Thursday, 3 May 2012

Jesus was born again

Jesus was born again. I know that for a fact because yesterday I visited Bethlehem and went to the Church of the Nativity where the place where he was born is clearly marked. I then went to the Church next door and visited the place where Jesus was born. Now, I shall admit my limitations and say that I don't know which one he was born in, if either. What I do know is that he was born, and through faith I believe that his birth changed our world for ever.

This morning I visited a church outside the old city here in Jerusalem where it is said Jesus ascended to heaven. I then visited a mosque where he also ascended (Remember, Jesus is regarded as an important prophet in Islam). There they do actually have some evidence to back up their claim. In the stone bedrock that provides the floor, are two footprints. Except there aren't, as centuries of pilgrims rubbing their hands over the stone (and nicking bits - pilgrims aren't supposed to do this, but have a really bad habit of taking souvenirs) has worn them away to one slight depression. I can only assume Jesus generated the force needed to cause these depressions in the rocks by attempting to ascend from the first spot, failing to achieve escape velocity (the speed a rocket needs to escape earths gravitational field), and landing with the considerable force needed to leave these marks before trying again,.... and landing at the site of the second Church of the Ascension,.... third time lucky! I'm not bothered by not knowing the precise spot of lift-off or even the exact nature of the event described by Luke. The story is significant for my faith in other ways, as it clearly was for Luke who used it to close his Gospel and open his Acts of the Apostles, the story of the beginnings of the Christian Church.

Right now I am sitting in the shade at the Garden Tomb, otherwise known as Gordon's Calvary, where General Gordon discovered a skull shaped hill and authentic tombs that closely matched the description given in the Bible. This isn't where Jesus died, neither is it where he was buried. For once we can be pretty certain that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is in the right spot.

So, does it all matter. Jesus of Nazareth existed as a historical figure. He was a highly popular religious teacher who was described as a miracle worker, and who aroused the emnity of the religious professionals of his day. He was arrested and executed and buried. Soon after, in complete contrast to all of the other religious rabble rousers of his day (and there were a few), his disciples did not dissipate never to be heard of again, but claimed that he had come back to life. Despite persecutions they continued in their claims, and the rest is history. Actually, all that paragraph is history. The rest is actually faith.

There must be many places where Jesus walked, where he taught, where he demonstrated through action this "kingdom" he proclaimed. I might be standing on such a spot right now. Certainly, as a human being, there is a spot where he was born, where he died and where he was buried, and given the profusion of holy sites around here there is a good chance there is a shrine on each one of them. But they can't all be right, certainly not when there's more that one for a certain aspect of his life or ministry.

But none of this matters. Well actually that's not quite true. If being certain we know the precise point where such a thing associated with the life of Jesus actually took place matters to me, then yes it matters. It matters because I am completely missing the point. The point is not the actual place and whether it is in a church or a mosque or on top of a hillside. The point is that these shrines and holy places should be representational; that something like what we understood happened in a place such as this. This is actually the belief of many of the monks and nuns who work here. They're not bothered by historical precision, but rather by how their place plays its part in the pilgrim journey of those who visit. As one site put on a notice by the door; "If you come as a tourist we welcome you and pray you will leave as a pilgrim. If you come as a pilgrim we welcome you and pray for you on your journey to the cross."

Jesus instructed his disciples to travel light (Mark 6:8). So must we who follow him today. So yes, visit the holy sites. Take from them the lessons that can be learnt. And then move on. Believe me, faith weighs a good deal less that the religious tat on offer around here, and it's free.

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