Thursday, April 12, 2007

It's Long, but to Me, Important.

There was a year around the time I was fifteen and sixteen that I was blessed with many opportunities to travel to several different places, but the one place I went that year is the one place I will never be able to forget, for that is the year that I made my own pilgrimage to what many call the Holy Land. My father, a Southern Baptist minister, led the group, and once he got enough people to sign on he was able to take me with him. Those two weeks are the tenderest and best memories I have with him, and I know they will stay with me long after he is gone. It was also a time of deep spiritual moment for me.

It would be too much indeed to tell you about the whole trip, but you should go if you ever get the chance, whether you feel it is safe or not (though for Americans, it usually is). It’s that good. However, seeing the picture of the Garden Tomb on Craig’s post reminded me of two of the most definitive experiences in the formation of both my faith and of my general outlook on the world.

On any tour of religious sites in Israel, one hears quite a lot at any given place about how likely it is that an event actually happened on that spot or close to it. Most of the places one encounters base their authenticity on the research of Helena who was Emperor Constantine I’s mother and who went on a mission to find and preserve the holy sites of Christianity. Although separated in time, she was much closer to the events than we are, and often the scholars agree with her conclusions. For example, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is generally regarded to be on the authentic site of the birth of Christ—at least as well as can be determined. There is some debate over other sites, but alternative sites are not generally a part of the tour. However, most tours will include both the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Garden Tomb as possible sites of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, and ours did too. They are dramatically different places, and they provided me with dramatically different experiences.

The first of the two stops was at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (hereinafter referred to as the Church). The Church was one of the sites preserved as a result of Helena’s search, and is an impressive building. It was actually originally three connected churches built over three different sites (in addition to claiming to house the tomb and Golgotha, the church also claims to house the place where Christ’s body was prepared for burial). When one enters the building, one may crowd around a large marble slab said to commemorate the place of the preparation of His body, shuffle into the tiny cave where His body was said to have been buried after waiting in a line to rival any at Disney World (and after staring down a cranky looking cleric), and one may duck down below an alter and thrust one’s hand down a hole that rises to your elbow to touch a rock said to be Golgotha. The entire experience lends itself to being rushed and stale, and I felt more like a voyeuse and a tourist than a pilgrim.

However, the division is not confined to the buildings, and the discomfort goes deeper than the creak in one’s knees or the pull in a craning neck.

You see, different Christian sects have been fussing, fighting, and feuding over who gets what part of the building since 1555. Currently, the building houses an uneasy peace between the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox churches. The times and places of worship for each community are strictly regulated in common areas. In fact, the Ethiopian newcomers don’t even have space inside of the building. They were forced to make their space on the roof. Lest you think this separation is a mere practicality, let me acquaint you with the violent history associated with the division of the Church. In fact, the key to the sole entrance to the Church is held by the Muslim Nuseibeh family who were entrusted with its guardianship by Saladin in 1192 to keep the peace between the warring fractions. Later, the Joudeh family was appointed to assist them. To this day, these two families are still entrusted with the key and have to unlock the door on a daily basis. A Coptic monk stands stationed on the roof to express his church’s claims to the Ethiopian territory there. In 2002, the monk on duty moved his chair from its proper spot and into the shade. The Ethiopians interpreted this as an act of hostility and eleven people were hospitalized as a result, and in 2004 a fistfight broke out because the Franciscan chapel door was left open after Orthodox celebrations and this was taken as a sign of disrespect.

As a visitor, it was clear to me that these were not willing neighbors, and an air of tension prevailed. I could not help but remember Christ’s admonition that loving one’s neighbor as oneself was second only to loving the Lord God with all your being. It seemed a simple thing to share a blessed space in love, but they simply refuse to this day. That day formed in me a strong distaste for divisiveness among the body of believers—like the metallic taste chemo patients report during their treatment.

Which brings me to the British.

The second spot offered forth as a site for Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection was the Garden Tomb. This spot is owned and administered by The Garden Tomb Association, a Charitable Trust based in the United Kingdom. From the moment you walk in, you are inside of a lush and beautiful garden that has been reserved for quiet reflection and worship. There are no restraints keeping you from touching the stones except inside the tomb itself (to protect from those who would break off pieces).

You can walk into the tomb and see that a chunk was carved into it to accommodate a taller person than originally planned. It is quiet inside and you can pray there in peace. This isn’t a great picture since my own are with my parents at home, but the one on the right is the one that is cut to be longer.

Furthermore, what is hard to see here is the crack that runs across the face of the tomb (on the top there and on the lower right) from what seems to have been an earthquake


There is also a proposed spot for the crucifixion there called Gordon’s Calvary (so called because it is not the mainstream site put forward as being Calvary and was found by a man named Gordon. Ta-dah). How did this Gordon fellow decide it was Golgotha? Well, look at it. Golgotha meant “the place of the skull,” and although this shot doesn’t show the skull at its best advantage, you can see the eye sockets and the place where a nose would be


Nearby there is also an olive press which is also a mark of authenticity with what is described in the New Testament.

Now, all this is kind of cool in and of itself because even if it isn’t the authentic site, it looks a far sight more authentic than anything in the Church. However, that is not the important part. The important part is that it is a peaceful garden full of love and quiet respect and awe for the holiness of what the pilgrim remembers when he visits. THAT is what we are to exude to those around us. This place has such a powerful presence because of this atmosphere combined with its look that I cannot describe it. It overwhelmed me to the point of tears, and I was not the only one. Everyone was deeply touched that day, and many in different ways. If it is not the authentic site of the great events surrounding Easter, the Garden, at least, best honors the spirit behind them.

This is the difference I see between the behavior of mere Christians and that of Christ Himself (and I include myself in that statement). We are always so ready to be right and to adorn a simple Truth with our trappings of solemnity. We are ready to take offense, whether in our Master’s Name or our own. However, Christ stands before us all simple and unadorned as all the lilies of the field, saying only, “Come.”

The best thing that we can do is to put down our braziers of dissent and pomp and come kneel down in His simple tomb and be quiet and listen—to open ourselves up to the love he bears us and all living things.

[Note] I do not own any of these images (my own photos are not digital). To view them in their original contexts you can click on them and follow them to their homes or you can run a Google image search on "garden tomb." I also conducted some internet research for some of the facts about scuffles and the Muslim family in charge of the key, and you can find their original sources by performing a similar search on the infamous wikipedia. Don't worry, I doublechecked it all.

1 comment:

Craig Pankratz said...

Thank you for sharing this beautiful experience.