The news this week from Jerusalem included an item that said workers had completed the restoration of the site in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where, tradition says, Jesus was buried.
This happened after a 200-year delay (that's no typo) caused by arguments among the Christian groups that control various parts of the ancient church. Only when Israeli authorities declared that the church no longer was safe did the Christians quit squabbling and get what's called the Edicule restored.
I've been there a couple of times, as well as to an alternative burial site called the Garden Tomb. (In fact, the photo you see at left here today I took a few years ago at -- and inside -- the Garden Tomb.) They're fascinating to visit, but would be even more so if anyone could prove that this or that exact spot was where Jesus' body was laid after crucifixion.
But, in fact, no one really knows without any doubt. Just as no one knows whether the small site in the grotto of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is the exact spot where Jesus was born. In fact, some scholars think Jesus wasn't born in Bethlehem at all but in Nazareth. (That spot is pictured below at right.)
All of which raises the question of why humans seem so drawn to holy sites.
I am among those who find them endlessly fascinating, though perhaps more for historical than for devotional reasons. I have been to holy sites in Israel, India, New Mexico, Thailand, France, Poland and other countries and I'm always a little surprised to see such enthusiasm among the visitors. Are they seeking escape, healing, insight, spiritual awakening?
Maybe all of the above. Or maybe they just wandered in and were struck by the history, the stories that inevitably get attached to such places.
Humans seem to want a clear, clean story about matters of religion: This was the tree under which Buddha received enlightenment; this is a piece of the true cross on which Jesus was crucified; this is where the people of Israel crossed the sea on miraculously dry land in the Exodus; this is the place where the Prophet Muhammad began to receive the Qur'an from the angel. And on and on.
Even if we don't exactly want to be, we tend to be literalists about such matters. And literalism about history is almost as useless and misleading as literalism in reading holy writ. As I say in my latest book, The Value of Doubt, the reality is that we live by metaphor, by myth, by allegory. It's not that there are not literal truths, but they are not generally as useful as spiritual truths that come to us indirectly.
I have stood in the sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository from which it's alleged that Lee Harvey Oswald fired shots that assassinated President John F. Kennedy. I'm glad I was there once. But being there taught me next to nothing about the meaning of JFK's presidency or the sorrow and waste of Oswald's life.
So whoever among you is the first to visit the redone Edicule in Jerusalem, please report to me your experience. And if you encountered Christ there, I will expect you to tell me the name of the person you met who bore his spirit.
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MORE RESTORATION WORK NEEDED
Speaking of the restoration of the Edicule inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the people who did the work now say that unless serious shoring-up work is done to the whole church, it could catastrophically collapse some day: "When it fails, the failure will not be a slow process, but catastrophic," says one of the supervisors of that work. I'm glad I've been to the church twice in my life. Given its current condition, I think that's enough.