Thursday, October 27, 2011

the ground we share

Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion,
whuch cannot be moved,
which stands forever.
As the mountains surround Jerusalem
so the Lord surrounds his people.
(Ps 125)

26 oct 2011

I was about to go out and find a falafel when the rest of the group arrive around 7 o'clock last night. They (and I) went immediately down to the dining hall of the King Solomon Hotel where there was a sumptuous buffet laid out, and then the tour guide, Morgie, got us all immediately into the bus for our first outing. I think they do this to keep people up as long as possible on the first night to start getting acclimated to the time change. But what an outing! We had an hour and a half tour of the excavated tunnels that run underneath the Muslim Quarter along the western supporting wall of the Temple. Of course, as places change hands one civilisation, or the detritus of one era, gets overlaid by the new. We were down two or three layers, running our hands along the massive stones all the way to the end of the wall itself where the stones meet the bedrock that had been shimmed off the mountain, and then that very bedrock was chisled to make it look as if it was cut and carved stone rather than natural. Down there also is an opening to see what is known as the foundation stone, the very center of the earth, according to ancient Jewish legend. At that spot there are people praying while the crowds of American, European and Asian tourists go streaming by.

This morning we were up and out by 8 o'clock. Morgie took us first by bus high on a hill south of the city to show us the spot where Abraham would have seen the land for the first time, and read to us from Genesis 12­­­­--
When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shecem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, 'To you and your offspring I will give this land.'­­

­­--to start us out in earnest, back to the beginning of the story. Rabbi Paula led us in the berakah prayers of some wine and bread and we ate and drank to bless our journey together.

Of course looking to the east what we also saw from there was the other famous wall, the concrete wall dividing Isreal from the West Bank. Amazing to see it in person after having read so much about it. It looks like a grey snake winding through the hills. We will learn more about that later.

Our first day was a visit to the holiest places of all three religions: the Haram al Sharif, the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

We headed first to the Haram al-Sharif (as the Muslims call it), the Temple Mound, to visit the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Since nearly the beginning of the Muslim reign in Jerusalem (well over 1000 of the last 1500 years), this spot has been commemorated as the third of the holiest places in Islam. The Dome of the Rock is built over the stone where tradition tells us Abraham took Isaac to sacrifice him. The Hebrew bible and the Qur'an have different versions of the story, but it is a foundational story for all three faiths, especially as evidence of Abraham's faith. It is also the spot at least somewhere near where the Jews believe the Holy of Holies of the Temple was. It is for this reason, among others, that Orthodox Jews will not go up there, partially because they fear stepping on the spot where the Holy of Holies was. Of course wound in there are many other religious and political arguments as well. There also is the Al-Aqsa mosque. This is the one that we sing about in the song "The Ground We Share," as "the farthest house" or the distant mosque mentioned in Surah 17, where Muhammad was carried on the horse Buraq led by the angel Gabriel to Jerusalem (though Jerusalem is never mentioned; it is assumed that that is "the farthest mosque"). Morgie told us that she told a group once how this mosque had been built in the year 705, and a man corrected her: it had already been there when Muhammad was carried there. She used that as an example: there is history and their is myth--and they are both true. She never debunks anything in her accounts of events associated with places, and I find that very refreshing to hear both the cold hard facts and the myths.

We could not go into either of those buildings; only Muslims can. This was not always so. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, as a provocative act, against the advice of people around him, to prove up point, went up to the Temple Mount in 2000. It was seen as, probably because it was, more a commandeering of a space than as a gesture of reconciliation. That set off a great wave of violence in Jerusalem that resulted in some deaths. So now, the place is under tight security and there is the presence of Israeli soldiers and police as well as being under the supervision of the Palestinians. We were also told that Muslim males under the age of 35 still aren't allowed up there at all. It is only open to visitors from 7 to 10 in the morning and then again from 12:30 to 1:30 PM. I hadn't heard the announcement to the contrary, but I was pulled aside by the security screeners because they saw my Bible in my backpack. Not allowed up there. So I had to go back outside and leave it on a table just outside security but already inside the long entry ramp. I could only retrieve it by coming back between 12:30 and 1:30 if I could get in at all, and there was no guarantee that it would be there when and if I returned. I really didn't want to lose my Bible, but luckily pastor Dave offered to stay behind with it since he had been several times up the mount in the past, which was very kind of him.

