For most of the Church in the world, the two most revered places are the Basilica of the Nativity, built over the cave where Christ was likely born, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built over both Calvary and the Empty Tomb.
Yesterday, we traveled to and prayed in the former. This morning, we began an early morning walk to the latter.
We left the hotel at six in the morning to go to a sunrise service in a chapel adjacent to the empty tomb in which Jesus’ body was laid to rest and from which He rose from the dead. Due to a logistical challenge, we moved a short distance away to participate in the worship service in the chapel adjacent to the spot where we believe the cross on which Jesus died was erected. The service was in Spanish, which a few of our band of early risers understood. After we reached the chapel, though, we realized that next to no one was in line to approach the Rock. Covered by a sheet of heavy glass with a hand-sized hole cut out, the Rock is a visible portion of the Calvary, the hill on which Jesus was crucified, that you can touch.
With one ear to the Spanish service to our immediate right, one at a time, our group approached the Rock, knelt and prayed, and put their hand down into the hole to touch the Rock. The Rock is not magic. But it is real. And a powerful reminder that our faith is grounded in history, not fable. That our savior’s death on Calvary is not a story our preachers and grandmothers tell us, but a fact which reveals the love of God for human beings. It was a deeply moving morning.
About the time all had had a chance to kneel, pray and touch at the place where Christ died, we joined the Spanish Catholics for communion, and walked down some steep stairs to the entrance to the church where the Rock of Unction is. An ancient custom holds that this was the rock on which the body of Jesus was laid and anointed after His death. It smells of holy oil.
We returned, deeply moved, to our hotel for a hearty breakfast, then took a short drive in our bus around the Old City and entered the Temple Mount. It is the place where the Temple built by Solomon, then the Temple built by Herod the Great, once stood. Only to be destroyed by conquerors from Babylon and Rome. It is a massive area, over sixteen acres, on which two mosques stand – The Al Aksa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Only Muslims can enter, and the entire Temple Mount was filled with Muslims praying or in small groups studying the Koran.
Walking that ground above the rooflines of Old Jerusalem, you could see where the Temple once stood and see where the moneychangers set up shop. You could see where the Court of the Gentiles welcomed God-fearers and the area where Jesus drove out the vendors.
At the base of the western wall of the Temple Mount, over a hundred feet below the Muslims at prayer, hundreds of Jewish men and women gathered at the Wailing Wall to pray. Our guide told us that every once in a while, someone on the Temple Mount will throw a rock down at the Jews gathered below to pray. And the Jews will retaliate with rocks of their own.
After spending some time praying at the Western Wall with hundreds of Orthodox Jews, we made our way to the Upper Room, the place where Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper as they celebrated the Passover. Then we enjoyed a great lunch before pressing on to a chapel at Ascension Place. After that we drove up the hill to the Mount of Olives. We went and prayed in several places, but the Garden of Gethsemane was especially powerful.
A small grove of olive trees fills the garden. Located beside a beautiful Church built to commemorate the night when Jesus was arrested in the place where it happened, many of the olive trees in the Garden are over 2,000 years old. So it is possible, if not likely, that the trees under which our group gathered to reflect and pray were the very ones under which our Lord prayed, ‘Father, please take this cup from me. No – thy will be done,” before His arrest.
We returned deeply moved by the Lord’s work in our hearts today.