Home, home on the Plain: Reflections of a Pilgrim back from Jerusalem

 

 

The return home from pilgrimage is a time of digestion and deep reflection. Like the apostles who have descended from Mount Tabor to the plain, having witnessed Christ’s glorious transfiguration (Mark 9), the pilgrim inevitably experiences a sense of anti-climax as they are thrown back into the frayed ordinariness of daily life. This is doubly, triply so when the pilgrimage has been not to Canterbury or Compostela, not even to Rome, but to the Holy Land itself: Nazareth, Bethlehem, the Jordan, Jerusalem. For Christians, this is as big a pilgrimage deal as you can imagine. Coming back from here is to leave behind not just places where prayer has been valid, but places where in ancient time, the divine feet did undoubtedly walk; and even if individual holy sites cannot guarantee in a modern, forensic way that they are places intimately associated with the earthly life of Jesus, they are nonetheless places that from earliest times have been hallowed by the building of churches and the worship within them. To be in them is to experience the ripples of the Christ-event with greater clarity and intensity than anywhere else, to be able to dive into them like the most agile of those seeking healing at the pool of Bethesda (John 5).

 

I had expected to be deeply unimpressed by the whole enterprise. I was clear that there could be no absolutely reliable linking of location with history; and that even if some of the earliest Byzantine churches were in fact built on sites that had been accurately identified as significant by reliable tradition, it was just as likely that some of them had been provided piously for the confirmation of the faithful, or more cynically to relieve them of their money.

 

In the end, such considerations evaporated. To stand among the archaeological remains of first-century Capernaum, to walk by Galilee Lake, or to shake from your shoes the dust of the Judaean wilderness, evokes the presence of Jesus and provides a place of encounter with the risen Christ. This Christ is the one we know through prayer, scripture and sacrament, wherever in the world we are. In the land of his birth (even when modernity is intrusive, as when one walks down the Mount of Olives on a steep and slippery concrete road), the names listed in a pilgrim’s itinerary, known from scripture, take us back to the time of Christ. Back home, the names of the towns encountered in scripture take us back to our time in the Holy Land. In this way, a virtuous spiral of association develops, through which we move more deeply into an awareness of the presence of Christ, and into a more serious engagement with our own life lived in the Gospel.

 

And it is not just the gospel of which we are aware. Jerusalem is (for good and ill) one city with three faiths and we were more than usually fortunate in being able to engage to some degree with all three of them. When we engage with other faiths back home, it is within the synthetic smiling of Christian Unity week, or the slightly forced goodwill of an interfaith event. Here we were not so encumbered. It was simply as honoured guests that we visited the Muslim Haram al Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary; what the Jews call the Temple Mount). We even entered —an immense privilege for non-Muslims— the Al Aqsa mosque (the third holiest site in Islam) and the Dome of the Rock, the iconic mosque with the golden dome. Here in these empty spaces, beautified with all of the intensity, but none of the superabundant decoration and rococo ornament that mark Orthodox churches, it was clear that we were in a place for people who, just like us, were serious about the search for God through reliance on a particular religious tradition. With the imposed humility of those who have removed their shoes because they are on holy ground, we were dwarfed by the spaciousness and sanctity of the mosques, and were reminded of the vastness of the theological project to which all our lives are committed.

 

The same was true when we followed the indirect route that took us down to the Western Wall (the holiest site of Judaism). Although just a few metres below the Al Aqsa mosque, the two sites are immeasurably distant from each other in terms of history, culture and politics: in this visceral antipathy and ineradicable suspicion resides the dark side of religious devotion that occurs whenever human beings are unable to recognise in each other’s spiritual pathway the same quest as their own for holiness. Or, as Rabbi Sacks puts it, when we cannot see in the face of the other, the face of God.

