Holy Smoke

For reasons that will become apparent when you read it I posted this today on the Camino Blog that I kept whilst we were on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in 2013. But I repeat it here for those who aren’t signed up for that blog.

I happen to be at Mucknell Abbey, near Worcester, spending a few days on retreat with the Anglican Benediction community here. It’s all part of the sabbatical that I have been on since the beginning of September. Whilst I was here, however, I asked if I could meet the member of the community who is responsible for the manufacture of incense.  That person is Sister Sally.  So this morning she kindly took time between Offices and her other responsibilities to show me round the shed in the abbey grounds that serves as her workshop (her real workshop is of course the Oratory where the real work of prayer is done).

Sister Sally in her workshop


The reason I’m posting this on the Camino Blog is that it was a box of incense from Mucknell Abbey that we presented at the Pilgrim Mass at the conclusion of our pilgrimage.  On that occasion around 60 members of the congregation from Southwark Cathedral joined the thousand or so who filled the Cathedral to give thanks for the blessings of the pilgrimage. I had the honour of making the invocation to the Apostle on behalf of all the pilgrims who were at the Mass and, as part of that, offering some incense to feed the Botafumeiro, the great beast of a thurible that swings over the heads of the those there!

The Abbey produces six different mixes of incense ranging from pure frankincense to more elaborate and complex mixes. I’ve been in churches that have used incense all my life but never knew how it was made.

Sister Sally introduced me to the frankincense, the raw ingredient, also called Olibanum. The abbey sources theirs from Ethiopia.  It’s collected from the trees by incising the bark and then, as sister described it, the tree ‘weeps tears of incense’. This is dried and it becomes granular. The mixes are created by the addition of other granular and powdery ingredients, like Myrrh and Cinnamon Bark but principally through the use of aromatic oils.

The cupboard of oils


I was shown the secret recipes which had been passed to the community from the monks at Nashdom when they stopped producing it. All the ingredients are mixed together in the correct quantities using old fashioned scales and other non-digital devices and then laid in trays to dry out.  The drying takes 1-2 weeks depending on how damp the mixture is.  In the trays it looks like a dark muesli bar and is quite solid, but then it dries and the granules separate so that it can be weighed, bagged, boxed and shipped.

Bagged and boxed and ready for use


It was fascinating to see and to smell the finished products in the huge tubs that is kept in until its sent out not just to churches in these islands but to America and Australia as well. Sister Sally obviously loved the work that she does.  She commented that she hoped that the Abbot wouldn’t move her to other responsibilities. She says that while she is weighing and mixing she prays for the congregations that will use the incense in their worship.

Sister Sally joyful in work and prayer


Of course the church is divided into those who love incense and its smell and those who think its an abomination. Yet whatever our own personal and sometimes visceral response there is that verse from the psalms which really helps us understand what we are doing when we light the coals and spoon in the incense that Sister Sally has so carefully and prayerfully made

Let my prayer rise before you as incense,
the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice. (Ps 141.2)

If you would like to buy some of Sister Sally’s incense then you can do so by clicking here. It will enhance your worship and support the brothers and sisters here as their own prayer rises like the incense they make.

Lord, let me prayer rise before you as incense,
my hands be lifted up in a sacrifice of praise.


Of your charity

The end of my sabbatical is now beginning to appear on the horizon. With the way Christmas falls if I’d gone right to the end of November then I would have missed Advent Sunday.  I couldn’t do that! So I will be making an appearance in the Cathedral on that wonderful day when we both begin the new Christian year and the approach to Christmas.  But I also couldn’t miss the ROBES Sleepout which happens on the Friday night before Advent Sunday.


For the past few years I’ve joined those who, like me, are concerned about the numbers of our sisters and brothers who are homeless in one of the wealthiest cities in the world, in spending a night outside. Over those years my friends have helped me raise almost £28,000 for the project.  The ROBES Project is both simple and effective and Southwark Cathedral is delighted to be a partner in its work and to be the venue for the sleepout.

