Candles the colour of honey flickered silently on either side of the low passage to the burial chamber. Bowing to enter, we three then stood before the slab of rough stone. This could very well be the burial place of Jesus of Nazareth. If it is the tomb of Jesus it also the place of ‘anastasis’— resurrection. Close by is a credible site for Golgotha — the site of the Crucifixion.
The tomb is within the Edicule, a free-standing structure within a free-standing structure — the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The astonishing Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a complex and bewildering unity of three separate, living Christian traditions — a living testimony to the complexity of the nation itself. The ‘nested’ realities experienced within the Edicule within the church, is an apt metaphor for present day Jerusalem itself.
Ellen and I had come to Israel on our own in 2011 for a three-week stay. We looked forward to our daughter joining us soon. The trip was to hold real drama for us.
On our first night in Jerusalem, we met Father Bob Holmes, a Basilian priest who was leading a peace and justice tour for members of the Roman Catholic Church. Bob quickly and generously invited us to join his expedition: “We have two empty seats in our van! Come along whenever you like…” Father Bob had many years of experience in Israel associated as he was with Christian Peacemaker Teams.
And so it was, that the next morning, we found ourselves with Father Bob heading off to meet members of The Women in Black, a group which in 2011 held a weekly public display of protest of the continued occupation of the West Bank. At great personal risk they carried their protest to a central square in ‘new’ Jerusalem. Within minutes of arrival at the square, the women were at the centre of a circling and threatening opposition. It was, to us, an immediate revelation of the tensions which are so very near the surface of day to day life.
One evening we heard grieving parents share their stories of loss — one child shot by the Israeli military, the other killed by a Palestinian bomb planted in Jerusalem. The parents belonged to a group seeking an end to hostilities.
In our journeys north we travelled alone and stayed with an elderly farming couple in Galilee. They farmed the same ground since the foundation of the Israeli state in 1948. In those days, their weapons were always close at hand. They had an old photo on their wall of David Ben-Gurion mopping his furrowed brow at the moment of the formal establishment of the state of Israel. The farm overlooked the Sea of Galilee. We spent thoughtful afternoons there.
Once again with Father Bob’s group, we visited a Palestinian farm not far from Bethlehem and surrounded by settlements. The farm is presently denied the basic necessities for farming yet has managed to persist through international aid. The farm, known as The Tent of Nations, has become a school of peace for Israeli and Palestinian children. The Christian farmer claims a faith lineage to apostolic times.
While it may be impossible to convey the complexity of Israel there is no denying the impact of Jerusalem on the mind, heart and soul of the pilgrim.
As I took one slow step after another toward the Western Wall, I felt my composure crumbling. I was there to pray. I had a note in my hand to place in the wall. With each step my heart seemed to edge ever closer to a kind of crisis … like a bird sensing the upward draft from a cliff overlooking the sea.
The tears began to flow.
And then came a crushing release of emotion as I pressed my forehead and palms to the wall and wept uncontrollably. I wept for my family’s losses, for all families, for an end to divisions, for all those praying beside me, for the Blue Mosque on the Temple Mount, for Israeli children, for Palestinian children … I wept for all the world …from Jerusalem.