Yossi has a sense of the dramatic. For our first day in Jerusalem, he takes us first to the top of the Mount of Olives, looking down on the city from the east. To our left and slightly behind us is the village of Bethany (now a walled Palestinian enclave, one of the no-go zones for Israeli citizens), which we can see because, like Bethlehem (to the south, also behind a wall), it sits on a hilltop; it feels like you can almost reach out and touch these towns, now, after 2000 years of urban sprawl, no longer isolated from Jerusalem (except for that darn wall). It was in Bethany where Jesus' friends, the siblings Mary and Marth and Lazarus, lived, and where he spent the night before what we now call Palm Sunday.
His route that day took him to where we are now standing. Immediately in front of us, down the hill just a bit, is a Jewish cemetery--quite ancient but still with some vacancies if you know the right people. Beyond it is the Garden of Gethsemane. Beyond that is an ancient Christian cemetery, leading down to a ravine known in biblical times and now as the Kidron Valley. From there the ground rises sharply through a Muslim cemetery until it hits the massive stone wall of the old city. The acutal wall that is there now dates from Byzantime times and later (remember, the Romans did a typically thorough job of destroying Jerusalem in AD 70). In the middle of that eastern wall is the main gate on that side of town, known as the
Golden Gate. It was through this gate that Jesus passed atop a donkey in his "triumphal entry." It was sealed shut by the Turks during the Crusades in view of the Jewish tradition that the messiah woul enter through that gate. (Note to the Turks: He already got in. You were too late.)
After posing for a group picture (available to us about 90 minutes later for $10), we proceed on foot down the very route Jesus and his entrourage traversed. Along the way there are legions of peddlars of sourveneir trinkets, some as simple as a sprig from an olive tree. My instinct--a good one, actually--is to keep my hands in my pockets and not make eye contact.
We pass by a small shrine church marking the spot where Jesus is thought to have wept over the city of Jerusalem (the lament about a hen gathering her chicks). The Garden of Gethsemane itself is still partly a garden, though there is a shrine church there, of course, and since it's Sunday morning, there is a Mass about to begin as we arrive, so we can't look around much. It's built (once again, bear in mind Yossi's wise comment that "tradition is stronger than history") around the rock at which Jesus agonized in prayer until he sweated blood. But what is now, in effect, the churchyard, is planted in olive trees that are clearly quite ancient, and there is no reason to disbelieve the tradition that this area has been an olive garden for three millenia, since the time of David. Olive trees are among the most long-lived of plant species, and if these particular trees were not on the scene on the night Jesus was arrested, then their parents or grandparents certainly were. For anyone with the "historically accurate tourism" mentality, this is as good as it gets.
We can't actually enter the old city from the east like Jesus did, so our journey across the Kidron Valley is by bus, which is magically waiting for us in front of the church. It takes us to the Zion Gate, on the south side, toward the southeast corner. When we get out of the bus, which this time we will not see again for several hours, we cannot help but notice a contingent of about 20 or 30 Israeli Defense Force soldiers. Yossi explains that, periodically, Sunday is a mandatory "culture day" for them, in which they have to visit a museum or attend a concert or hear a lecture or some such. So these young men, and two or three young women, are out getting some culture. It's a virtual certainty that most or all of them had only a few days earlier been in Gaza getting something other than culture. I am struck by how young they all look--barely out of their teens, if that. (Military service is universally mandatory in Israel for both sexes.) But more than that, I am struck to see them each carrying a loaded M-16, even though they're off duty. One of our companions, an Iraq veteran, explains to me that, when you're in a "hot zone," you always carry your weapon, because the difference between "off duty" and "on duty" can be a matter seconds. And when you live in that neighborhood of the world, you're always in a hot zone. Sobering.
The area where we are is outside the Byzantine wall, but was inside the city wall in more ancient times. Our first stop is the Tomb of David--the idealized King of Israel, the one who politically unified the nation for the first time since their arrival from Egypt, the proto-messiah. The men among us are required to don headgear. Pious Jews would wear a yarmulke, but my Jerusalem Tours baseball cap is completely adequate, I am assured. This is hugely counterintuitive to the way I am acculturated; indeed, in Christian holy places, we are exhorted to remove our hats. Hard to keep track of without actually engaging the brain. In any case, this is obviously a very sacred location to Jews, and there are many there engaging in various forms of formal personal devotion.
