In February last year, I seized an opportunity to visit the land of Israel. It was a small leadership tour with the expectation that participants would lead a future tour. That possibility is closed for the moment.
In the fourth century AD the Roman Emperor Constantine embraced the Christian faith and proclaimed that Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire. His mother, Helena, went on a pilgrimage to Palestine (the Roman provincial name for the Holy Land) in an effort to identify the places where the incidents in the Gospels took place. She depended on whatever local knowledge and tradition had survived. At many significant locations, churches were built, the successors to which are visible today. More recent study has not always agreed with these sites, yet they are meaningful for those wanting to do a Holy Land pilgrimage. Such pilgrims go from site to site, from church to church, expecting a special blessing from the lingering "presence" of Jesus at such sites from the past.
This was perhaps most conspicuous at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. A long queue of people was waiting to put their hand through the hole in the floor to feel the rock in which the cross was supposed to have been set. Some were prostrate to kiss the slab of stone on which it is said the body of Jesus was laid when taken from the cross. Again there was a long queue to go into the tomb itself – so ornate with wood and metal that it was unlike any of the other tombs we saw. The arguments between Christian churches about control of holy sites was most evident here. At least, a number of churches do manage to have their own chapel. For the Coptic church, that chapel is behind the tomb – where it is possible to go in and touch the back of the rock.
Perhaps that is why many of us from the Protestant tradition prefer the Golgotha identified by General Charles Gordon in 1883 – right next to a modern bus station – and the Garden Tomb. The British guide gave us plausible reasons why this might be "the very place," but the "expert" support is rather weak. Perhaps this site suits us better precisely because it doesn’t have any strong historical credentials to overlay (and spoil) it with devotional architecture. One Catholic priest is reported to have said, "If the Garden Tomb is not the true site of the Lord’s death and resurrection, it should have been."
The doorway to the tomb is enlarged, the stone long since gone. A wooden door secures it at night and declares the truth, "He is not here, for he is risen."
The Muslims have regarded the Temple Mount the third most sacred place on earth. According to Muslim tradition the angel Gabriel brought Muhammed here and from the "Rock" took him on a night pilgrimage into heaven. Denied access to the Mount, Jews have long treasured the Western Wall, believing that, though the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70AD, the divine shekinah still lingers in these rocks. Some Christians visit Israel in the hope of re-capturing something of the presence of Jesus - still lingering in the land where he lived, taught, healed and died.
Yet the statement on the door of the Garden Tomb is crucial for the whole tour experience – and for the Christian life. It is important that God himself has acted in revelation and redemption – historically, through real people and supremely in his Son. But, though we hold fast that it did happen, our faith is not anchored in the places where it happened, but in the one who "is not here, for he is risen." Jesus is not more really present in the Holy Land than anywhere else in the world.
The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!
© Peter J. Blackburn, NFFR Onward, March 2002