Jerusalem and the grittiness of Christianity

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Women light candles in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City on Easter Sunday this year. Photo: Ronen Zvulun, Reuters
Women light candles in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City on Easter Sunday this year. Photo: Ronen Zvulun, Reuters

Walking through the narrow, winding streets of Jerusalem’s Old City on my first visit here in 15 years, I was powerfully struck once again by the grittiness of Christianity, the palpable connection between the faith and the quotidian realities of life. For here, as in no other place, the believer, the sceptic, and the “searcher” are confronted with a fact: Christianity began, not with a pious story or “narrative”, but with the reality of transformed lives. Real things happened to real people at real places in real time – and the transformation wrought in those real people by those “real things” transformed the world.

The most transformative of those “real things” was the encounter with the Risen Lord Jesus, the one those real people had first known in this real place as the young rabbi Jesus from Nazareth.

That encounter, and the radical transformation of lives to which it led, remains, today, the greatest “proof” of the Resurrection. For how else would a ragtag bunch of men and women from the bleachers of civilisation have found the commitment and courage to go out and change the world, had not something utterly unprecedented happened to them: something that shattered the boundaries of their expectations of the possible; something that demanded to be shared?

All that happened, just as the pre-Passion ministry of Jesus happened, amid the daily give-and-take of life in the bazaar that the Middle East was, is, and probably always will be.

There’s nothing ethereal-Gothic about Jerusalem’s Old City or its Christian focal point, the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre: it’s all grit all the way down, as you walk past stall after stall of souvenir and curio stalls, their sameness broken by the occasional spice shop with its distinctive aromas of cinnamon and cloves, en route to the places where, according to ancient tradition, the events that changed the world and the cosmos took place – Calvary and the Empty Tomb.

And the basilica itself is the very embodiment of grittiness, for there is no aesthetically pleasing symmetry here, but rather a hodgepodge of architectural and decorative styles, ranging from classic Byzantine to delirious-modern-Italian.

Yet, none of that matters, really. For if the Son of God came into the world, not to fetch us out of our humanity but to redeem and glorify us in it, then the places most closely associated with the redemption should reflect the grubby diversity of the human condition. And so it is here, as pilgrims from all over the world hustle, bustle and jostle their way towards the Twelfth Station, the site of the crucifixion, and the Aedicule that surrounds the Empty Tomb. The distractions don’t distract, though; the Twelfth Station remains the easiest place in the world to pray, in Br Lawrence’s sense of prayer as “practising the presence”.

Today, when the basic institutions of civilisation are being deconstructed in the name of personal wilfulness and “autonomy”, the Old City of Jerusalem is a powerful reminder that there are Things As They Are, and that the road to human happiness (which the Gospels call “beatitude”) lies through, not around, those givens in the human condition.

At a parallel moment in history, when the newly-recognised Christian Church was threatened by a Gnostic heresy that denied the goodness of creation and imagined the spiritual life to be an escape from grittiness, the Dowager Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, came here to find the True Cross – the hard, tangible fact of the redemption; the emblem of Christianity’s utter groundedness in reality.

What you find in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in 2015 has little to do with what Helena found here, in the sense that what you see here hasn’t much to do with what she saw here; it takes an extraordinary act of imagination to conjure up Golgotha and the rocky tomb in today’s ramshackle church.

But the basilica is here because she came here and became a special witness to the fact that Christianity begins – and continues – with lives transformed by an encounter with the Risen One, who makes all things new.

And that makes all the difference.