Before I start this post, I would like to apologise for the lack of images. I have very little bandwidth here and pictures would defeat the whole venture. I will sort images out when I return home.
Today we visited the Old City of Jerusalem - the seat of my faith, the site of the crucifixion and resurrection, the place where Jesus felt inexorably drawn, the site of so much anguish and plight. If the rest of my visit was an objective exercise of learning and education, this day was a personal moment for me, a Christian. This day represented the ultimate pilgrimage - the very essence of a spiritual 'return home'. I had looked forward to this day for thirty years, a moment when I could add a hitherto missing dimension to my experience of my Christian narrative. This chance was precious gift, an answer to a prayer. Every church in which I have worshipped has set my eyes to Jerusalem in the very orientation of their buildings. As our tour guide put it, on this day the Christian world will be looking over my shoulder; I would be at the front of the queue!
Queues formed a central part of today. We queued in the hot sun to enter the Western Wall Plaza, having passed under signs that dis-allowed 'scriptures' and 'ritual objects'. Yes, we were entering a sacred place - but the trappings of sacred observance were not welcome accompaniments! We visited the Temple Mount which is now a wholly Muslim place. Once the hour granted by the Muslim authorities to tourists in any given day had elapsed, we were gently moved on and access forbidden. We wandered through narrow streets, past so many traders selling everything a tourist could fill a spare bag with. This part of the city offered a very sensory experience - spices and burning incense, street-traded food cooked as we wandered past, the call to prayer, architectural flourishes from two previous millenia, and the filth and debris of so many people holed up in such a small place. I found that I was verging on bewilderment - a mix of being in this place, the level of activity, and its sheer unfamiliarity. The sheer volume of people and the noise that they made in direct competition to one another just added to that. There were queues to leave, queues to enter, queues to take pictures ... queues to queue!
We eventually walked along the Via Dolorosa, the route of Jesus' journey with the burden of his cross. Never again can I deliver the Stations in the same way. I am a reasonably fit strong man and I would have had trouble carrying a box of groceries along that route, never mind the cross-member of a tool of murder. We ascended to the Church of the holy Sepulchre - the sites of the moments of the death and resurrection of Christ. I am not sure what I expected, but it surely was not what I found. It is a site over which Christian communities have squabbled over generations; the sites in question have been buried inside grand edifices which, to me at least, robbed them of some of the potency of their nature. To view the very site of the Crucifixion would have meant yet another queue amid a the chatter and picture-taking of tourists, a scrabble under a stone table within the setting of a chapel that was be-decked with much silver and gold. I didn't queue - I broke my heart as I watched on. This seemed to me a place to celebrate not a place of abandonment and murder. This felt like a second moment of Golgotha's desolation to me - but I try hard to remember that with so many people coming to venerate these places, such scenes of touristic chaos were perhaps unavoidable.
Much the same can be said of the edifice over which the place of the resurrection is believed to have taken place. More pushing, more noise, more cameras, more queues. I said my private prayers as I watched on and in the end found a quiet Armenian chapel to gain some peace once again. The one consolation to me, if I can call it that, it that these places were probably like this at the moments of the death and resurrection of Christ - chaotic disorganised noisy places where this stuff probably happened while so many others were oblivious or caught up in the queues for life in their day.
As I reflect on my thoughts of how I imagined this place to be, and as I mentioned in my first post, I can say that expectations were not met. Equally, they clearly never would have been met as the practice of our faith paints over so much of the peripheral life around these events with a brush that replaces noise with a hazy light - in other words, the events in my Bible as I had perceived them, happening like a church liturgy. Today taught me a valuable lesson that the birth of my faith-community happened in the context of others living their lives, with its noise, mess and queues.