 

You approach the Western Wall (known better by tourists as the Wailing Wall, from an unfortunate inability to describe the practice of Jewish prayer), having first washed your hands and taken one of the kippahs or yarmulkes provided. You then walk down to reach the wall, surrounded by men in all kinds of different dress from the accoutrements of the Orthodox Jew to the high fashion of the secular. You may then begin to pray by resting your palms and head against stones that have stood there for perhaps two-and-a-half millennia. It is (and I apologise, but there’s no getting away from the cliché) as close as you can get to actually touching history, as you take your place in a line that stretches as far back as most of us can conceive. And immediately you know that you are not alone, as you see the evidence of those who have prayed there before you, their scraps of paper, each one a written prayer, pushed into the cracks between the stones, the longings of the unknown brought to the God who knows and loves them infinitely.

 

From other gaps grow tufts of dry grass, like hair from an old man’s ears; still larger gaps provide a house for the circling sparrows and ‘a nest for the swallow, where she may lay her young’ (Psalm 84). Even though the altars of the Temple are no more, the birds continue as before, a beautiful, whirling reminder that while all the divisive shenanigans of humanity run their course, the natural world continues on its way with or without us. I had felt this forcibly on seeing a kitten outside the church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. I felt it in the gnarled trunks of the olive trees in Gethsemane, themselves grown from seed produced by predecessors which might have been old enough to shelter the Saviour the night before he died. I felt it most forcibly in a gentle gust of wind that barely brushed my cheek: the same air the Lord breathed; his humanity mine; my condition his. Incarnation made palpable.

 

The returning pilgrim is committed afresh to the vast and serious nature of the life to which the children of God are called. The pilgrimage itself reminds us that here on earth we have no abiding city (Hebrews 13.14), but are always directed towards the source of life we came from, in search of the identity given us by God, from within the tradition in which we have been placed by circumstance or, perhaps less likely, choice.

 

I have certainly found that this gift of serious engagement has been (and, I pray, will be) the greatest consequence of my visit to the Holy Land. For although such a pilgrimage inevitably has moments of great excitement and newness, it is by no means a holiday romance, a temporary brush with love that comes to a swift and inevitable end, significantly affecting no-one. Pilgrimage is instead a prolonged and undiluted immersion in the beloved, an opportunity to renew that which has grown stale; to consider again beliefs and practices that may have been worn away to almost nothing; it is to ‘put out into the deep’ (Luke 5.4) and to find afresh the love of the one who calls us always, and to respond to him with love.

 

And because I can no longer touch the stones and see the wilderness and water that Jesus saw, I must return to the text of Scripture with renewed faithfulness and rigour, embracing with joyful commitment the task of being part of the body of Christ and living out the Eucharistic sacrifice day by day. Like every pilgrim, I return home to the challenges of life on the plain, steeped in grace by the transfigured and risen Lord so that I might pursue the mystery of God, persevere in prayer and persist in the practice of charity and the call for justice. It is a vocation to be lived in neighbourly collaboration with those of other faiths and cultures, a necessity made altogether more urgent in a time of unalloyed vileness in which high office is given to unashamed racists, and xenophobia is encouraged by the thoughtless prosecution of insular political agendas.

 

So pray for pilgrims everywhere, that the love of God will renew and restore them. But pray more earnestly still for those who have come home, that our insights will not blur, our resolution falter or our joy diminish. For we have been to the mountain top and seen the glory. And now, let us bring the good news to the plain.

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Remembrance Homily: Bringing down the walls

A homily for Remembrance Sunday 2016

 

Of the building of walls there is no end.

 

There are walls that mark out territory — what’s mine from what’s yours. There are walls that support palaces to show the grandeur of kings. There are walls to keep people safe, like the walls round mediaeval cities.

 

And there are walls to keep people apart, often people of the same race who have fallen foul of history and politics — Berlin, Northern Ireland, Israel/Palestine. One of these has already come down, in Berlin, in 1989. The others will surely follow: they will fall because they must. They fall because people rise up against them and in their unity assume a power greater than their builders’.