Nearby is the supposed site of the Upper Room--where Jesus and his disciples gathered for the Last Supper, when the Risen Christ met them behind closed doors on the evening of his resurrection, and where the Holy Spirit fell on them on the Day of Pentecost. No one claims that this is the actual room in the actual building, both of which have long since been reduced to rubble and build over several times. Nonetheless, in the orthography of Christian pilgrimage-cum-tourism, this is the spot. (Yossi says about David's Tomb: "As an historian, I have my doubts that the David is actually buried here. As a Jew, this is David's Tomb." I guess I would have a similar attitude toward this room.)
Upon emerging from the warren of narrow streets that make up this part of town, we find ourselves back near where the bus had deposited us, but now we actually go through the Zion Gate, inside the Byzantine south wall. We're in what is known as the Jewish Quarter, and Yossi marches us through a parking lot, which is where the residents have to park because the streets are way to narrow and winding for vehicular traffic. Soon we are in the Muslin Quarter, home--ironically, some would say--of the most sacred spot in Judaism, the Western Wall (aka the Wailing Wall). This is a large section of the actual western wall of the Temple ("Herod's Temple") that the Roman legions neglected to dismantle when they destroyed the city. (The eastern wall of the Temple doubles as the eastern wall of the city itself.) The plaza leading up to the wall is about 15-20 feet higher than it was in the time of Christ, but it's the same wall. The sexes are segregated here (as they were at David's Tomb), and disposable paper yarmulkes are available for men who don't have headgear with them. With those restrictions, we are allowed to approach the wall.
Then, primarily because Jerusalem Tours is so well-connected, and made reservations for a time certain six months in advance, we are treated to a tour through the (still ongoing) excavation along the entire length of the Western Wall, completely beneath the current street level of the city. We are able to walk on the actual pavement that was at street level at the time of the Temple's destruction. A long way, I might add. Although some of us are reaching the point of archeological satiation by this time, it is really quite compelling, moreso than I can find words for.
When we emerge back into the light of day, we are on a narrow street, near the site of the Praetorium (only several feet higher), which is where Pilate finally condemned Jesus to death, and, hence, the first Station of fourteen along the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrows. It was a little surreal here, because even though this is a place of pilgrimage, and Christian pilgrims walk this route in formal procession quite frequently, we are proceeding at a pace that can hardly be described as contemplative. Nor is the ambience conducive to contemplation, with all the shops hawking Christian trinkets and knick-knacks of widely varying degrees of quality and expense.
Nowhere is this disjuct so apparent as at a spot where the path makes a left turn (from westward to southward) at the place of the Seventh Station (Jesus Falls a Second Time). Yossi points to a section of paving stones that look distinctly different from all the others. Some years ago, when they were excavating for some infrastructure improvement (sewer? electricity? fiber-optic cable?), they encountered the actual pavement from the time of Jesus. They obviously couldn't bring the street back down to that level so they did the next best thing and brought a section of the ancient paving stones up to the present street level. In walking the Via Dolorosa, we can walk on the actual stones that Jesus walked on carrying his cross.
But right at that spot--I'm talking right beside those new-old paving stones--there's a pizza place ("Best Pizza in Jerusalem") and since Yossi knows the owner (an Arab Muslim), we stop for refreshments. Yes, the pizza was pretty good, and the Diet Coke really hit the spot. But I can't help feeling a little guilty, you know? I mean, Jesus could have really used a pit stop here, right? After all, it's right where he fell the second time. But it was not to be. I'm not sure I'll ever finish my inner processing of this little anomaly.
Most of the Christian pilgrimage sites in the Holy Land were identified and established as such by St Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, in the 4th century. Shortly before our pizza break, we turn and pass through a gate that was, at the time of Christ, part of the western wall of the city (not to be confused with the western wall of the temple). Helena identified a rocky rise in the terrain as Golgotha, the "place of a skull," and built a shrine church there that encompasses not only the site of our Lord's crucifixion, but the site of his burial as well (the gospels do indicate that Joseph of Arimathea's tomb was, in fact, nearby).
