing thing is that the dirt there felt remarkably like pretty much all the other dirt that I’ve touched in my life. And perhaps that’s another thing that made me uncomfortable, but that is also absolutely essential to my faith. In the midst of our very physical world, we have to not only recognize the good of this world in the midst of its evils and problems, but also to recognize God’s presence in it.

To become human was, in some sense, for God to hide Himself. The scandal of the “messianic secret” and of Jesus being taunted to take Himself down from the cross accord with this scandal I think. When I look at these rocks, whether it be the rock at the Church of All Nations (Gethsemane) or the stone of unction or the Rock of Calvary, I may not just feel skeptical because I want to see the historical and archeological analysis of the site, but because….it just looks like a rock. If God was going to touch a rock, wouldn’t there be something sensibly changed about it? Our faith clearly says that Christ lived a fully human life. Visiting Capernaum, I realized that if I had showed up when Jesus was there, I might have had trouble identifying Jesus. He would have been “hidden” in the scenes of ordinary human village life.
Synagogue at Capernaum

The beauty of this is twofold:

1) When I see dirt and rocks now I can remember that a man who was God, who lived, prayed, and died in the midst of the very same world that I live in, turned around the very course of the world.

2) More than anything else, the tangible difference that one can see at these locations is not that the rocks look any different, but that there are pilgrims around them. At Gethsemane I was struck by the sight of pilgrims kneeling and praying there. While I’m quite aware that one could easily write off such things as “superstitious old Italian ladies”, I think those who pray and weep at such places are actually discovering the art, the gift of seeing the true significance of our world, which is now infused with the presence of God. They come and sit at that rock, after all, because of all the people who have touched it in history, one of them was a man who looked like and was completely human and like us in every way but sin—but who was also God. Our ability to pray at and touch that rock and feel our connection to God grow is a testament to our faith in the Incarnation.

May God give me the grace to discern His continuing presence in the world in the same way those pilgrims discern the sacramentality of the holy places. Where others see liabilities, sickness, bread, unwanted children, unwanted pregnancies, “drains on the system”, undesirables, demographic time-bombs, or enemies, may God give me eyes to see His very Self breaking into our world.

On Jerusalem, Peace!