As someone who likes a good bed and my creature comforts I can’t say sleeping out in the churchyard is a comfortable way for me to spend a night – I monitor the weather forecasts nervously as the day approaches!  But I’m sure the people I pass on the streets would also like a good bed and a the comforts I enjoy and have very few choices left to them.  This can be a way back into a better life for them. You can find out more about ROBES by clicking here.

I am grateful to all those who follow my various blogs and have been reading this sabbatical one. I always like to share what I’m doing and thinking but I also keep the blog going for selfish reasons – I love writing and I like to get my thoughts down, even on virtual paper! So, if you could, of your charity, help the ROBES Project this year by sponsoring me I’d be really grateful.  You just have to click on the button on the right hand side of the screen.

I was seeking Jerusalem on Monday and went to the site of one of William Blake’s houses.  He wrote a poem called ‘London’ which begins like this.

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow. 
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
Things do not seem to change.  But they can. Thank you for your support – it means a huge amount to me, it means even more to those who will be the guests of the project.
Loving God,
the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head.
May those who are homeless on our streets
find warmth, shelter, love
and a new beginning
through our work with ROBES.

Seeking Jerusalem

I decided to seek Jerusalem here in London. Not everyone has the opportunity to travel and certainly not to Jerusalem. That has always been true. For those who have travelled to that holy city there is something of a desire to build the memory back home. So I decided to make a mini-pilgrimage to four significant places that have associations with Jerusalem but back here in London.

I decided to begin in a very special room. Sadly, though understandably, it isn’t open to the public as in fact it is a room in the Deanery at Westminster Abbey but the Dean, John Hall, kindly let me go into the room to begin my journey today.

The entrance gateway


The room is called the ‘Jerusalem Chamber’. It’s one of a series of rooms called after places in the Holy Land – Jericho, Samaria also get a mention. It was a tradition, and still is in some convents and retreat houses, to name rooms after places or saints.  The rooms in St George’s College were named in that way.

This room was built in the latter part of the 14th century by Abbot Nicholas Litlyngton. The walls are covered in 16th century tapestries including some depicting episodes from the story of Abraham. The room is beautifully proportioned with a lovely ceiling bearing the monograms of Abbot Litlyngton under a mitre and Richard II (in whose reign the chamber was built) under a crown.

It was in this Chamber that Lancelot Andrewes, then Dean of Westminster, gathered the Committee tasked with translating the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch, into English as part of the process for the publication of the King Kames version of the Bible.  It was here that the editors of the New English Bible met to do their work in the 20th century.

A king seeking Jerusalem


But it was in front of the fireplace in the chamber that the most famous event in the room’s history occurred, that being the death of King Henry IV.  In 1413 the King was planning to go to the Holy Land, and when praying at St Edward’s Shrine in the Abbey he was taken ill, apparently with a stroke. He was brought to the Abbot’s house and laid by the fire where he recovered consciousness. King Henry asked where he was and was told ‘Jerusalem’. The chronicle relates that the King realized he was going to die because it had been prophesied that he would die in Jerusalem. In Henry IV, Part II, Shakespeare tells this story of the King’s death and also has Prince Henry trying on the crown while his father lay dying. Shakespeare relates part of the story like this

Doth any name particular belong
Unto the lodging where I first did swoon?

‘Tis call’d Jerusalem, my noble lord.

Laud be to God! even there my life must end.
It hath been prophesied to me many years,
I should not die but in Jerusalem;
Which vainly I supposed the Holy Land:
But bear me to that chamber; there I’ll lie;
In that Jerusalem shall Harry die.

(Henry IV, Part II, Scene V)

It was a great place to begin the journey in this place where prophecy was fulfilled.

One of the ways in which we have built Jerusalem around us is through the Stations of the Cross which we find in many of our churches and now is a tradition embraced by Christians of many traditions during Lent. It enabled people to follow the Via Dolorosa wherever they were. In a similar way the Knights Templar, the order of crusading monks founded to protect pilgrims on their way to and from Jerusalem, decided to recreate the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in London. That was my second destination on this pilgrimage.

