Rural and urban in the Easter story
Towards the shining city The image of the garden is central to both the Creation story and the account of the Resurrection in John’s gospel. But the city is just as important as a potent biblical symbol, inspiring revulsion in some and reverence in others, as two visitors reveal
Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a cavernous and depressing place. Its ornate chapels puncture the gloom with their glitter and bling. The air, soupy with incense and candle wax, shifts and stirs with the chanting of monks and the irritable jostling of tourists and worshippers. Like Jerusalem itself, it is a place of religious rivalry, with frequent fights breaking out among the monks of the Orthodox, Armenian, Catholic and Coptic Churches that control the building. It is said to contain both Golgotha, where Christ was crucified, and the sepulchre where he was buried and rose again, but it is a place that evokes more a sense of the brooding darkness and mob violence of Good Friday than the Resurrection joy of Easter Sunday.
In the nineteenth century, General Charles Gordon claimed that another location, outside the walls of Old Jerusalem, near the Damascus
Gate, was the real site of the Crucifixion and burial of Jesus. This site, known as the Garden Tomb, has become popular among Protestants, who have tended to reject the Church of the Holy Sepulchre because of its heavily Catholic influences.
Archaeologists still dispute whether either or neither of these sites is authentic, but the quest for historical authenticity sometimes has to yield to the more poetic and imaginative interpretations that inspire the life of faith. To say this is not to discount the importance of historical research, but to recognise that there are different ways of telling the same story, and truth must find language appropriate to what it seeks to communicate.
For example, my friend’s lovely disabled daughter died last month. The autopsy diagnosed the medical condition that caused her death, but the story that moves and inspires me is the family’s account of being with her
Noli Me Tangere by Fra Angelico (c. 1395–1455). Museo di San Marco, Florence. Photo: Bridgeman Art Library as she died, and my friend telling me of how, when she realised what was happening, she prayed for God to send angels to take her daughter to heaven. There is no contradiction between these two accounts of Lee’s death. One is a scientific record of the medical facts, the other a human story of love, loss, faith and mourning. So much of the ostensible conflict between science and religion arises out of our failure to recognise the many voices in which truth speaks, depending on what we want to understand.
This is why, whatever the historical debates, I prefer to think of the Garden Tomb than
The Holy Land has been called the fifth gospel. Having recently been there on pilgrimage for the first time, it now feels more like the first. It will certainly be impossible to read the four written gospels in quite the same way ever again.
Being a pilgrim there both decentres one’s faith and earths it. One effect is to banish for ever those half-formed images of Jesus, naively lodged in the mind in childhood and still lurking in the adult imagination. It comes as a jolt to realise that Jesus physically resembled the native Palestinians more than the pale-skinned Anglo-Saxon pilgrims. Compared with endless books about the world in which Jesus lived, nothing more succinctly conveys the cultural gap between us and him than being in the land where his life unfolded from birth to Calvary.
And yet the experience is also like a lightning bolt connecting the heavens and earth. Rather in the way that the sudden appearance in the Creed of an individual’s name – the name of an obscure, otherwise unknown provincial governor at the edge
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‘Rarely have I felt such palpable devotion’ A trip to the Holy Land was a life-altering experience for Alban McCoy, for whom the reading of Scripture will never be the same of the Roman empire, Pontius Pilate – roots these great articles of faith in the surd reality of history, so venerating the place of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, or the actual place of his Crucifixion in Jerusalem, or looking out across the Sea of Galilee impresses on the mind as never before the reality of what until now has been known only in study, liturgy and prayer. This goes some way to explaining why I was rooted to the spot on seeing Pilate’s name on an inscription in Caesarea, the city built by Herod the Great, the Roman capital of Palestine and the residence of the governors of Judaea.
The most sacred shrine of Christendom, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the Christian quarter of Jerusalem, marking the very place of Christ’s Crucifixion,
burial and Resurrection, brought yet another kind of earthing. Constantine’s church was begun in 326 and it was in order to pray at this site that pilgrims risked life, limb and freedom to reach it. And, of course, it was to repossess this sacred site that the Crusades were launched.
But a modern pilgrim is in for a shock: the church involves the coincidence of so many opposites. When you finally arrive through a network of dark and narrow passages in the magnificent Gothic church on the site of Calvary, you find yourself in a tumult of myriad different races, languages and liturgies, often celebrated in a way geared to outdo or, at least, render inaudible those of the other six parts of Christendom occupying the church – the Church of the Holy Sepulchre when I reflect upon that first Easter. The Garden Tomb is a peaceful refuge hidden away from the bustling streets of Jerusalem, alive with birdsong amid a scented profusion of flowering shrubs. There is an ancient burial chamber hewn out of pale rock, which offers a space of quiet reflection. Just beyond, overlooking what is now a bus station, there is a craggy hill said to be the site of the Crucifixion, in which the rock formation looks like a skull – the word “Golgotha” means “skull”.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a place of stress and conflict, but the Garden Tomb is a place of recreation. That is a rich word whose symbolic significance we tend to overlook. Gardens have, from time immemorial, been places of reflection, where people have sought God amid the beauty of nature, but the word “recreation” does not just mean rest. In the Bible, the garden is the locus of the creation of the world by God, and of the recreation of the world in Christ. The garden of the Resurrection is God’s new creation coming alive in Christ, and if we read the account of the Resurrection in John’s Gospel with that in mind, we discover deep resonances with the Book of Genesis.
