Nearly 20 years ago, I was in Israel for a professional conference. I was traveling with a colleague who knew the country very well, and suggested that we spend a little time in Jerusalem en route to the meetings. My friend surprised me by hiring an Israeli guide to take us around to some of the principal Christian sights. One stop was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a site laden with centuries of devotion, credulity, and conflict. I was not at all in the spirit of pigrimage as I entered the vast, rambling structure. I gazed unmoved on the Stone of Unction, and some of the various other minor sights.
We soon came to the stair that takes you up to the top of the traditional site of Calvary — glass along the side gives glimpses of the ledge as you climb. The masonry pile above us cut off a lot of light, and it was pretty dim by the time we got to the top. Over the spot where the crucifixion was supposed to have happened, however, there was a blaze of lamps, reflected and tinted by gold, yea, much fine gold — the Greek Orthodox, I believe, have care of this part of the church, and the adornments are rich and, in a sense, passionate. In the heart of all that blaze, there is a little hole in the glass, big enough to reach a hand in.
Remarkably, we three were alone for a little while up there. My friend, seeing me hanging back, and sensing some inhibition on my part, urged me to go ahead and put my hand in the hole. So, quite aware of the unlikelihood that this was the spot, and feeling nothing much but some embarrassement, I nevertheless set all that aside, and performed the pilgrim’s act, reaching in to the stone, plain bare rock, beneath all the artifice. With no preliminary indication of any emotion, I burst into tears. Despite the part of myself that stood aloof, psychologizing, it was a confession that came from someplace deep, the place of inarticulate groaning which the Spirit can interpret for us, up to God, and also to ourselves. I was shaken, and have often returned to that moment in memory.
My friend remarking on my state, we went downstairs again mostly in silence, and passed into the great open space under the dome, where stands the “Aedicule,” the little structure over the traditional site of Jesus’ tomb. Here, one could see all too clearly how fierce devotion can be so married with personal or sectarian identity that what was most striking was the evidence of strife and contention among the various groups seeking honor in overseeing the shrine. I went inside, and looked around — the putative tomb chamber itself has been protected by a marble slab from sight and too much contact with hands and feet for many years; access was impossible, and there was nothing to see but what people had constructed there. I left the Aedicule, and the Church without further edification (so to speak).
Yesterday in meeting I found myself remembering all this, and hearing the warm spring wind outside our meeting room. I thought, How easily we seek the living among the dead! Dry bones crunch under our feet, and we can wield them as weapons, and find ourselves touched, or absorbed, into the carnival atmosphere of the culture of un-life.
And yet: After the tomb was found empty, the Spirit of Christ showed the dynamic and unpredictable personality that Jesus had both shown and taught. Mary, grieving and longing, did not recognize him upon first encounter, nor did the disciples on the way to Emmaus. Jesus had taught, “Wherever 2 or 3 are gathered in my name, there will I be in the midst of them,” but several of the reported appearances were not at any obvious gathering — Mary in the garden; two guys walking along the road; disciplines gathered in confusion in the upper room; Peter and the gang, at loose ends, going fishing; Paul, riding to Damascus breathing out fire and threatenings against the new movement.
It was a transitional time, a final time of direct apprenticeship, as the incarnation in one personality, Jesus, was attenuated more and more, preparing the vessel of the fellowship to live as the continued incarnation, living in, and living out, the promise of the cross, which is freedom constrained by a love which embraces, underlies, enlivens, all the other, essential, “prophetic” virtues — truth, justice, compassion, mourning, joy, service, humility, patience, courage. And there is no time or era when the Witness is not present, seeking our hospitality, and inviting us to take on the yoke of reconciliation.
Listening to the weather change outside our meeting room, and reaching in to stir the air in our quiet gathering, I heard again the verse from John’s gospel that so challenges me these days: “The wind blows where it will, and you hear the sound of it but you don’t know whence it comes, nor whither it goes — everyone who is born of the spirit is like that.” Peace given in the whirl and motion of created things — not as the world (out there and in ourselves) gives it, or would have us imagine it, airless, still, and constrained.
I do long to ride that living wind; beyond and beneath all that I think and have read, despite my doubts and unfaithfulnesses, and those at large in the world, I know that my redeemer liveth.