The Temple Church


The Temple Church stands at the heart of the Inns of Court, just north of the river Thames. The Church was built in the 12th century and the rotunda, so reminiscent of the rotunda in Jerusalem, was consecrated in 1185 by the Patriarch of Jerusalem. It was designed to recall the holiest place in the Crusaders’ world: the circular Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. To it was added a chancel. So this two part church is a real reminder of the church in which I stood just a few days ago.

From rotunda to chancel


But whereas under the rotunda in Jerusalem we find the empty tomb, here in London lie effigies of knights. They were members of this order of Crusaders. Yet another order founded the third place I was to visit.

The order was the Knights Hospitaller and they established the Priory of St John in Clerkenwell, which was then just outside the city wall as was the Holy Sepulchre. I visited the Church of St John, next to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem where this order was established and from where they cared for pilgrims in the hospital they established.  Only the archway and a few rooms and a church remain in London.  But this was their headquarters in London and next door to it now are the offices of St John’s Ambulance, the modern inheritor of their ministry and the very particular and instantly recognisable cross that they wore.

The Priory Gateway


Finally, I walked back from Clerkenwell, across the river and to a road near Waterloo, in the London Borough of Lambeth.  In Hercules Road on the side of a block of Corporation of London flats is a plaque commemorating the fact that William Blake lived there during the 1790’s in a house on this site. It’s thought that his poem, which we know as ‘Jerusalem’, was not written whilst he was living here but just a few years afterwards.  But perhaps some of the inspiration for looking to a new and better city for all people, a place of social justice, a new Jerusalem, came whilst living south of the river.

Hercules Road, London


Peter Abelard wrote a poem in the 12th century entitled ‘O quanta qualia sunt illa Sabbata’. The priest John Manson Neale translated it in the 1854 and it became the hymn we know as ‘O what their joy and their glory must be.’ It contains the verse which provided the inspiration for this post-script pilgrimage today after my return from Jerusalem.

Now, in the meanwhile, with hearts raised on high,
We for that country must yearn and must sigh;
Seeking Jerusalem, dear native land,
Through our long exile on Babylon’s strand.

‘Seeking Jerusalem’ in the places where we live seems to have been something that generations have done, whether in naming rooms, in the moments of dying, in building a legacy, in continuing a ministry, in challenging injustice, in raising hearts and heads towards heaven. But the real legacy of every Jerusalem pilgrim, wherever the pilgrimage takes place, must be in building a city of peace.

Lord, may I seek Jerusalem
not just in stones
but in hearts turned to peace.


Arriving back in London was a bit of a shock. I left Jerusalem in lovely sunshine with the temperature around 25 degrees. It felt like summer! I arrived back in the dark, with the evidence of recent rain, a temperature of 9 degrees and evidence all around that winter was approaching. Driving into London we passed through a number of streets lit with Christmas lights and shops all dressed up with trees and fake snow.


As I put the television on (something I hadn’t done whilst away) the Festival of Remembrance was underway in the Royal Albert Hall and the usual procession in was taking place and the poppies were falling. I was home.

Remembrance Sunday is the occasion when many people pause and think. That two-minute silence at 11.00am as Her Majesty at the Cenotaph in Whitehall leads the nation in its remembering is an opportunity just to think, if not to pray. That is what I now need to do.

This coming week I’ll be on retreat at Mucknell Abbey in Worcestershire. It will give me the space for my own pause, space for my own thinking about what I’ve experienced over the last six weeks and that, to be honest, is so much. In some ways it already feels like a dream, a rich, intense dream and I can’t let it become that – it was so much more important. It needs to become something of my reality not of my fantasy. The problem is that Jerusalem is fantasy and reality and for much of our tradition, and because most people don’t get to go to the place themselves, it can remain on that level, the city that we talk about in the church all the time, idealise, theologise. But Jerusalem is real.

After the marching had ended and the procession of the choir and the Bishop of Carlisle had entered the Royal Albert Hall, the audience, now a congregation, joined in lustily singing ‘Jerusalem’ to the rousing tune that Sir Hubert Parry composed 100 years ago. As the hymn was sung what was going through the minds of those who filled that great arena – perhaps more fantasy than reality as far as Jerusalem, the city of peace that longs for peace, was concerned.

