The Eighth Station: A Lenten Trip To The Holy Land

April 3, 2010 § 1 Comment

A couple weeks ago, I went on a trip to “The Holy Land.”  That’s how I put it to friends and colleagues when I explained where I was going — a “trip” to “The Holy Land” — making air quotes with my hands and rolling my eyes a bit.  Not because I don’t think the land is holy, but because I was uncomfortable admitting that I was about to embark on what would probably more accurately be called a pilgrimage.  That would be admitting that I might actually believe all this stuff about Jesus and the bible.  Instead, I hedged: “Yes, it’s technically a pilgrimage, but it’s really going to be more like a vacation for me.”

The trip was a vacation … from my job, from all the busy goings-on of New York City.  It was also a pilgrimage … to a land I’d never been, to learn about this different place.

I went with a group from the Episcopal church I grew up in.  We hit the hot-spots of Israel, both Christian and otherwise, starting in the North and making our way to Jerusalem.  I didn’t exactly know what to expect, but it was surprising to me how commercialized and tourist-driven places like the Sea of Galilee and “the baptismal site” at the Jordan River were.  We would park our tour bus next to other enormous coaches and queue up with other American Christians as if we were at Disneyworld, waiting for the Tower of Terror.  (The ride up to Masada via cable car was particularly ominous in that regard.)  The guides would show us short, poorly produced introductory films and then we’d snake through a museum and wind up in a gift shop.  Many on my trip appreciated the ease with which Americans could tour.  Wasn’t it wonderful to see so many Christians visiting the Holy Land?

I found it all a little bit uncomfortable.  I realized I had two separate notions of Israel, two different images that I had never aligned.  One was of the modern “Middle East” — the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the suicide bombings, the walls being built, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip.  “Israel” made me think of all these buzz words we hear on CNN, and the horror we see in images, and the solidarity I feel with my New Yorker friends who have family living in these fraught territories.  And the other image, the one I had never overlaid this one, was of Jesus in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.  I have heard the stories in church my whole life, and I have pictured the sandy streets of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” people in robes, the three crosses at Golgotha, an empty tomb.  I wasn’t sure which to look for as we made our way through this land that was both places, all at once.

After nearly a week in Israel, the group finally made it to Jerusalem.  As a city-dweller, I felt more comfortable there, in a vibrant, living city.  Amidst the chaos of today’s politics, it might be surprising to know that there is what seems like a church on every corner, built over the holiest sights.  These are the places mostly that Helena, Constantine’s mother, indicated as holy, based on 4th century research.  With this historical scholarship, another dichotomy arises, between the holy spots that are recognized and the spots where the actual events took place.  It is unclear whether the two are ever one and the same, and it is unlikely that we will ever know “the truth.”

There are two separate spots marked as “the tomb” in Jerusalem. One is Helena’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Orthodox and Roman Catholic pilgrims come to climb the stairs to venerate the cross at “Golgotha,” then descend to pray over the slab where Jesus’ body was prepared, and then wait in an (often very long) line to enter “the tomb” (or spot where the tomb is believed to have once been.)  Across town, there is the Garden Tomb, the place most Protestants prefer to visit.  Just outside the gates of the Garden Tomb there is a rock formation that looks like a skull (“Golgotha” means “place of the skull”).  Inside, there is a carefully manicured garden and a cave-like tomb, empty and somber.  It’s unlikely that this is “the spot” — but it could be, and it certainly “feels” more like “the spot” to those of us interested in seeing things “as they really were.”  (That’s a lot of “scare quotes” in one sentence, approximately the same number as found in the brochure at the Garden Tomb.)

The difference between the two places, and what they signify for a pilgrim visiting them, struck me as a symbol for the larger dual nature of the Holy Land, the same one that made me uncomfortable upon first landing.  In Jerusalem, as in any historic city, there is the old and there is the new and there is the intersection of the two.  Things happened there and then life continued.  It just so happens that in Jerusalem, the old is very old, and the things that happened there were very important to many people.  Is it possible for us, as pilgrims, to come just to see the old, and not pay attention to what’s happening now? Is it okay for that to be the purpose of our journey, as I think it may be for many Christian pilgrims today?

Each evening, we would pray compline together and spend some time reflecting on what the day had meant for us.  Many on the trip had spiritual stirrings in these various holy spots, places where they felt connected to Jesus.  I was resistant to this at first — wary of being duped by tourist traps, upset about the contemporary realities of the land. If I really owned up to this as a pilgrimage, would I be aligning myself with the bitter struggle over the Holy Land — everyone from the warring Orthodox deacons at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher who fight over censing the altar every day to the Crusaders who attempted to eviscerate the Muslims so many years ago?  I wanted to travel to Israel to see a new place, but I have never felt that one must see Jerusalem to understand Christianity.  The universality of the stories of Jesus, I feel, is crucial; one must be able never to go to the Holy Land and still be able to understand what happened there.  It was not important where these exact spots were to me, and that made me act more like a detached observer than a pilgrim.

There was, however, a moment when the two Jerusalems — and, by extension, the two tombs — came together.  When we first entered Jerusalem, we stopped atop the Mount of Olives, just above the Garden of Gethsemane.  It’s a place Jesus goes in the bible to pray and to look out over Jerusalem; there remains today a stunning view of the Old City, across the Kidron Valley.  You can distinctly make out the Eastern wall (built in the 16th century) and the golden Dome of the Rock (7th century) atop the Temple Mount (where Abraham was to sacrifice Isaac, possibly as early as 7th century BCE), images that mean “Jerusalem” to us today.  On our last day in the city, we went underground through the tunnels along the Western Wall (a portion of which is known as the Wailing Wall.)  As we walked through the claustrophobic space, hearing about how the city looked at different historical points, our tour guide mentioned that the stones we stepped on were put there by Herod. Jesus had walked on this street.

I had, in that moment, a cinematic flash back to our first look at Jerusalem, seeing the landscape of the city today built over the landscape of yesterday.  It did not matter if the  original tomb had been in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher or in the Garden Tomb or somewhere else, rather that it had been at all.  The tomb as a symbol came into focus.  Jesus’ body was laid there, and then was resurrected — “the tomb” is, like Jerusalem, both old and new.  It is an image of death, but its emptiness is a symbol of life.  Not knowing where it was exactly means that life has continued in Jerusalem and beyond; to this pilgrim, it means that the tomb is universal.

– Julia Macy Stroud

Images: The Church of the Holy Sepulcher and The Garden Tomb from Julia Macy Stroud.


§ One Response to The Eighth Station: A Lenten Trip To The Holy Land

  • Kevin says:

    For me, the “holiness” of places like the tomb (and for that matter, all holy places of all faiths) lies precisely in this idea that they themselves are living, part of a dynamic and fluid ecosystem of time and belief. There’s a story in Buddhism about a king who lived centuries after the buddha and asked his monks, “How can I be sure that the buddha even existed?” a monk responded, “It doesn’t matter.” I think what I strive to maintain in focus is the idea that we are all, in fact, old and new. We are all and will cease to be material. Our own tombs will be lost; our own energies will be renewed.

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