I have read so much about this spot in particular, and espeically about Muhammad's night flight, that I was thrilled to be up there finally. I was very saddened that we could not go into the mosque or the Dome themselves. We then went back down to the Wall to spend some more time, it being the first time for the folks on the tour. I again found it very powerful to be there and could imagine sitting there for a long time reading scripture or just pressing my forehead to it, both of which are done regularly there. One sad note about it (and we finds that every one of these holy spots has some history of contention attached to it): there was a Palestinian neighborhood tucked pretty close up to that wall until 1967. A few days after Isreal won the Six Day War that year and captured the Old City, they bull dozed that neighborhood (most of the people probably had fled) to make the plaza in front of the wall, which is now paved and elegant. Why must someone's consolation always be bought at the price of someone else's desolation?

After lunch we headed up across the valley to one of the sites that had been pointed out to us several times already, the Hadassah hospital. That is also a emblematic of the strangeness of this little area. When that hospital was built, it was a little island of Isreal in Jordanian territory which started just to the west of the Old City. It then became part of the state of Israel in that same war. Brigid's brother who works for the BBC wrote a book called "Six Days" that recounts how those six days set the stage for everything that has followed and continues to this day in this region. Aside from that (and it is hard for anything to be aside from that) when the hospital was built in 1959 the great Russian born French Jewish artist Marc Chagall was commissioned to do a piece of art for it, and he chose to do twelve stained glass windows depicting the twelve sone of Jacob, the tribes of Israel, for the synagogue. This is quite a hospital complex­­; it has its own shopping mall plus this synagogue. The windows were extraordinary and many people come to Hadassah just for them. We listened to a long explanation of the symbolism of each window. One of the windows carries a scar of the war, too. Some of them were damaged severely by mortar shells, and so Chagall was called upon to restore them. But he left one damaged piece of colored glass as it was, with a hole in it.

We then headed back down into the Old City for a tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This church goes back to the time of Constantine's mother, St Helena, who is said to have found the true cross, and discovered all the sacred spots pertaining to the crucifixion, Mount Calvary, which seems to have been little more than a hill, but was outside the city at the time of Jesus; Golgotha itself, the "place of the skull," a rock formation that looks as if it has two eyes, preserved behind glass; the slab where Jesus was anointed, the thing that I saw the other day when I entered the church unaware; and then the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea where Jesus was buried and from which he rose form the dead. All of these spots are contained within the church. The original church that Helena has built was huge, three times the size it is now. The current church comes from the Crusader times, after 1099. The tomb was a cave cut into a rocky hillside. I have had in my mind all these years a big cave that you could stand up in, from the pious pictures we looked at as kids. We still never made it into the actual tomb that is supposed to be Jesus'. They cut the hillside away and a huge ornate housing was built around it centuries ago. There is, obviously, a long line, and only three people can get in at a time, and there was a lot of chaos and pushing and shoving and even some shoutingwhen we were there. But we did see another of the cave tombs that has been preserved just behind it. That was fascinating because I actually could get an un-gilded picture of what it might have looked like: a low cave with five fingers jutting out of it, each of those being just large enough to contain a corpse, then sealed with a stone. After a year or so after the body had decomposed someone would come and take the b0ones and drop them into a common receptacle near the front of the cave so that the tomb could be used again. Trying to picture all of that, the burial, Mary Magdalene, the angel, the apostles, was a wonderful exercise.

I don't want to scandalize anyone by what I am about to write, but I remained uncovinced by the whole place. First of all there is dispute over where the exact location is--the Protestants have an alternative site in a garden outside of the Old City--so that puts some doubt about the historicity of it all. But worse than that, if the presence, the spirit, of Jesus is in that building, for me it was covered over, hidden behind all the warring Christian factions who have fought (and still occasionaly do) for control over the place, not to mention the river of blood spilled by the Crusaders in conquering the Holy Land in the name of the Suffering Servant, the homeless rabbi who foreswore violence of any kind. I was equally put off by all the chaos of the place, all the various men (the custodians are all men, of course, monks, priest, friars) in their religious garb, and all the different ceremonies going on at the same time. The Protestant and Jewish folks in the group were not impressed at all, some left almost immediately, and I could hardly blame them. The one bright spot was the little Franciscan shrine of the Visitation and adjoining Blessed Sacrament chapel, which had an air of Vatican II-like noble simplicity, a stark contrast to the overwrought iconography and mosaics and layer upon layer of garish decoration, candles and statuary. I truly have felt the presence of Jesus much more walking in the crowded suqs (markets) and looking out at the hills surrounding Jerusalem and even at the kotel, than I did there. I had the same reaction to St Peter's in Rome though, so it's not out of character for me. I'd like to go back some time and see if I can't find something in it. I kept thinking of Virupraksha cave in Tiruvanamalai and wishing that Jesus' tomb was venerated as simply and reverently as that. Why does reverence always have to be shown by the addition of more and more decoration, more and more stuff? Why do we have to try to make things more sacred when they already are, like the tilda of Guadalupe or the new translations of the Roman rite, for instance?

more later...