Jerusalem – city of fantasy and reality


So I need to pause and think and pray and it will be good to take you into that pause for as Jesus said to his disciples

‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ (Mark 6.31)

God, speak to me in the pause.
Between the breaths,
between the heart beats,
may I hear the still small voice.


In the heat and sunshine of a November morning in Jerusalem I joined the congregation at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery on Mount Scopus. The sky was clear blue, the grass mown, the gravestones stood in their serried ranks as the fallen whom they commemorated would have once have proudly stood. A member of the Canadian Armed Forces read as part of the service.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Many wreaths were laid

This evocative poem by John McCrae written in May 1915, which will have been read at many services yesterday and many tomorrow, reminds us that on foreign fields around the world blood has been shed and is shed in the ongoing conflicts, large and small, in which humanity seems to engage without ever seeming to learn the lessons. But there was something significant about being here where Britain has had such a role.

Next year will see a number of significant anniversaries as major battles were held in Palestine in November and December (most of the gravestones had dates from those battles) and we remember the Balfour Declaration.  The final text of that declaration, which went through so many iterations, was

His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

The final handover of Jerusalem by the Ottomans to Field Marshall Viscount Allenby took place in the study of the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem and the documents signed on the desk that Archbishop Suheil Dawani still uses in his residence just alongside St George’s Cathedral. The Royal Arms which then hung in Government House during the period of the British Mandate are now in the north transept of the Cathedral. It is a complex history in which we have been embroiled and still have a part to play if that line in the Declaration is still to be held before the international community

‘that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.’

After the service I wandered amongst the graves and found this one.

Rifleman R A Middleditch
It was the inscription at the bottom that made me stop.  ‘The land where earth and heaven meet we all hope to meet again.’ It summed up for me something of this place that I have been, the land where earth and heaven meet. To be here is a powerful experience and memories of the last six weeks flooded back and the words of a hymn

Jerusalem the golden,
With milk and honey blest,
Beneath your contemplation
Sink heart and voice oppressed.
I know not, oh, I know not
What social joys are there,
What radiancy of glory,
What bliss beyond compare.

It was written by Bernard of Cluny in the 12th century and is part of a long poem called ‘On Contempt for the World’ a scathing critique on the world of the day in which the Crusades were taking place. He looks to a golden Jerusalem, a better world and as I leave this city and the friends I have made and this land – but not for the last time I pray – all I can do is pray for the peace of Jerusalem and all its people.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
‘May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers.’
For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’
For the sake of the house of the our God,
I will seek your good.
Amen. (Psalm 122.6-9)

Thanks to Pauline, John and Hazel and all at St George’s for their love and friendship

And the world didn’t stop

Following the success of the film ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ a poem by W H Auden became very popular. It’s called ‘Stop all the clocks’.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Today, the last day of the course with the clergy from Zimbabwe, Southwark and Rochester and my last full day in Jerusalem after these six glorious weeks, we were centring on the passion and death of the Lord.  The visits weren’t going to take place until the afternoon and so the morning began with a briefing about what we would see at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The bell tower of the church as evening fell


The title of that church is interesting to think about.  In the west we call it the ‘Church of the Holy Sepulchre’, in the east they call it the Anastasis, the ‘Church of the Resurrection’. Why is it that in the west we focus on the death, the humanity of Jesus, the sacrifice whereas in the east they focus on the resurrection, the divinity of Jesus? Perhaps it is part of the same reasoning that leads us in the west to celebrate Christmas on 25 December remembering the physical birth whereas the eastern church celebrates it on the 6 January, the Epiphany, when the manifestation of Christ’s divine nature is made known to the world.

The plan of the 4th century church


The church – call it what you will – of course contains both elements in that enshrines Golgotha and the empty tomb.  The church built in the Byzantine period emphasised this dual role in the very architecture and shape of the building, with its basilica and rotunda, separated.  Now pilgrims encounter the jumble of the building from the Crusader period – and what a jumble it was this afternoon.  It was like a living out of the Book of Revelations!