 

It may take time. A wall built by Hezekiah in 701 BC was at that time strong enough to repel the Assyrians. Now it is a row of stones for tour guides to point to as they take pilgrims through the streets of Jerusalem. Nothing is for ever. All returns to dust.

 

The stones Luke is referring to in the gospel (21.5ff) — the stones of the Temple — were reduced to rubble by the Romans in 70 AD. The additional vast buildings erected by Herod the Great, designed to sustain the illusion of his boundless power, have since been reduced by armies and earthquakes to a pile of rocks.

 

This is not in itself tragic. It simply marks the passage of time. The real pain and grief of our human story is that, generation after generation, men and women are called upon to spill their blood at the call of king and country for causes that — even when they appear entirely noble — are in the end revealed to have been concerned more with the gaining and guarding of power.

 

It is therefore right that every year we pause to remember the loss of life often made with unimaginable bravery and in unendurable hardship by irreplaceable fathers, brothers, sons — and increasingly their wives and sisters, too. It is right not just to give thanks for their courage, but also to ask ourselves why their sacrifice was called for. In what kind of world did these deaths take place? In what kind of world do we live today? And what must we do to ensure that the conditions in which distrust and suspicion thrive are minimised so that peace may triumph over war, and love prove stronger than hate.

 

This is a time at which it is doubly necessary to ask these questions. Many are bewildered by the fact that (in the same year that Britain voted to turn its back on an organisation which has maintained the unbroken peace of Europe since 1945), the electorate of the United States last week put the world’s future in to the hands of a man who plans to build a wall along the border with Mexico, separating people from people, all to create the illusion of a strong and powerful USA.

 

Of the building of walls there is no end. But one day, like the wall of Hezekiah in Jerusalem, this wall will come crashing to the ground as is the destiny of all walls, and people will mix and mingle again in peace and friendship.

 

We can hasten this process by reaching across the walls we find —the divisions of class and colour, creed and gender, social position and sexual identity — and clasp the hand of those we find reaching out to us, and greeting them in the name of Jesus, ‘who has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility’ (Ephesians 2.14).

 

We do this not only because it follows from our belief that all are made in the image of God, but because we know that we are so utterly fragile, in need of each other. This past week in Croydon, we have seen heart-breaking evidence of this, in the derailment of the tram last Wednesday, in which seven of our fellow citizens, our brothers and sister in humanity, all lost their life, while fifty others were wounded, some of them gravely.

 

Is their flesh more tender than ours? Are their bodies injured more easily? Do their families mourn them less keenly and miss them less grievously?

 

Of course not. Their flesh and their lives were as fragile as ours, as fragile as those who follow the summons to battle, for whom we lay our wreaths and wear our poppies. They were all as fragile and as precious as any whom others would keep behind walls, whether real walls or walls of prejudice, the sort that are built and defended whenever human beings fail to see the face of God in one another.

 

Let us then renew our commitment this Remembrance-tide to holding out the hand of friendship and solidarity to any whose humanity is dishonoured, and to all who weep tears of grief, that we may support each other in our shared human fragility, to the glory of God, and till the walls come tumbling down.

Learning to be vulgar in Bethlehem

Today we pilgrims turned towards Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity. Our bus took us past six miles of hillside dwellings (that always manage to look like a Christmas card despite themselves) and deposited us in a car park just a short, hawker-intense walk away from the church. A combination of factors prevented our entering by the famous low door which evolved over time as a security measure. It was intended simply to stop people ram-raiding the church and making off with cartsful of silver. Only later was it theologised into the observation that whoever would come to Christ must do so in humility.

