I have just got back from my first ever visit to the Holy Land. For most of my life I have not felt much desire to go there. My expectation was that it would be full of touristy commercialism and that the 'sacred' sites were largely unreal and unrecognisable. I was put off too by the bitter divisions in that country.
The commercialism turned out to be no worse than anywhere else. The unreality of the 'sacred sites' was sometimes jarring and even amusing. Seeing 'the birthplace of the Virgin Mary' in Jerusalem brought me up with a start. How would anyone know where she was born? And surely her most probable place of birth was Nazareth. Even where one can be more sure of a site being the actual one, it is more often than not marked by a huge, ornate church that seems quite remote from the simplicity and humble surroundings of the original event. Perhaps the most ironic 'site' is Mount Tabor, thought to have been the scene of the Transfiguration. Notwithstanding Peter's inappropriate suggestion and the implied rebuke it received, the spot is now marked by an ornate church complete with statues of Moses, Elijah and Jesus!
A question often in my mind during the visit and reflection after it is was: where are you, Jesus?
I found it hard to see Jesus in Bethlehem. It is a crowded modern town full of souvenir shops. Manger Square is a pleasant open space, but it is hard to imagine what the little town looked like when Jesus was born, and in any case my critical study the Bible tells me it is highly unlikely that he was born there anyway. The one souvenir I treated myself to was a china mug with the one word 'Bethlehem' and a picture of a shepherd with his flock: at least we can be reasonably sure that David, the musical shepherd boy, lived there.
I found it just as hard to see Jesus in Nazareth, with another great church supposedly covering the home of Mary, which must have been a comparatively poor one. It was well nigh impossible to see Jesus at the supposed site of Golgotha and the tomb. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which purports to contain them both, is a maze of shrines and chapels, a monument to wealth, power and the rivalry of Christian denominations.
There were places where I felt I was looking at scenes that had not changed very much since Jesus was there. Standing by the walls of Jerusalem, we could see the route from the Mount of Olives down into the valley and up to the Golden Gate - a steeper journey than I had imagined. There is also the little chapel of Dominus Flevit, reminding us of the moment when, according to Luke's Gospel, Jesus paused in his journey and wept for Jerusalem. At the bottom of the hill is what is quite likely to be the actual Garden of Gethsemane, and it was a moving experience to stand by it, hear the Gospel story being read, and sing the words 'There in the garden of tears ...'.
The Via Dolorosa, too, seems strangely authentic. It is still a route through a crowded market place, with local people going about their daily business and hordes of visitors, as it would have been on the day of the Crucifixion.
In Galilee we stopped at the place supposed to be the spot where Jesus appeared to his disciples after the resurrection. The altar in the little church there is a rough rock, said to be the rock on which they sat to eat their breakfast of bread and fish. Of course there is no way of knowing that was the site: it could have been anywhere along that shore. But for the first time it suddenly hit me that this does not really matter. In a sense the whole point of the story is that the risen Christ can come to us anywhere.
The question 'where are you, Jesus?' was answered for me in other ways too, not in places but in people. It was answered in seeing pilgrims of many nationalities dipping themselves in the Jordan to renew their baptism (or perhaps for some, to be baptised) on the Orthodox Easter Sunday. It was answered in the crowds of people at the Paternoster Church on the Mount of Olives, where little groups took it in turn to go inside the chapel and say the Lord's Prayer in their own language, and in a group behind us as we came down the Mount of Olives, who were singing a hymn in a language I could not recognise with the exception of the one word 'Hosanna'. Experiences like this brought home the worldwide effects of those things that happened in Palestine two thousand years ago. Millions of people in places unknown to Jesus and his followers find the meaning of their lives in his story.
I saw Jesus in a Christian Palestinian farmer in the West Bank, who is resisting the harassment of Israeli settlers threatening to drive him from the land that has been his family home for a century. While continuing to resist, he has made his farm into an international centre for peace and reconciliation with the motto 'we refuse to be enemies'. I saw Jesus too in the Muslim women at a refugee camp who, in the midst of their poverty, were empowering one another and lovingly caring for children with special needs, the most vulnerable people in that divided society.
I thought of these and others while walking in the garden on the Mount of the Beatitudes. Again, who knows whether that is the place where they were spoken, but does it matter? Among the plaques bearing the words of the Beatitudes, I was struck by the one that said 'Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land'. Surely if there is to be an answer to the problem of Israel and Palestine, it has to be in that promise.