We are back from a wonderful trip to Israel that was in many ways a sensory overload of history and culture as we voraciously ingested the sights, sounds and tastes of the Middle East. It will take some time to process all that we experienced but one thing that surprised me during our time there was just how spiritually empty I felt visiting the most holy place on the planet. As a christian, I had expectations that I would “walk in the footsteps of Jesus”. I would see the places that He saw, walk the same streets that He walked and feel in some mystical way more connected to my God and the stories told in the bible. I had visions of walking a desert path along the sea of Galilee, praying in the garden of Gethsemane and standing on the hill where Jesus was crucified.
When we arrived however, I found that things had changed significantly in the last 2000 years. (who would have thought?) As we drove into Nazareth, our first stop on the list of Jesus sites, I was filled with excitement to walk where Jesus had spent most of his life. Yet what I found was that Nazareth is now a modern town with falafel stands, cars billowing exhaust and souvenir shops lining the streets. There is an old town that dates back from the medieval period as much of the oldest standing places in Israel do, but these were not the same streets that Jesus walked. Jerusalem as well has been completely destroyed several times during the span of history and much of what is there now was built around 700 years ago. Being surrounded by modernity made it difficult to imagine the places as they once were and viscerally reminded me of the great chasm there is between the events of the bible and our present day.
Every significant site related to the life of Jesus has a church that was built where the “supposed” location was. I say “supposed” because no one really knows the exact location where these events took place and most of the churches were built twelve centuries after the fact. This also takes away from the sense of sacredness when you realize that the rock that everyone is crying over or kissing because they think it was the rock where Jesus prayed may have just been a random rock that Jesus never even came near to touching. There is also something about the commercialization of these religious sites that cheapens the experience. This is nothing new. People have been making money off of religious pilgrims for over 700 years. There is almost always a gift shop near by every site you visit. However, selling a religious experience is like selling air in a can (which they used to sell jars of Holy land air) the air may be the same but the fact that it is packaged morphs your experience.
One site that vividly expresses how I felt was the site of Golgotha. (one proposed site) I had expected to walk on a barren, rocky hill where Jesus died. Instead I am informed that the way I had seen the crucifixion in the movies as three crosses atop a large hill was not accurate and the place where Jesus died was most likely along the road near the hill or at the foot of the hill where now exists a modern bus station. Somehow seeing this bus station crystalized what I had been feeling the rest of the trip in a single picture, like striking two dissonant notes at the same time. My savior died under a bus station. How strange is that to say?
We have a good friend of Jewish ancestry who went to Israel and after touching the wailing wall, the holiest of sites for the Jewish faith, felt the cold, hard, emptiness of the stone, devoid of any spiritual energy or feeling and at that point decided to become an atheist. I can really understand how he felt. I went to the wailing wall and I too put my hand to the old stone and felt nothing. I went and touched the rock of agony, the place where Jesus prayed until he sweated blood, and felt nothing. I crawled under a table at the place where Jesus was born in Bethlehem (I have no idea why we were crawling under the table and kissing it, there was a line of Russians and we just did what everyone else was doing )and again felt nothing. I even went to one of the proposed sites where Jesus was buried and walked inside an empty tomb and felt nothing.
In the end Israel was not a “thin place” for me. Meaning, as the Celtic christians believe, places where the distance between the natural world and the spiritual world is so thin you can touch the other world. I find that I feel more connected to God along the rocky beaches of Lake Superior in my homeland as the waves rage under the moonlight or looking into the eyes of a recovering crack addict who’s face has been burned to disfigurement from an accident that occurred while he was high.
For me, it is not these historical or semi historical sites that are most important. It is the stories and teachings of Jesus that I find deeply meaningful. I can understand the importance of ritual and pilgrimage to some extent and I think it is helpful for some to connect to a physical place. Yet at the same time, it is good to remember that Jesus himself radically redefined our ideas of what is sacred space. That these places do not hold some kind of mystical power within themselves yet only serve to point to and remind us of something greater.