Essentially, what you have is a perfectly ordinary Greek church with a particularly interesting basement. That said, it was pretty hard to see any of the main building as they are in the midst of an extensive restoration programme and scaffolding has sprouted everywhere. The nave is largely invisible, its lustrous columns covered in planks of protective wood. Happily there are signs of some of the work nearing completion: restored frescoes in the north clerestory peer tantalisingly over screened-off areas, a promise of what must surely be over by Christmas. By then, the church may appear very far from ordinary. It will be good to have a reason to return.
It is true, of course, that even relatively unexceptional Orthodox churches have a glorious strangeness, with their contrasts of candlelight and darkness, their icons and chanting and age-old infusion of incense. Even the well-travelled and resolutely rational can be overwhelmed (in a good way) by the vastness of things (the so-much-more-than-you’d-thought-ness) which these condensations of the cosmos express. The iconostasis, the screenful of icons running north-south across the east end and shielding the holiest of holies from the gaze of the unwashed hordes, emphasises this sense of the divine glory beyond.
Yet it is precisely this glory, come to earth in human form that the church was built to celebrate. And the speed with which the Byzantines erected a church (as at Nazareth) indicates the strength of the earliest tradition that here, indeed, was the very cave in which he came to us, born of a woman and laid in a manger. 
The fact that the Empire then tried to take the site back to itself, replacing Christian worship with pagan, suggests that they too thought the site’s claims were impressive.
But the holy sites of this land have no more need of historicity and any modern sense of accuracy than the Scriptures have. Their task is to be an inspired artefact of theological and poetic truth-telling. They interpret and convey the Jesus-tradition to generations yet unborn, reminding and insisting that Christ came to a particular people in a particular place. This is a truth that needs to be lived out by the Church in every place and among every people, to the glory of God and for the salvation of souls.
Particularity is key, especially for preachers; and explains why the catholic religion needs to be vulgar. It needs to speak into a particular community of people, knowing their ways and singing their songs. It must also acknowledge that all of us, however intellectual, have an urge and instinct to touch and feel, to kneel and kiss the object of our veneration. This is what we saw as people made their way down the pilgrim-worn steps to the Cave of the Nativity. Here, in the heat of the crowd and the enclosed space, they fell down before The Actual Place (part altar, part highly-decorated mantelpiece) to consume the aura of the fourteen-point star that marks the spot, to let themselves be prised open by the Spirit’s power, and to come as close to God as they can. 
This was not the end of our visit. There was one more treat, achieved by squeezing past boatloads of Russians, recently disembarked from their cruise ships docked at Haifa. 
We were to visit the cell of St Jerome in the next-door cave. In the early fifth century, he produced in Bethlehem a translation of parts of the scriptures from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, a language everyone in the western Church could understand. From this universal accessibility the text derived its name – the Vulgate. 
Like the incarnation itself, his work made the Word of God available to all. It allowed this word to seep first into the ears and then into the hearts and minds of all who heard it, so that their lives might be changed, their bonds broken and their sinful tendencies redirected. 
Through Jerome’s work, the divine shepherd could care for his sheep and the physician could tend the sick. We who proclaim this same word must also be understood if we are to be fruitful. We must know those to whom we minister, understanding and sharing in their lives. 
We must, in short, learn to be much more vulgar.

Learning from the stones – Nazareth II

There are in Nazareth some extensive remains of first-century caves which, from their antiquity and location, could conceivably have been the home of the Blessed Virgin at the time of the Annunciation, or of the Holy Family thereafter. Each of them had been protected and built on, first by a Byzantine, later by a Crusader church. Today they have evolved respectively into the Basilica of the Annunciation and the house of the Sisters of Nazareth, an order of 19th-century French origin.

