Slowing Down #Holy Land Day 3

You might well have been exhausted by reading the exploits of Day 2; I woke on Day 3 to find that doing anything was impossible. The illness of December caught up with me again, and so I didn’t join our group at the Pool of Bethesda or for walking in the steps of Christ (maybe possibly but not as he would have recognised it) on the Via Dolorosa. Instead I slept. This was one of the best decisions I’ve made in a while, and I don’t regret it. I am grateful to the friend who said “Actually Claire, it was crowded and there was lots of standing and listening and nowhere to sit and it was long. You’d have hated it.” There is probably a theological point in that!

The entrance to the shrine of Jesus’ tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

I caught up with the group at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is the place with the best claim to be on the site of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. I was a bit worried, because the rest of the group had done the Stations of the Cross, they’d worked up to this point, whereas I had walked from our hotel, through the Damascus gate, and into the market, where I had bustled and strode and slipped and shoved with the best. I was not in a holy, receptive, spiritual kind of state at all. We were taken into the church and joined the queue to enter the shrine which has been built over the tomb. There were important priests (Orthodox, Coptic, Catholic) wandering about, and many people. I queued, grumpily, sleepily, and wondered whether I’d have done better to stay in bed.

People are allowed into the inner shrine of the tomb four at a time, and a strict custodian raps a stone on a wall after 1 minute to indicate that it is time to leave. The entrance to the shrine is low and you have to really stoop down to get in. Finally it was my turn, and I went and knelt in front of the marble slab which covers the alleged place….

Yesterday I quoted from Little Gidding “You are to kneel here where prayer has been valid”. And here I was. In a place which contained the most fervent, most pressing prayers of thousands upon thousands of people, across nearly two millennia. I was pulled straight out of the pushing and shoving of the streets, into confronting the fact that Jesus died and rose for me, and for all humanity. God showed up.

I loved the candles – they were huge and had some very utilitarian lightbulbs in place of wicks. I was expecting to see signs of denominational conflict, but they weren’t there.

OWG (Our Wonderful Guide) and LTL (Lovely Tour Leader) both expressed surprise at how quiet the church was. I was very grateful not to see it at it’s heaving worst, because I’d never have hung around to enter the tomb shrine….

But there are many many chapels – this one to where Jesus was believed to have been crucified. There was a bit of rock, which probably dated to the right time…. and yet it didn’t matter to me, what mattered was the fact of the Cross.

Statues and bling and incense may not be your thing, but I defy anyone to look at the expression here, to consider a mother watching the killing of her son, and to remain unmoved.

Crowds, on a “quiet” day at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

We went down into a lower chapel, which was much quieter, and we stood as we heard the reading of the crucifixion, and we sang “When I survey the wondrous cross”. Then an unexpected highlight. The altars in the Church are all censed by the three denominations every day, and so a procession of priests came in, waved wonderful smelling thuribles, and left. The heady scent was amazing. We don’t do enough worship with all our senses.

The group was tired by now – they had been on the go for five hours, I’d done an hour and a bit, and we were all very thankful for lunch. And smileys! Jerusalem did that. It kicked me with reality, then lumped a spiritual experience at me, then pulled me back into life again, all without so much as a by your leave.

Barbed wire and boundaries – a reality of life in Jerusalem and Palestine

We travelled by coach to Bethany. It should have been a short hop over the Mount of Olives, but a detour round was required… there is a boundary, and there are check points.

When we arrived, having travelled through streets which “looked like India” to a friend, the peace of the garden at Bethany was very welcome. Here was tranquility, and after the hustle of Jerusalem, I was glad. Oranges grew and a fountain trickled. I’m confident it wouldn’t have looked like that – rather it has been created to emulate the peace Jesus found here with his friends, Lazarus, Martha and Mary.

I’ve always loved the story of Martha and Mary. One sister rushes around trying to do everything to ensure excellent hospitality, the other sat enraptured at Jesus’ feet. There has to be a time for each.

Here too Jesus wept at … not so much the death of his friend Lazarus, as at the lack of faith of his disciples. OWG said that Jesus had to call Lazarus out of death by name, otherwise everyone else would have resurrected too! LTL had once again found the right reading and detailed a member of the group – so that we heard another story in “about” the right place. I valued the link from scripture to place very much.

Jerusalem’s Old City at Sunset from our coach

There was one more stop before we got back to the hotel. I have no photographs, because it would have felt wrong. But on Friday evening, just after sunset, we got off the coach (“Ready? Let’s go!”) at the foot of the Dome of the Rock, and we made our way towards the Western Wall of the Temple – still often more recognisable as the Wailing Wall. There were groups and families of Jews, all meeting to celebrate and share prayers at the start of the Shabat or Sabbath. Several of us agreed that we would love church to feel quite so relaxed or joyful. Solemn teenage girls stood reciting their prayers from their books (and checked their watches surreptitiously) and there was a wave of people making their way from the back of the crowd to the foot of the wall and away again – never turning their backs upon the wall. The whole experience felt quite alien, but embracing too. I shan’t forget it.

2 responses to “Slowing Down #Holy Land Day 3

  1. I take your point about the “approximately” and “herabouts” aspect of the destinations, but the thousands of pilgrims over the centuries must have soaked the stones with so much prayer that the atmosphere must be almost tangible.
    Despite your health problems I am sure you are going about this wonderful trip in the right way, doing what you can and resting when you must.

  2. It does look as if The Life of Brian might have done their research better than many thought with ‘blessed are the cheese makers’! But share the feeling of sensory overload and enhanced awareness – Palestine in AD/CE 30 probably had a lot in common with nowadays!

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