Tuesday, January 14, 2014

TJ9: Learning to See Beyond

Today I visited some of the most holy spots in Judaism and in Christendom. They looked exactly as I expected, but that is only because I had been forewarned by previous pilgrims (and through advance research) that these areas had become “gaudy.” A more polite term is “ornate.” (You can decide for yourself which adjective is more appropriate when you visit the Holy Land.)
Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Side Note: I confess, I am not a fan of religious trappings and lavish ornamentation. Standing in the entrance to one of the gaudier churches, however, I overheard another traveler express aloud something that I have said on many occasions: “Imagine what the church could have done with all this money. I think God would be more pleased if we used our resources to feed and educate the poor....” And a scripture flashed through my mind.
Then one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot (who was about to betray him) said, ‘Why wasn’t this fragrant oil sold for 300 denarii and given to the poor?’ ... Jesus answered, ‘Leave her alone; she has kept it for the day of my burial. For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’ (John 12:4-8)
So I have decided to postpone judgment of those who have contributed their life savings and hard work to “gaudify” the holy sites in Jerusalem and elsewhere. We all express love in different ways, don’t we?

Regardless, what I really wanted to see (and knew I wouldn’t) is what these sites looked like before the Church began expressing its love and reverence by covering every available inch with gold, jewels, and miscellaneous flashy stuff. And so, on this pilgrimage, I have had to ask God to give me a second set of eyes, eyes that can see beyond. And God has graciously answered this prayer, Yes.

There are places, for example, where I find it possible to close my eyes and simply listen to the sounds. Sounds of crowds of people: some praising God, some singing, some with crying children, some trying to get a better deal in the market place, most speaking a language I don’t understand ... the same crowd-sounds that existed in the days when Jesus and his disciples walked the streets of Jerusalem alongside people of many nations. Fainter but clear to those who have ears to hear are the sounds of birds chirping and cooing and flapping their wings ... the same bird-sounds that may have inspired the psalmist to write:
Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself where she may lay her young—even Your altars, Adonai Tsabaoth, my King and my God. (Psalm 84:3)
Doves nesting in the Western Wall.
There are soldiers walking the streets, Israeli teenagers, and a stack of riot-prevention shields beside the security checkpoint right outside the entrance to the Temple Mount* reminds me of how the Antonia Fortress overlooked the Temple in the first century, when religious riots were all too common. 

Just outside many of the churches are bits of original pavement, broken columns, fallen stones, remnants of architecture from the first century, a few things Rome did not utterly destroy. I lay my hand on these as often as I can, feeling the coolness of the rocks, their textures sometimes rough but more often worn smooth not only by wind and rain but by countless hands, countless feet. And I am reminded of the Jewish custom of touching the mezuzah for a blessing, and I wonder how many of these rocks were touched by Jewish pilgrims on their way to make their sacrifices in the Temple.

And I open my eyes and look beyond the gaudiness and what I see are pilgrims, hundreds of pilgrims, thousands of pilgrims from all over the world, coming to kneel at the foot of an extremely gaudy crucifix in order to reach into a little hole under the gaudy altar to touch the rock that serves as the foundation, the rock that is not gaudy, the rock that tradition says is the very rock upon which Jesus was crucified. And I remember the words of Jesus:
As for me, if I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all people to myself (John 12:32).

Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem - At the foot of the Cross
Let those who have eyes to see, see.

*The Israelis have established these checkpoints to ensure that no one brings anything up there that might be construed as insulting to the Moslems: no weapons, no Bibles, no crosses, etc. that might “defile” the courtyard of the Al Aqsa Mosque and provoke a riot.

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