I’ve just come back from a trip to the land of the Holy One, (often known as the Holy Land). My mind is full of thoughts and impressions. Doubtless they will come out in sermons and Bible studies and so on. But I want to share something with you now.
Reactions to a visit to Israel/Palestine are never mild. The place has such an impact that indifference is not an option. People often comment on how powerful their experience to the holy sites was, or, on the other hand, complain about how built up each site is. It is true. There is hardly a place where an event is remembered that does not have a church or mosque over it!
These two reactions seem to have something to do with another fundamental disposition that peope have about ‘nature’ and ‘culture’. Some people say “I find God in nature” and prefer the idea of what is ‘natural’ over what has ‘mans smear’ over it. This idea can only be sustained within a context of human culture, but, none the less, in a world where humanity’s ‘culture’ is destroying our ability to live on the planet, it is understandable that people will want to foreground the ‘natural’ in many spheres of life, including visits to holy places. On the other hand, it is human culture that has brought us ideas of non violence and interpreted the world as having some meaning. Nature does not bring its one meaning with her!
Now I was deeply moved by my visits to many of these places, but in the light of these different reactions to them, the question I asked myself while there was ‘Why is this? Why do people have this compulsion to build something over an holy site? For Christian sites, this has been going on since at least the 300’s CE when Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and founded churches in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. So from listening to others, and intuiting some things, here is what I think is going on.
In Jerusalem I saw a Bar Mitzvah happening at the Western Wall. The candidates were escorted to the wall from the entrance with drumming and blowing of ‘rams horns’ (Shofars). They were escorted under a canopy! In fact when Jews pray, they wear a prayer shawl which represents God’s commandments ‘over them’ as they pray. So the most simple building, a canopy, represents a ‘covering’ of something that is going on. The rest is all down hill from there. What is a building but an elaborate covering for something?
The simplest thing to say is that a covering, like an umbrella or canopy, affords protection. That is Helena’s title ‘St. Helena, protector of holy sites’. If there were no protection over various holy sites there would be nothing stopping others from forgetting them, or doing something else over them. It remains true that even though some sites are very densely built upon, without the building, there is likely to have been nothing to protect these places, or the memory of the stories that these sites remember.
In the case of prayer or a wedding, the covering puts some ‘meaning’ between the event below and God above. In the case of the prayer shawl, the ‘meaning’ is the commandments. In the case of the Bar Mitzvah, the covering is God’s blessing and protection. This covering sends us the message that there is no such thing as an ‘immediate’ connection with God, that does not require some interpretation. Even in the Children’s song, we see how a ‘building over a table’ tells us what the table means. “He brought me to his banqueting table, and his banner over me is love!” In Corinthians, St. Paul is critical of those who are speaking in tongues of ecstasy because the ecstasy does the prayer good, but does nothing for building up the congregation. St. Paul asks that tongues of ecstasy require interpretation. This is also what is going on at the holy sites. The raw ‘place’ (a rock, a cave a well) does not say much, without the story that goes with it, the images of the story that surround it, and the continual worship of Jesus Christ which honours the stories that attend it. So buildings offer an ‘interpretation of place.’ Interestingly enough, at many other sites of a secular nature, the museums and buildings associated with these places are now most often called ‘interpretative centres.’ What is the field of the Battle of Agincourt without something to tell me ‘what I am looking at?’: someone’s wheat crop!
But there is also a darker side to buildings over holy sites. In Nazareth, over the place where Joseph’s and Mary’s house is thought to have been, is a huge Church built by the Vatican. And it is massive. This is not simple protection or interpretation but a power statement. This says ‘against other ‘powers’ in Nazareth, we have the resources to do this! For my money, it is too much. The power to protect and interpret has become the power to ‘show off’ ones power I think. But this is not new either. The temple mount in Jerusalem was neglected for ages. It was not built on as a symbol of the power of Rome, only this time Rome was the empire. Not building is as an important a power statement as building something. And later, the Muslims built the dome of the rock and the Al Aqsa mosque right where the Temple used to be as a statement of their power over the conquered peoples at the time. It may be a commonplace, but buildings, or decisions not to build, express power.
Last, the building of a structure allows for there to be doors, security, and the control of going in and coming out. A building means ownership through control of movement. There is a queue to see the holy sepulchre, because the people who own the building where it is own the space. They use it for their worship as a first priority, and exclude others. When we were doing the ‘way of the cross’ as a part of our pilgrimage, we could not do any ‘stations’ at Golgotha, because Anglicans do not have ‘worship rights’ in that space. It is controlled by others. Non Muslims cannot go into certain places on what used to be the temple mount.
Again, this is true of many places, but for the places of Jesus’ life, in which many Churches have a share, it is a fact that the buildings over them delineate the ownership by one part of the Church of this site, over against the claims of other parts of the Church to worship there too. When it comes to the Holy Sepulchre the ‘wise men from the East’ have stopped those from ‘the West’ from ‘adoring’ Christ there (at least as a group!)
So here is the first reflection on my trip to the Land of the Holy One. The places that remember the stories of Jesus are, like the incarnation itself and Icons, another ‘face’ for God. Because it is we who have built them, they are ambivalent places: at once both expressive of our best devotion, and worst self assertion. “simul iustus et peccator!” (at the same time, justified and sinners).