Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A Pilgrim's Christmas in Jerusalem Pt 2

This view from the Mount of Olives and Gethsemane quickly became my favourite retreat in all Jerusalem.
The Franciscans gave it a sense of true spirituality: solemnity + reverence abide there; people even whispered as they entered the church; something the herds didn’t honour in the other shrines; I felt they may as well be auction markets, museums, or didn’t Someone once call them ‘a den of thieves?
I left this place where history says a man struggled to become God; or was it the other way around? I wasn’t sure.
And I returned to the Old City through Lion’s Gate, tracing my way through its darkened streets to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, perhaps the most sacred shrine in all of the Christian faith.
What happened there that night was the most dismaying display of religious impropriety I have yet encountered: hypocrisy, lying, spiritual usury; it was all there at one of the holiest sites. I felt both cheated and defiled by what I saw take place. And yet, the Via Dolorosa leads directly to its door, and 5 of the Stations of the Cross lie within.
The building is jointly administered by Roman Catholic, Orthodox + Armenian churches who have also granted privileges to Egyptian Coptics, Syrians + Ethiopians. Here in one building, actually 5or 6 different denominations worship, share + participate together where Christ was believed to be crucified + rose from the dead.
But this ‘harmony’ didn’t last too long for me; its fa├žade was soon exposed before my very eyes.
It is an old church, dating from Crusader times and even some remaining parts from a Byzantine church built upon Queen Helena’s discoveries 1700 years ago. During a 1926 earthquake, it was badly damaged and is still undergoing extensive repairs. Whole pillars are being replaced; its ceiling and vault are also being redone. Quite a monumental task, for while the restoration progresses, the church itself yet remains open.
Gratefully, the building’s importance has not closed its doors from fulfilling its original purpose.
So I was quite amazed by a scene of widespread commotion that greeted me on arrival: workmen straining to lift a new section of  pillar into place; people rushing about, shouting orders, carrying them out, all this in a holy place.
I knew nothing about the church’s layout and only by chance I discovered the actual Sepulchre, directly beneath the central dome, sheltered within its own private chapel.
Being late in the day, there was no lineup, so I ducked under the low stone doorway, and suddenly I was alone amid a treasure of  jewel-encrusted lamps, aged icons + flickering candles. The rich decorations proved a kind of distraction at first, but I accepted these fixtures to be Eastern expressions of what was considered suitable for such a holy place, so I let it rest.  
I felt awkward, not knowing what to do in such a  ‘holy of holies’, but after standing there a while, I wondered,
‘Well, what does a pilgrim do when you’ve come to one of the most significant shrines on your journey?’
I’d read stories, seen pictures, but now I was here. I had stepped into history and considered my response.
Well, I knew pilgrims don’t just stand around, they bow… so I knelt down and took off my cowboy hat; somehow it just didn’t suit the solemnity of the place.
Then I thought, ‘Pilgrims pray,’ but I really knew nothing about that. But… I thought I could at least be honest and speak out my heart and truth so far as I knew it; so I bowed my head, closed my eyes, and simply spoke,
 ‘Well, God… here I am. Some people say that Jesus was your Son and rose from the dead in this place.
   I don’t know about that, but if it’s true, I’d really like to know. Could you show me? Thanks.’ 
I think I also knew enough to say ‘Amen.’ and then left it with God, whoever that might be.
I walked out of the chapel and noticed a few elderly men seated off to the side, busy talking together, so I turned the other way.
Suddenly from behind a pillar, two black-robed men wearing black KKK-like hats appeared and invited me in broken English to ‘Come see… here!’
Not knowing who they were, I followed them around to the rear of the chapel I’d just been in.
One of them quickly lit a candle, knelt down in a tiny alcove and motioned me to join him.
‘Come see’, he beckoned, ‘Here, more closer!’ and I knelt down to his level.
The other ‘priest’(?) spoke better English and assumed leadership at this point. He moved his candle into a small opening at the base and pointed to some black stones inside.
‘See… the only real stones of the real Sepulchre!’
I leaned in for a closer look and … suddenly, the first priest, right in my face, grabbed my right hand, and before I could submit or resist, cried out, ‘Holy water!’ and splashed some heavily-scented water on the palm of my hand.
At the same moment, a collection plate appeared in his now outstretched other hand and without skipping a beat, he asked me,  ‘And now, what will give for the Church?’
It all happened so suddenly: the progression from spiritual revelation to crass materialism took place so quickly, I was quite taken aback by their rude boldness.
‘Thanks, but I’ve already given,’ I mumbled, got up and hurried away as fast as I could from these priestly bandits.
I ended up back in front of the chapel entrance and the same men who’d been previously talking together there now noticed me and stopped their conversation.
I asked them what I should see in the church and the one with a long beard, dressed like an Orthodox priest responded:  ‘Have you seen the Sepulchre yet?’
‘I think so,’ I replied and added my question: ‘Which one?’
‘Oh, you’ve been to the Copts, have you? And what did they tell you? Did they show you the black stones and the holy water?’
‘Yes,’ I answered, both confused by the events and somewhat shocked at his mocking tone.
And then they all laughed heartily, which both shocked and repulsed me all the more, this being, I figured, such a sacred place. I began to move away. In fact, I was ready to leave without seeing anymore. I’d seen enough.
But then another of the group, the shortest, with just a wisp of white hair combed straight back, asked me if I’d like a tour of the building.
I concluded he was a guide and declined his offer immediately.  I was a traveler, not a tourist! He insisted; I resisted and it seemed we were ready to get into a big argument – ironically, right at the entrance to where Christians say the Prince of Peace rose from the dead! I turned to leave when the 3rd man asked me what my religion was:
‘Catholic?’           ‘No.’
‘Orthodox?’          ‘No.’
‘Are you Coptic?’ No!’
‘Protestant?’         ‘No.’
‘Well, what are you? You must be something?’
… and then I gave them my philosophically noble, stock answer: ‘Well, I try to be a Christian.’
They seemed quite startled at my response and grew immediately quiet.
But just as suddenly, the guide jumped up and, greatly delighted, explained what I’d just said to the other two.
The others then laughed lightly, as if my answer had struck some kind of vein of simplicity within them.
And then their laughter grew louder!
‘A Christian!’ they repeated it to one another, as if that name had not even been in the realm of possibilities!
The guide especially seemed to appreciate my response and offered to show me around the church for free.
 ‘For you, I do this for God,’ he explained and proceeded to lead me upstairs to Golgotha, the 5 Stations of the Cross, the tombs of Baldwin and Godfrey de Bouillon, all the while telling me details of their stories.
His name was Isaac, an Armenian who’d lived in Jerusalem practically all his 75 (?) years and made his living by giving tours through the church. He had a truly expressive face: a complement to his single wisp of white hair on top was a solitary semi-white tooth poking through the bottom of his lips when he smiled.

And he smiled. And we grew to be good friends during the months I visited and revisited the Holy Sepulchre. Later he confided to me what surviving the Armenian genocide at the end of WWI had been like: the hardships of living in Jerusalem during those war years , the famine when the Turkish army stole all the civilians’ food  and forced them to forage or die. Atrocities that I had read about suddenly became real and took on a face,  a fascinating face with a fascinating story, while around me the church’s walls reverberated with living history and bones once dead rose again to witness truth to the Father’s promise.