No pun intended… in searching for words to describe the Israel experience, yesterday I tripped over N.T. Wright’s The Way of the Lord at the library. It’s a series of talks he wrote in part to prepare a group of parishioners for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
He nails it.
Here’s a bit from the chapter on Jerusalem: “It is often said that Jerusalem is a focal point for three great religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam; but it is actually a focal point for four, because to these we must add another ‘ism’, namely Tourism. Tourism is the modern, secular version of pilgrimage, in which we go to famous places, or to see well-known sights, not to meet God or to receive healing or blessing, but to see things that our culture tells us we ought to see… to buy souvenirs… to take photos and videos… and make it part of our own private reality. […] Jerusalem is a place where it’s very easy to be religious, and also very easy to use religion as a tree behind which, like naked Adam, to hide from the personal presence [of God]…”
“…the test of whether pilgrimage is genuine is therefore the question, whether you’re prepared for God to remake you instead, lovingly to break the brittle ‘you’ that you’ve so carefully constructed, to soften the clay in his hands until it’s ready to be remoulded, and then to make out of you what he had in mind all along, which may be quite different from what you wanted or expected. Jerusalem is a symbol of God’s great expectations, which by no means will coincide with our own.”
He starts out the chapter by saying “The way to Jerusalem is paved with great expectations.” So true! The approach to the city is anticipation all the way. You begin in a valley, and wind your way up into the foothills, passing small Bedouin settlements on the way. The hills become larger and steeper until you realize you’re on a mountain… and going around the curves you begin to catch glimpses of a white city at the very top, shining in the sunlight. Jerusalem! This is the place of scripture and history and legend.
And massive traffic jams, mostly of tour buses.
From the minute you arrive till the minute you leave, the challenge will be to develop the art of dodging the souvenir-sellers (many of whom are extremely aggressive) and find some trace of the real faith among all the religious tourist-traps. Everything in Jerusalem is labeled ‘holy’, so much so that when I spotted a cigarette-seller on the Via Dolorosa it was pure instinct to nudge my pastor and say “look — holy smokes!” I even had the same experience N.T. Wright describes in his book of being “elbowed out of the way by a posse of monks” at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is built over the spot where it’s believed the crucifixion took place.
Yet, as Wright points out, if it’s possible to find a quiet moment here or there, somehow the depth and meaning of Jesus’ self-sacrifice, and the reality of the worldwide body of believers as His Church, comes through more clearly and in a more real way than ever before. Up till now, reading about places like the Temple Mount or Gethsemane or Calvary had something of the aura of legend, not imaginary exactly but somehow apart from the world we know. Now you’re there. This tree, these stones, this pavement, all knew the Master’s touch, and an echo of His presence and personality is still there. You know Him, and yet He’s not what you expect. “Did e’er such joy and sorrow meet…” His sorrow moves you, more deeply than you knew it would, but (as CS Lewis pointed out) it’s His joy that surprises you.
More to come…