The basilica is one of those vastly impressive Roman Catholic pilgrim churches, all bright piazzas and shining stones that are surrounded by images of the Virgin drawn from all over the world (including our own Lady of Walsingham). Inside the church, a grotto is the focus of devotion and sight-seeing: an icon and a brace of altars hallow the space where X marks the spot of Gabriel’s piously-supposed greeting. Whatever the caveats of the scholars, the eye and heart are led irresistibly to this place of the announcement of our salvation. One can almost feel the feathery touch of angel-wing, and hear the devout salutation: ‘Hail, Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women.’
Outside the church, as you line up to take your picture of the stonework, you feel the excitement of the overwhelming ‘What if?’, then set off obediently into the souk, with its array of lamb carcasses, plastic toys and sun hats.
Even more impressive are the excavations at the Sisters of Nazareth. Led by a tiny Irish nun into the bowels of the earth (she’d been a headmistress for forty years, and it showed), we were met by a single doorway, carved into the ancient rock, which opened up the possibility that here indeed was the house where the Holy Family had made their home. Why else (the argument runs) would the Byzantines have built their so-called Church of the Nutrition here, if this had not been a site already hallowed by tradition and identified as the place of the Lord’s nurture?
This is the question our nun put to us, a lifetime of faith and hope shining in her eyes.
And it is a tempting thought that, on this very rock where I am standing, my Saviour once whittled a stick or ate a pomegranate, or fired a catapult, while his Blessed Mother hung out the washing, and St Joseph knocked up a three-piece suite.
But, in the end, the theological significance of Nazareth will always trump the merely biographical. Yes, archaeology takes us so far: it is estimated, for example, that Nazareth was a village containing no more than 200 individuals, most of them children. It was a poor place; truly the back of beyond, and entirely understandable that in the Old Testament it isn’t mentioned once, and in the New it’s the place, famously, from which ‘nothing good’ can be expected to come. Yet it is here among the dirt-poor of Galilee that Mary is prepared and called to be the mother of the Saviour. Through her youth and unmarried condition, she is another of the Bible’s many women in whom the gift of childbirth could be expected. But the Spirit blows where she will, so it is here among the hungry and thirsty that the Word of God became flesh, to be for us the source of living water and satisfying food.
The Zimbabwean clergy who are our fellow pilgrims obviously find many telling parallels with their own situation. Their parishioners suffer desperate poverty and real hunger, yet keep the faith with remarkable zeal. They cry out, ‘How long, O Lord?’, but never turn away from God, or believe their faith to be in vain.
They remind me of another group of Christians we have heard about in Tel Aviv. These are the Filipino servants who have made their homes here, without significant income or anything resembling security. Yet they have begun to raise families, and their children attend Israeli schools, speak Hebrew, and are, like those to whom the gospel was first preached, precisely the sort of marginalised poor who come to Christ and his Church in substantial need.
Such a thought sounds an interesting counterpoint to the dominant rhetoric in the Church of England at the moment. We have decided to rely not on greater poverty, but on the diagnoses and prescriptions of a Renewal and Reform programme. This is not to take an easy swipe at that much-needed process. It is, rather, to see that God does not act in accordance with the dictates of humanity; to notice the varying experiences of Christians in Zimbabwe, Tel Aviv and Britain; and to ask whether we Europeans might have things to learn from others as we all try to proclaim God’s Good News to the poor. 
The ancient stones of Nazareth, and what they suggest to us, indicate that there is, at least, a conversation to be had.

Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

Driving in, you might be pretty much anywhere in the Mediterranean. The streets are full of kids, loitering outside McDonald’s and playing on their phones. Traffic moves at the pace of a snail with lumbago. Inside dusty, yet still sleek cars, drivers drum away their frustrations on the steering wheel, or crook an arm through their open window, a cigarette sending a trail of smoke to sign the air. Their passengers sprawl impotent, half-dead, devoured by congestion and the waste of time. 

