Monday, February 27, 2012

Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

Every time I return from Israel, I’m a bit startled by well-meaning friends who breathe a sigh of relief, tell me they have prayed intently for my safety, and yet look a bit puzzled why any rational person would venture into such a place. There are plenty of perils for the pilgrim to Israel: an injection of uneasiness about our vapid culture here, a keen sense that Jesus was real and my faith had better be real also, and the omnipresent possibility of a sprained ankle from walking around on loose stoned pavements that are seven times as old as the United States. But I’ve never thought the Iranians or Syrians would target my little bus of American tourists; to me, Israel feels safer than Charlotte.
Mark Twain ventured to Israel, and penned a host of wry musings (in Innocents Abroad) about his experience in Palestine; and I can only say Amen to his shrewd thought that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on those accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
But what is so special about this little corner of the planet called Israel? Yes, we know its historical importance, squatting at the crossroads of civilizations and the three big religions; and yes, if you’re into Jesus or more generally the Bible, to see the place is an enormous privilege. I think for me, the virtue of being with other people in Israel is some sort of telescoped embodiment of what we do (or should be doing) every Sunday: sitting in pews we hear Scripture read out loud, but then pilgrims to Israel actually see the Jordan river, the peak of Nebo, the stones of the temple, the lapping waves of Galilee, and the reality of what once seemed to be merely spiritual is palpable. Archaeologists discovered a fishing boat from the first century, and when you study its stunningly preserved wooden beams, you realize this is a boat Jesus saw, and perhaps stepped into for a few hours or even days.

It’s a small place. The Jordan doesn’t quite qualify as a “river”; “winding creek” might be more descriptive. Capernaum is a tee-tiny place; Jesus left the synagogue and went home (Mark 2), and I counted no more than 20 of my own steps to get from synagogue to the house archaeologists discovered. Nazareth is a bit of a boomtown now, but in Jesus’ day the population might have been 40 or 100. Galilee is merely a small lake. You can drive the length and breadth of the country in no time flat. Mount Tabor is a little hill by our standards.

I like the smallness – not for the convenience of touring, but in consideration of the nature of the Gospel. God became small – and life is about small things. Would we really prefer a God who came down in a metropolis and then ventured at supersonic speed all over the globe? Not me. What matters in my world is small: my children in their cribs, a little note my wife leaves me, a hug, a smile, words of affection, a short walk to the mailbox to open a birthday card, that last breath I just took, and the unexpected rapidity of the passing of a lifetime that makes you gasp. We know God in the smallness of our mundane existence, in the seeming irrelevance of a single life played out by a little lake ringed by a few hills.

Thinking of Israel, Marlowe spoke of “infinite riches in so little roome.” Indeed: a stone age tower in Jericho predating Joshua by 5000 years, a wall David built to defend his palace, a tunnel Hezekiah hewed out of rock to retrieve water during the Assyrian invasion, a house burnt by Nebuchadnezzar, a box that once held the bones of the high priest Caiaphas, massive stones from Herod’s buildings (including his winter getaway at Masada), the stunning Dome of the Rock, Islam’s centuries old shrine, Crusader dungeons in Acco. Once I saw a double rainbow in the valley below Nazareth! But beneath that rainbow, curiously out of place, were the golden arches of McDonald’s. More hauntingly, the landscape is littered with barbed wire, war’s debris, and armed citizens, their faces hardened by years, even centuries, of tension. The ironies, the wonders, the tensions, the sorrow: God chose such a place to reconcile the world to God’s own self; how could it be otherwise?

Everything that happened in the Bible is marked by a church or a tacky memorial. You can see Lot’s wife, or Adam’s grave, or the inn of the Good Samaritan. There aren’t one or two but actually three places that claim to be the real Emmaus. Even archaeologists “find” bogus things – like the much ballyhooed burial box of James the brother of Jesus, which proved to be a not-so-clever forgery.

Fred Craddock tells of being in a tour group that visited the Upper Room. The group just ahead of his was led by a pastor who told his flock, with deep emotion, “This is the very room where Jesus shared the last supper with his disciples. You are sitting on the very seats where they sat…” and then they had communion, prayed, and left. Craddock’s group then entered, and the tour guide pointed to the walls and arched ceiling and explained “Now we can tell that this is a 16th or 17th century building, the real last supper plainly not having taken place anywhere in this vicinity.” A woman next to Craddock whispered to him, “I wish I were in that other group.”

