Excerpt from Julia Newton’s blog – Jules Around the World (Malone University, OH)
On Monday we got back from a twelve day trip to Israel/Palestine. To say it was overwhelming would be a definite understatement; we spent every hour of every whirlwind-day listening to speakers, going on tours, meeting amazing people, and spending time with our homestay families. It was very educational, in almost every way possible, and at the end of the trip I found myself reeling from what I had seen and heard. And somehow, amidst the craziness of everything, we also got the perk of seeing some “Jesus sites.”
We started out at the Western Wall, but we saw many others as well: the Church of the Nativity, the Shepherd’s Fields, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (where Jesus was crucified and buried), the Garden Tomb (also where Jesus was crucified and buried, apparently), the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Mount of Beatitudes, the Sea of Galilee, and others as well.
How wonderful, right? How magical to walk where Jesus walked! How holy the sacred streets must have felt! What an honor to have bent down to enter the tomb where his body was raised 2,000 years ago!
Please don’t take me as a heretic, but that wasn’t my reaction at all. In fact, instead of feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit wash over me as I waited with giddy anticipation for Heaven on earth, while tears filled my wide eyes – instead, I felt numb.
I had expected tears. In a way I wanted tears – because that’s what’s supposed to happen in the Holy Land, right? Your life is supposed to be changed because of the religious significance of the place. But something else was filling up my heart, and it would not empty.
I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s a lot going on in Jerusalem right now. My group was completely safe the whole time, but I heard stories and saw evidence of horrible things happening to both sides. In a place so torn by conflict and hatred, I entered churches with new feelings inside my chest: where is God in all of this hate? God, where are you…?
Part of the answer came when we visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The church is amazing. It is rich with history and ornately decorated by three different church associations: Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and Catholic. Unfortunately most of the church was under renovation, but what I saw was beautiful.
Above are the steps leading down to the cave where they claim Jesus was born. At about this point, I started getting uncomfortable. I’m not personally used to all of this grandeur in a church setting, and it felt almost fake and tourist-y. A few moments after I took this picture, I started praying. Jesus, where are you in this? Is this place holy? Should we treat it as sacred?
And immediately I heard a gentle whisper say: I placed my holiness in people. So treat people as holy.
Snap. Suddenly I saw the entire land in a completely new way. This is why God came, isn’t it? The gospel’s entire message is wrapped up in this idea of Immanuel: God with us. He came for people. He lived for people. He bled and died for individuals and communities and nations. And then, after he was raised from the dead, he went back to Heaven so that the Holy Spirit could come to be with us forever: teaching us, comforting us, making us holy.
I can’t speak for everyone, obviously, but I know that for myself I am just lazy. It is easier hopping from metaphorical Jesus site to Jesus site, from conference to church service, from missions trip to service project, from tithing to Bible studies without really diving into the lives of people. And yet Jesus said this: “And the king will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'” I habitually ignore the beggar on the street, the single mother with obnoxious children in grocery stores, the creeper who lets his eyes linger too long; I separate my pretty Christian life from the reality pushing at my cushioned borders. Are we looking for Jesus and forgetting that he is all around us?
I’m not minimizing the importance of the Jesus sites in the region. I think they can be great reminders of what God did when he came down to Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. But I can’t take pictures of ancient churches and forget why he came to the land. If we treated each other as holy, what would this world look like? If we took up the mission that God gave us to love each other, would it be different? Would the situation here in the Middle East be different? Would there be peace if, instead of coming to take pictures of ancient buildings, we started looking at the people surrounding us?
I went to the Garden Tomb. I went inside the empty grave. I saw where a skull marked the side of the crucifixion hill. I had communion with my classmates in the garden where Mary mistook our savior for a gardener. Was it beautiful? Yes. Was it special? Absolutely. But I will end with what our tour guide told us; it doesn’t matter where the tomb is; it matters that the tomb was empty. Jesus came to love and save us all. Can we follow in his footsteps? Can we honor others more than spiritual photo-opportunities?
I believe we can, if we are willing to try