Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Reflections from Israel and Palestine, Part Four.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

(This is another in a series of reflections from my trip with the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program to Israel and Palestine.)

(Note: There is an excellent and comprehensive Wikipedia article on the “Church of the Holy Sepulchre”.)

With our free time when we first arrived in the Old City of Jerusalem, we walked all though the ancient streets and walkways. We were not looking for any particular sites since we knew our tour would cover them all later. But I did have in the back of my mind and I was watching for the location of the greatest Christian holy site: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which, for Protestants, is also referred to as the Church of the Resurrection. We never found it. Is there a spiritual lesson here? For the casual tourist visiting the Old City of Jerusalem finding the most holy Christian site is not easy. While a relaxed stroll through the Old City will typically end near the Jew’s Wailing Wall and, of course, Islam’s majestic, soaring, gold Dome of the Rock is visible from many spots all around Jerusalem, the empty tomb of our Lord Jesus Christ is not easily located. There are two tourist entry ways to the Church of the Resurrection. One of them is so obscure - an almost, hidden turn off of a small, unmarked alleyway - that I would never have found it on my own. The more, common entry way to the Church blends in almost seamlessly with the surrounding shops and homes.

This is a parable for us: in order to find the Church of the Resurrection you need to truly be seeking it. Even so its location is difficult to find. The best solution, which is what we did, is to follow someone who already knows the way. 

I had a powerful and memorable spiritual experience within the Church of the Resurrection. Our team was scheduled to visit there immediately after breakfast one day; we were walking from our hotel and thus our guide book put us at the Church at 9:30 a.m. But Lawrence, one of the leaders of our study tour, suggested that if anyone wanted to avoid the crowds he was also going to visit the Church much earlier; he expected to be at the entry door when it was unlocked at 5:00 a.m. About ten of us joined Lawrence for this early morning walk. Walking through the Old City in the shifting light and dark of the moments before dawn, in the deep quiet before any of the shops were open, was itself a time of walking prayer. Our group arrived at the entry door minutes before it opened; we found a small group of nuns already waiting for the rattle of the keys that unlocked the door. Silence was natural and comforting as we waited.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre includes both Golgotha and the Empty Tomb. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a jumbled, confusing, multi-level conglomeration of many different interlocking and overlapping churches build around and over one another through the ages. There are stories about monks from different traditions fighting each other in protection of their sacred inches within the Church. There are chapels, small alcoves, shrines and altars established everywhere. Although we were the first tourists to arrive that day, the atmosphere was already filled with the ancient, gorgeous sounds of chanting; the Armenian monks in their small chapel down a steep flight of stairs were celebrating their mass, at 5:00 a.m! I pondered if this was the first or the second mass of their day.

I quickly wondered through the hallways and passageways in this convoluted, holy space and found my way to the Empty Tomb. There were a few people wandering around here and there; I paused to study this space and look around. This is a Greek Orthodox space now and shows their passion for icons, candles, incense and religious decoration. Under a huge, soaring, cathedral-size dome, the Empty Tomb is itself a small structure. There is a small entry way which opens into a preparatory room in which about five or six people can stand in a circle. Then a low, small passageway is the entry to the Tomb. The Tomb is sacred space where only two or a crowded, three people could fit. To enter requires one to kneel and crawl in; the floor polished smooth through the generations. There at eye level as one enters, crawling only a few feet on hands and knees, is the stone upon which the body of Jesus was laid, an empty slab of stone. I knelt next to it and quietly rested my head on it.

 I knelt in quiet, silent prayer inside the Empty Tomb for as long while; I opened my eyes and was surprised to still find myself alone. No one was in the Tomb with me, no one was in the small outer chamber waiting to enter the Tomb, and I saw and heard no one outside preparing to enter. I was alone in the Empty Tomb of my Lord. I prayed with my eyes closed for awhile, and then with my eyes open I studied this small room with all its Greek Orthodox devotion. Candles were burning; my organizational mind wondered who was responsible to keep them burning. I was inspired. I was not necessarily inspired by the biblical idea that this was the actual, physical spot of the Resurrection. I was more inspired by the simple thought that millions – countless numbers - of Christian brothers and sisters had come to this very spot through all the generations to pray in the name of Jesus Christ. How many people, from how many places, in how many languages, representing how many churches knelt exactly in this spot where I was kneeling in the name of Jesus? How many people have had the opportunity to be alone in the Empty Tomb? The thought shook me. I realized what a gift I had been given and I entered a deep time of prayer running through my long list which I always and everywhere have in my heart; and still I was alone. I had the thought that respectfulness required me to crawl out of the Tomb backward, feet first. At the last moment, just as my head was about to exit the Tomb, I paused, looked all around this space once again and knew once more how abundantly I have been blessed, and our world has been blessed, with the gift of Jesus Christ our Lord. Thank you Lord!

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”   Psalm 122: 6