Shop windows lure the eye with bright lights and garish displays.Here and there, old men (straight from central casting) have been deposited in the white plastic chairs that are sold by hawkers every summer. They cradle their walking sticks, and smoke cigarettes, and look at the world through quiet, liquid eyes.
We check in at the Betharran convent, surprised to find no nuns. It is apparently a house for a group of French priests, so at least we can look forward to good food.
The stone basement chapel is wonderfully French: the sacrament is reserved in a construction at the west end behind circles of multi-coloured glass. The altar is built on an asymmetrical stone frame, with a Holy Family icon perched at one end and two pendant glass candle-holders at the other. The French may not have the design flair of the Italians (I think back to what I saw in Italian monasteries when I was a novice with CR), but their work is always interesting and quirky.
Behind the altar, a large window depicts the face of Christ. It is not, perhaps, a great work of art; it is, in fact, quite clunky, like a massive paint-by-numbers in different shades of brown. Yet it has a directness and an inescapability that are a great aid to prayer. VENI SEQUERE ME, it commands: ‘Come, follow me.’ And it does rather feel that if I can’t respond more fully to that call here in Nazareth than elsewhere, I may be in a degree of difficulty.

But I remember that these Nazarenes were precisely the people -his own, to whom he came- who were least able to follow and believe in him. And if their proximity ensured no direct route to belief, then our living at such remove in time and space need erect no barriers to it. The question for the pilgrim is whether spending time in the Holy Land makes that process of following Jesus more or less likely or (as opticians always say) about the same.

Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

Like the effects of the French Revolution, it’s too early to tell.

Flight to a Land called Holy

Beguiling places, airports: redolent of money, glamour, and a sense of endless possibility (who, what and where shall I be today?). This is derived, no doubt, from the smorgasbord of destinations whizzing by on the check-in screens. Of course, airports are nothing more than glorified taxi ranks; bus stations beautified; train stations in their party clothes: the more advanced the vehicle, the more exotic the picking up and setting down. 

But airports know their fair share of trauma and tragedy, too. They can be places of flight from misery, or where it just begins. Or they might be places where families broken by circumstance or the law’s delay are centrifuged to the earth’s four corners, full of misery and apprehension. 

I am glad to say that I am here for happier reasons. Here I sit, oddly bound for Jerusalem. ‘Oddly’ because I have always railed against clergy who swan off with perhaps the wealthier element of the parish, leaving colleagues to pick up the workload, only to come back full of the marvels they have seen, perhaps behaving as if they’re sudden experts on its tangled history and politics.

I had a second, more principled objection, based on theology rather than personal gripe. The clear understanding of Christians is that we are not members of a historic reenactment society. The faith we practise has got to be performable and coherent in contexts a thousand miles (and two thousand years) from ‘the very place where …’ . If what we say is true, then Christ must be visible ‘walking on the water not of Genesareth but Thames’, as Francis Thompson put it in his poem, ‘In no strange land’. This is why we have local pilgrimage sites: the English go to *England’s* Nazareth, not in Galilee but Norfolk. In the same way, even the walk to the high altar in one’s local church represents the journey up to Jerusalem.

Yet I have decided (oh, so graciously) to lay aside these quibbles and to accept the opportunity and privilege to journey with fellow-clergy to the earthly home of Jesus, to these holy lands that are honoured and loved by so many. So here I am at Heathrow, surrounded by the wild diversity of international travellers, having just had gallons of shower gel impounded, and walked among the mark-up merchants and high class hawkers of every kind of unnecessary merchandise (Did you know there is something called a ‘global burger’?).

And I’ll tell you why I’m going: because it’s an opportunity to dig deeper into the biblical texts (an opportunity that should never be turned down); and it’s a chance to draw closer to the Jesus with whom I am always prone to engage in an over-rational key. For I too want to explore that sense of endless possibility with which we began, but I believe that ultimately it’s not about hanging round airports, but inhabiting and receiving God’s abundant gift of love, and living in patient service of all who cannot easily flee their adversity, and who turn to the followers of Jesus (among others) in their hour of greatest need.

I may, naturally, fail miserably in all of this, but I am optimistic that this place will so work in me that I may work in every place, to his glory who was the son of a particular soil, but who lives and reigns now as Universal King.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

Heathrow, 3 November