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as it is named, is under the joint--though often not amicably joint--control of the Roman Catholics and the Greek Orthodox ... and you have to walk through part of a Coptic Orthodox monastery to get there! The instability of this relationship is signified by the fact that the actual keys to the church are held by a neutral third party-- Muslim family. The same family has performed this service for hundreds of years, and we are able to meet the current warden of the keys in the plaza outside the church. Even so, I heard that an actual physical fight broke out recently between Roman and Greek monks inside the walls of the church!
As we enter the church, I feel some sympathetic pity toward our evangelical companions, because I don't think they have much working familiarity at all with the spiritual geography that governs such places. Without a spiritual "map" by which to negotiate the darkness and candles and icons and pervasive aroma of incense, etc. I can only imagine that they would have been both a little lost and a little annoyed. (Their moment in the sun will arrive, of course, the next day when we visit the so-called Garden Tomb.) The three Episcopalians, happily, all have a piety that swings way in the Catholic direction, so very little, if any, "translation" is required in order for us to find it a soul-enriching experience.
In the center of the large church, right under the mosaic-covered dome, is a building-within-a-building that marks the site of the tomb. Within that structure, there is a small inner chamber that is the very spot-within-the-spot. Only about four people can fit comportably in that chamber, and there's only one narrow passageway that serves as both an entrance and an exit. A young Orthodox monk--he apparently drew the short straw at Chapter meeting that morning--serves as a traffic cop. He evidently doesn't enjoy his job very much, because he's very curtly--no, actually, rudely is more like it--harrassing everyone to "keep moving, no time for lingering, that's long enough," etc. etc.
OK, I've waited my whole life and come however many thousand miles, and here I am in the spot where Christ trampled down Death by death and bestowed life to those who dwell in the tomb, and some snot-nose monk is telling me I can't stay long enough to say so much as "Thank-you, Jesus"?
So I'm in a slightly bristly mood when I emerge from the tomb. (Hopefully, Jesus had a better attitude at that same point in his emergence.) But after desolation, as the spiritual masters say, comes consolation. Only this time, I don't see it coming; it totally ambushes me. Several yards away from the sepulchre shrine, up some steps, is a shrine marking the site where Our Lord's cross was placed, and I head in that direction. But blocking my path is another shrine, about halfway between the cross and the grave. It's a stone slab meant to represent the stone slab on which the body of Jesus was laid and anointed for burial. (Remember, it was a rush job because the sun was setting on the eve of the Sabbath.) Instinctively, I drop to my knees and bend over to kiss that slab. (Others are doing the same.) Now, if you know me, you are aware that I am not exactly renowned for my emotional effusiveness. Mr Spock, the Star Trek character, was my personal hero when I was in high school; I wanted to be just like him. OK, you get the picture, right? So I drop to my knees and kiss the stone and, all of a sudden ... Niagara Falls. My tear ducts just burst open and I'm sobbing like ... like ... I don't know what ... like I've very seldom ever wept. They are tears of awe and tears of gratitude as I imagine the Incarnate Word's crucified body lying on that slab, but not tears of grief. I don't know how long I am there, but when I get up, it's because I think I should, not because I actually want to. There is a sweetness in that moment that is indescribably special, and is the indisputable highlight of my trip.
Then I ascend the steps to the site of the crucifixion. Pilgrims of many different nationalities and ethnicities (per John the Seer's vision of "every tribe, people, language, and nation"?) are reverently filing by, some politely taking turns crouching under the mensa of the stone shrine altar and offering a prayer while kissing the floor. This is nearly as moving as my prior experience, and some more tears flow. I flash on thirty consecutive Good Fridays of kissing a wooden cross during the ceremony of Veneration, and realize I am at the very font of all those memories, even though it is my first visit.
Soon--too soon--Yossi's deadline arrives (he gives us one in every place) and the 13 of us are marching through the narrow streets of old Jerusalem, past inummerable shops selling an array of items catering to the needs and desires of tourists. In one of these shops is a T-shirt with the familiar logo of the Chicago Cubs, only with "Chicago" and "Cubs" transliterated into Hebrew characters. That I cannot resist, and make everybody wait while I buy one. It may be my only moment of utterly selfish indulgence in the whole trip.
Eventually, after viewing remnants of late first century Roman reconstruction of the city they had just destroyed, we find our exit--the familiar Zion Gate--and our bus, and, after fighting our way through some very 21st century urban traffic, our hotel.
What a day.