Genesis describes a Creation that was “very good”, when man and woman, God and nature, shared a space of intimate communion in the Garden of Eden. To read this story as a factual account which challenges science is to misunderstand the kind of truth it communicates. The Catholic tradition has always recognised that the literal words of the Bible are a veil woven over its more profound truths, which we must discern through prayerful reflection on the meaning and not just the appearance of the text. From that perspective, the story of Genesis 1-3 remains a powerful myth of human origins, for it offers a poetic account of why we are such a troubled species.
Like the Freudian oedipal myth, it points to a primal experience of exile, mourning and sexual conflict in the shaping of the human soul.
On the one hand, we inhabit a story of imagined origins and endings which haunts us with a sense of yearning for love and joy beyond anything that the world can offer. On the other hand, we are prey to intense feelings of fear and alienation that affect our most intimate relationships. That ancient serpent appears as a mysterious presence in the midst of creation and it is still there, whispering its seductive promises of godlike power and domination to the human heart, infecting our lives with a malevolent undercurrent of shame and blame.
The revelation of God incarnate unfolds between the garden of Creation and the city of redemption
The last chapters of John’s Gospel take up themes from Genesis 1-3 and impregnate them with redemptive significance. The gospel author recapitulates the story of creation and the fall in Genesis by representing the garden of the resurrection as the scene of a dramatic and transformative encounter between the risen Christ and Mary Magdalene, which heralds the dawning of a new age. Patristic theologians and many medieval artists depicted Mary Magdalene as a figure of the New Eve, who encountered Christ, the New Adam, in Paradise made new on Easter morning.
Yet if the garden is one important metaphor in the biblical story, the city is just as important. The revelation of God incarnate unfolds
Latin Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian, Copts and Ethiopians – not to mention the cacophony of imprecations offered by the pilgrims themselves.
So jealously are the rites and rights of each respective community guarded that each celebrates their liturgy and para-liturgies according to a strict, unvarying schedule, in order to prevent
The sun rises over the Sea of Galilee. Photo: CNS
the encroachment of the others on their time and space. Physical violence has sometimes broken out when alleged breaching of boundaries has taken place. Nowhere is the fragmentation of Christendom more obvious than here; and yet, paradoxically, nowhere is the catholicity of the Christian faith, expressed in so many diverse ways, and the intense
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between the garden of Creation and the city of redemption. The biblical journey from the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem can be read as the story of God’s gradual redeeming of creation as the human species evolves and migrates from nature to culture, from rural to urban environments, in that complex interweaving of sin and grace that constitutes our history.
Christianity has had an ambivalent attitude towards cities, even although it has always been more of an urban religion than a nature religion. Augustine identified the fratricidal brother Cain with the building of the earthly city as a place of sin and corruption, and his murdered brother Abel with the heavenly city as the eternal home of the redeemed. Augustine’s pessimism was a reflection of the times in which he lived during the violent collapse of the Roman Empire, but it is also possible to see the city as a space that shimmers with the incarnate presence of Christ amidst its human multitudes.
In his epiphany, Fourth and Walnut, Thomas Merton described how, on a busy street corner, he had a sudden sense of this: “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realisation that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious selfisolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness.” While some monastic communities and hermits have withdrawn to wilderness places, many others have sought to serve Christ among the human throngs that populate cities. The quest to recognise Christ among the urban poor is likely to become ever more important as the vast cities of the future swallow surrounding rural communities.
A garden provides beauty and balm for the troubled soul, but the Christian life is not one of exile from the human condition. Paradoxically, perhaps the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is indeed a more holy place than the Garden Tomb, for it confronts us with all the failure and tawdriness of the Christian story, including its violent religiosity. To seek Christ in such a place is to confront what the incarnation means in all its struggle and turmoil.
In its turbulent and bloody history, Jerusalem is sacred to all three Abrahamic religions. It is a holy city not because it is beautiful but because it is a focal point in the ongoing story of our confused and often violent quest for God. The biblical story begins in a garden and ends in a city. The life of faith calls us out of the sheltered tranquillity of paradise into the darkened streets of the city where Mary Magdalene, like the Bride of the Song of Songs, went out in search of her beloved on that first dawn of God’s new creation in the risen Christ.
■ Professor Tina Beattie is director of the Digby Stuart Reseach Centre for Catholic Studies at the University of Roehampton.
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