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
4 | THE TABLET | 7 April 2012
‘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 –