A Pilgrim's Notebook - Chapter 6

Pilgrim notes #6 - Shrines of the monotheistic faiths
Saturday: 03/11/2000

As Jesus approached Jerusalem, he wept and said, "The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God's coming to you." Luke 19:43-44

Jerusalem, O Jerusalem

Today we visited the major shrines of the three great monotheistic faiths in the old city of Jerusalem. El Haram Esh Sharif and the Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

El Haram Esh Sharif and the Dome of the Rock are built upon the ruins of the Second Temple on Temple Mount. The Second Temple was destroyed by Rome in 70 AD, rebuilt and destroyed again by Rome in 135 AD and a pagan temple was built upon the ruins which fell into ruins itself. With the Muslim conquest in 638, Haram Esh Sharif was built. This is the entire area atop "Temple Mount" and the entire area is considered to be a mosque (a place to pray). The Dome of the Rock was built between 685 and 691, and the al-Aqsa mosque on the southern edge was built about 780.

We stood in a long line for security to climb up into the Haram Esh Sharif, the third most sacred site for Islam. Security is a problem as various elements remain eager to destroy these sites. We removed our shoes to go into the mosque itself. It is huge and bright. It contains 14 naves. Of course, since the entire area is considered a mosque, there are many outdoor nave-equivalents as well. However, Muslims do not need to be in a mosque to pray; the mosque is just a designated place set aside for prayer. Because of the damage of time and earthquakes (about once every 100 years or so) virtually none of what one sees is original, or even all that old. But the stained glass windows, mosaics, and tile work are quite beautiful.

We repeated the shoe trick at the Dome of the Rock. The Dome of the Rock is not a mosque, but a shrine to the place from which Mohammed was physically transported up into heaven, and returned, in 622. That's a long story. The Dome of the Rock is unbelievably much more beautiful than the mosque we had just come from. The rock itself is a huge outcropping of bedrock surrounded by a wooden fence through which one can touch. On one side one can descend into the Well of Souls, a natural cave within the rock, with a hole or opening in the top. No one knows what purpose, if any, these have ever served, but today there is a small shrine in the cave.

Significance: an appreciation for the magnitude of these places that are holy to Islam.

After a short "coffee break" we made our way through a different security checkpoint to the Western Wall, often called the Wailing Wall in the US. The wall is the Western foundation of the Second Temple and has become the major shrine for Jewish people, particularly the orthodox and ultra-orthodox. Since it is the Sabbath today, most of the space along the wall was taken by people praying. As one approaches the wall, which is divided into a large men's section and small women's section, it becomes obvious that every chink in the wall has been stuffed with little slips of paper containing prayers by the faithful. On our excursion around the old city the first night we were here, Jon Boss managed to put the Clear Vision prayer into an unused chink.

As we entered the area, a family celebrating a bar mitzvah invited us to join them for treats at their reception, even though there were large crowds in the area. The sense of hospitality was overwhelming. A few actually did accept the hospitality, though we would be shortly enroute to lunch.

Here we also encountered a clash of religion and cultures. Just before we gathered the pilgrims to leave the area, the bar mitzvah celebration was getting exciting. A short man, looking like Santa Clause with long white beard and white fur cap had the floor with chanting, then singing, and next thing we saw was spontaneous enthusiastic dancing - - and then, at about the same volume from the opposite direction, we heard the Muslim call to noonday prayer (1150 more or less). All that was missing was Christian component and we'd have had an intolerable cacophony. As it was, it emphasized the stressful coexistence between faiths in today's Jerusalem.

After lunch, we made our way through very crowded streets to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, via the worship space of the Ethiopians. In one of the chapels of the Ethiopians, we were read to (in their language) from the Holy Scripture, then surprisingly, we were able to join antiphonally in the Kyrie Eleison. So building on yesterday's Armenian experience, we now have "halleluia", "amen", and the Kryie Eleison as part of the universal language of the church. (?)

From the Ethiopian chapel we made our way directly to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Historical, Archeological, and anecdotal evidence strongly support that this church contains both Calvary and the tomb. We had been prepared by lecture and by reading assignments to not make judgments about what we were to encounter. I wouldn't have missed it for the world. It was simultaneously inspiring and demoralizing; uplifting and frightening; magnificent and ugly.

The original church built by Constantine has been rebuilt and willfully destroyed many times. There is nothing left, for example, of the original tomb excavated early in the 4th century. Excavations were necessary due to pagan attempts to hide the holy site. The current tomb is a mere shelf in a fragile building being held together by a steel framework superstructure. As we entered the larger church containing the sepulcher, the Coptic (Egyptian) church was controlling access. Roman vespers had started which denied pilgrim access to much of the shrine. Because of the crowding we broke up into smaller affinity groups and even single persons to "see" the church, having been given sufficient roadmap. Shortly after the Roman vespers started, the Greek vespers started in an adjacent chapel. From all appearances, both were competing for airtime and the services, while beautiful, competed poorly with each other. While looking in on the Greek vespers, Jan and I were somewhat rudely ushered out, then rudely and roughly pushed into a crowd by real policemen and Roman monks who were attempting to clear a large area of a dense crowd, but at the same time blocking the only exit. Although I was just trying to cooperate, I was being pushed into little old ladies (and some men) and various groups of visiting nuns who were clearly frightened. After a while it became obvious that the Roman Catholics were going to process around the sepulcher as part of their worship service, which they finally did with wonderful music and chanting, to the cacophonous competition of the Copts and the Greeks, like children who could not play well together. All I could think of was that Jesus would not be pleased. After an hour, we managed to escape from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

I believe there is a lesson here on cooperation within our own church, and with other Christians to do God's will. May God's will be done, Amen.

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