Poling: A mountaintop experience…maybe
The Rev. Jason Poling is pastor of New Hope Community Church in Pikesville. He is traveling in Israel with the Maryland Clergy Initiative, sponsored by the Baltimore Jewish Council and the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies.
JERUSALEM – I don’t know what I was expecting, but somehow it wasn’t what I expected.
Earlier this week I walked on the Temple Mount, the site where the first and second Temples stood. Today it houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. For all the controversy that surrounds it, the Temple Mount is a very peaceful place – it’s a broad plaza populated by tourists, most of them apparently on organized tours.
For years I’ve studied various biblical passages about the events that took place on this site; I’ve looked at pictures and satellite images and helicopter flyovers to try to get something useful in my mind’s eye. It looked from a distance about how I thought it would, but the feeling of walking on it was the feeling of walking on an alien world. That’s not all too unusual, as that’s what walking through the rest of Jerusalem felt like too. But whatever connection I may have with the place spiritually, theologically … I don’t know that any connection was an experiential reality for me.
Some of this disconnect may come from the fact that I know enough about the history of the place to know that there is virtually no place one can stand that is as it was in the first century. Jerusalem has changed hands a number of times since then, and as we walked through the tunnels next to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount we learned about the ways successive administrations carried out massive building projects that would be impressive today but are stunning in scope for a pre-industrial age. The result of these building projects, though, is that streets in the neighborhood aren’t at the same levels they were two thousand years ago. So in a couple of days when we walk the Via Dolorosa, the path of Jesus’ journey carrying his cross, we will not be walking the same stones he walked.
Truth is, we don’t even know that we’ll be walking the same route; nobody knows for certain the precise site of Jesus’ trial, death or burial — let alone his birth. Constantine’s mother might have identified them correctly when she sought to erect churches over them, but then again she might not have. So when I went to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, I know for sure that for centuries Christians have found it a meaningful place of pilgrimage. But I don’t know (and I in fact doubt) that the cave under the altar is the one where he was in a manger laid. I’m not saying it isn’t the place, but I’m not sure that it is. And I am sure I didn’t get any sort of special feeling being there. Every time our guide indicates a particular place as the spot where some biblical event took place, I always mutter a quiet “…maybe.”
The area around the Sea of Galilee (where the Gospels indicate Jesus spent most of his earthly ministry) was a bit different: going down the switchbacks on the road north of the lake, I could see fishing boats on the water and landscape looking much as it would have in Jesus’ day. Jesus and his disciples might well have roved over those very hills, those very stones. Peter’s house (Jesus’ pied-à-terre along the lake) might well be at the site in Capernaum where tradition locates it, and Jesus might very well have preached the Sermon on the Mount just down the hill from the Church of the Beatitudes. He very likely did work as a contractor in Sepphoris, whose ruins we visited today, and it’s possible he walked the stones of the Roman Road that today bear the marks of chariot wheels, Jewish graffiti and the donkey scat we tried to avoid as we walked around the site.
Still, due to crowds and the blistering pace of our study trip we had no opportunity for extended meditative reflection in any of these places. In truth, the most probing theological reflection has been done over drinks with other colleagues staying up too late.
I guess the bottom line, as Ray Lewis would say, is that I’m still processing these experiences.