Sabbatical Blog Post #13

18 August, 2011

I returned today to Nablus from Jerusalem (Al-Quds in Arabic) after a 48 hour visit. On Friday, I ventured into the old city just to walk around and take in some of the holy sites. I stopped first at the Lutheran church near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. For five shekels, and after a somewhat claustrophobic climb up a tiny stone circular staircase, you can obtain the highest and best panoramic view of the entire old city.

The point of my climb was to get a view of Al-Haram As-Sharif, the Noble Enclosure. This is the vast plaza that contains the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, and in ancient times was the location of the Temple. On Fridays in Ramadan, tens of thousands of Muslims make their way to the Haram for prayers. They will bring picnics and stay all day. Some will even camp out. It is an astonishing thing to watch and listen as upwards of ten thousand people pray together, all in shoulder to shoulder ranks, standing, kneeling, prostrating, and in a great hush whispering “Allahu akbar”- God is Great.

After witnessing this beautiful sea of prayer, it was time to make a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Since at least the 4th century A.D. (and there is evidence of much earlier devotion), when Constantine the Great built a vast basilica over the site, this has been the place Christians revere as the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The building has been destroyed, rebuilt, re-designed, and re-oriented numerous times in its history. Thus, it is a hodge-podge of chapels, each jealously guarded by a Christian sect. It is, in a word, very underwhelming as a holy space. It is surprisingly small, dark, and almost always very crowded. And yet, the sheer volume of prayer and spiritual longing here overcomes the lack of aesthetic appeal. Pilgrims of every conceivable language and ethnicity stand in a line for hours for the chance to duck inside the Edicule, the shrine of the tomb, in order to kneel over the shelf that tradition says was the place where Jesus’ body lay, and from which he rose again.

After the Holy Sepulchre, I made my way to the Western Wall. Here, at the last remnant of the great Jerusalem Temple, Jews come to pray and mourn. In front of the wall are row upon row of desks and chairs. As the day wears on, groups of 10 or more men gather around each of these tables, thereby constituting synagogues. The intensity of Hasidic men and women at prayer here is moving and unnerving. And surrounding this place of prayer there is always a great crowd of tourist/pilgrims snapping away with their cameras.

I made the mistake of trying to leave the old city via the Damascus Gate. At about the same time, those tens of thousands of worshippers began making their way out of the city as well. For about 500 yards, I was caught in a slow-moving river of people, jammed together in the tiny alleyway. It took an hour and a half to make what is usually a 10 minute walk. I kept worrying about what might happen if something were to stampede this crowd.

I ended Friday having a lovely dinner with an American couple. Bob and Deb Edmonds have lived in Jerusalem for nearly five years as missionaries of the Episcopal Church (your pledges at work!). Bob has served as the pastor to the English speaking congregation of St. George’s Cathedral and Deb as Bishop Suheil’s assistant. Next week, they return to the states, where bob will serve two small parishes in Massachusetts AND serve as the Middle Eastern ministry coordinator for the national church. We shared a long conversation over the joys and challenges inherent in working and living in the Middle East. Bob and Deb have done wonderful work on our behalf in Jerusalem.

This morning began with As-Suhour, as usual, followed by a Skype session with Monica and the kids. I was just getting up to start the day, they were getting ready for bed. The technology that allows this kind of getting together just blows me away. Here I was, 6000 miles away in this most ancient city, chatting with my family before bed-time.

After the chat, and before sunrise, I embarked upon what has become a tradition of mine when I visit Jerusalem. I make a slow and prayerful circumambulation of the old city walls. This walk is always profound. The entire course along the eastern wall is a walk through the Muslim cemetery. Across the Kidron Valley, one gazes at the Mount of Olives and Gethsemane, alongside a vast Jewish cemetery. Looking at the wall closely, one notes limestone blocks from the Temple period, the Hellenistic period, the Roman, Islamic, and Crusader periods. These blocks have been built up, fallen down, pulled down, and reassembled over the years. History, written in stone. I sometimes touch the stones and note the marks of the masons’ chisels. I think about those long-dead builders. They worked in their day to build a house to God’s praise. Just as we do today. I feel a deep and powerful sense of kinship.

Jerusalem. A city that burrows deeply into your heart. The city can make you crazy, and it can fill you with euphoria, and it can depress you to no end. Only the presence of God can make sense of it all.


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