But I never want to be in that other group. I want the real thing. So when I go to the fairly recently excavated Pool of Siloam, I can sit on the very stones where Jesus stepped and healed; on the southern edge of the Temple Mount I can stand on the very steps Jesus would have used when teaching and entering the temple. His feet and my feet pressed on the same stones – separated by two millennia, yes, but still as close as one can dream of getting. I want to go barefooted, or press my face into the stones – but why? In my heart, and in my daily routine, I somewhat vaguely want to be close to Jesus; but I really do want to get closer, and maybe walking where he quite literally walked will, if only for a few moments, get me in touch with him as I might see and feel what he experienced.

I saw a woman praying at the wailing wall – not at the outdoor plaza, but down the tunnel, in the dark, at the very point we think is closest to the ancient Holy of Holies. I know Israelis don’t call it the Wailing Wall any more, but the “Western” Wall – but this woman was wailing. Her Bible was open, and pressed with her right hand against her face, getting soaked with her tears; her body was bobbing, oscillating, her vocal sobbing was harrowing to hear, and see. I wanted to tap her on the shoulder and find out what passage her Bible was open to, against her grieving visage – and what was her story? Or I wanted to comfort her – or better, to see if her heart might be transplanted into my chest so I could pray as she was praying. I do not see this at home.

If I had to summarize the churches, altars, and art in Israel, words like “garish,” “tacky,” “kitsch,” and “gaudy” come to mind – but I find myself not minding. I admire the piling on of devotion. Nobody waited for fine Renaissance artists or elegant decorators to build around holy places. Whoever was devoted threw up what they knew and could muster. Some pilgrims are put off by the crowds: you poke your way into the most sacred of all sites, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and it’s just a mob; you will get shoved. But what if those buildings sat empty? I like it that Koreans and Germans and Hispanics all save up their hard won money to go to this place, when there are so many beaches and resorts and Las Vegases that beckon.

Yes, part of the ugliness of the most sacred nation, and the most holy places in that nation, is that turf wars threaten to spoil it all. Because of Jerusalem, the world can’t seem to be at peace; the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre will probably cave in before the Catholics, Copts, Greeks and Armenians can agree on repairing it. But even this elicits my affection: I like it when a place or an idea is contested, even fiercely. Something matters – in a world where nothing much seems to matter, unless you count what movie stars wore to the Oscars or who’s still standing in a reality show.

In Israel, I feel small, and thus empowered. More than any place on earth, Israel forces me to realize what has been done for me. It’s like the beach: for me, if I’m in the mountains or even another country, I scribble a list of things to do to keep busy and get it all in; but at the beach I can just sit, and stare, for hours. In Israel, by the Sea of Galilee, I do move around busily; but I sit, and stare, and don’t feel I’m the master of my own existence - and I treasure my love for others. In this place, God did things, amazing things that resonate through the centuries. God acted here, for me, and for the group we heard sing “How Great Thou Art” in Korean, for everybody back home, and even for those who don’t believe, or don’t know the story.

The stones tell the story of the centuries. Archaeological sites (like the pool of Bethesda, where Jesus healed) feel messy, with modern walkways perched on Crusader walls that reused Byzantine stones that obscure Herodian foundations – but instead of feeling confused, I feel it’s all right there, past and present, all pasts and all presents, embraced in a single web of rock and wonder. I am part of something bigger than myself, something older, something that transcends me and my little world, something that invites me into the adventure of the ages, one that will culminate at the end of time in nothing else but a rousing chorus of praise to the God who made it all and loved it all so patiently.

For you see, a pilgrimage to the Holy Land symbolizes what life is really all about, and also our final destination. “I am bound for the promised land” was a hymn my grandparents sang; they never got out of the Carolinas much, and never were afforded the nearly elitist privilege of travelling all the way to Jerusalem. But they knew the Jesus who stood on the stones, and vested their lives and fortunes in the journey to God’s new Jerusalem.