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. (Revelation 7.9)

It was amazing to see so many crowding into this ancient space to meet with the crucified and risen one.

A multitude no one could number


In the briefing this morning as we thought about the crucifixion the point was made that for Jerusalem on that Friday the day went on.  Life didn’t stop.  Jesus was not the only one being crucified.  There were others as well.  In a sense he was nothing special to most people – just another northerner claiming he was the Messiah. Life went on.  There was a festival to get ready for and money to be made and the peace to be kept. So the clocks didn’t stop, the dogs still barked.

A group of us decided to walk the Stations of the Cross. It was an amazing experience as we remembered what happened at each of those stations, as we heard the scriptures and prayed and sang in the streets that were buzzing with activity, as we passed the soldiers eager to keep the peace, as people got ready for whatever was coming up in their lives, in their faith community, as people tried to make some money.

The death that Auden wrote about seemed to bring life to an end.

For nothing now can ever come to any good.

But as we concluded the Stations on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Resurrection, we knew that all was well, that death was defeated, that life was restored, that the Second Adam restored what the first Adam lost. The world didn’t stop, but something restarted – and that was life.

Jesus, crucified, risen,
my saviour,
my all,
you are my way,
you are my truth,
you are my life.

Dirty water

Every morning as I open my bedroom curtains at the Deanery in Southwark I look out on one of the iconic rivers of the world – the River Thames. William Wordsworth was in London and wrote a sonnet after looking at the river. ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802’ is a beautiful evocation of the river at that time.

Nicholls, Joseph, 1692-1760; View of Westminster Bridge
Westminster Bridge by Joseph Nicholls


Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty;
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

T S Eliot saw it differently in his poem ‘The Wasteland’ written 120 years later.

The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.

But the Thames is only one iconic river that has inspired poets and painters and people. The Nile, not just for an Agatha Christi murder, but for the romance of a river so long and rich and lined with history. The Tiber, the Rubicon, the Ganges, the Mississippi – the world is crisscrossed with rivers that are carriers of history.

Today we headed out of Jerusalem and into the beauty of the Judean Wilderness, that stretch of barren and rocky land that marks the descent from the city to the valley in which one of the most important rivers flows – the Jordan.

The severe beauty of the Judean Wilderness


To mention the name brings hymns to mind, characters to mind, Old and New Testament figures and events. It’s a river that forms a modern political boundary between Jordan and Israel, a river that was a boundary in biblical Israel, a fording place for returning exiles, the place of baptism, the place of John the Baptist and Jesus.

The religious imagination works overtime as we imagine the Jordan and all it represents in the story of our faith. The African-American Spiritual ‘Deep River’ first mentioned in print in 1876, sung in the movie version of ‘Showboat’, made famous by Paul Robeson, is the archetypal expression of faith and hope connected to this river sung by people looking for their own exodus.

Deep river, my home is over Jordan,
Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.
Oh, don’t you want to go to that gospel feast,
That promised land where all is peace?
Oh don’t you want to go to that promised land,
That land where all is peace?
Deep river, my home is over Jordan,
Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.

So when you arrive at the Jordan River east of the ancient city of Jericho it can be a bit of a disappointment.  The river is narrower than in the imagination, shallower, slower and dirtier. This can’t be the river that we have been talking and singing about! But it is!

The water extraction policies of both Israel and Jordan have removed a great deal of water which would naturally flow down the river and feed the now shrinking Dead Sea beyond. But to be honest it has never been an impressive river.

You may have had this one


When I was a child I had a Ladybird Book called ‘Naaman and the Little Maid’.  It told the story of Naaman. It was one of my Sunday School prizes. The story is told in 2 Kings 5. It begins by setting the scene

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favour with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. (2 Kings 5.1)

His wife’s servant girl (the Little Maid of the Ladybird Book) was an Israelite who had been captured in a raid.  She told her mistress that there was a prophet, Elisha, in Israel who could heal her Master. So Naaman gets permission to go and find the prophet and ask for healing.  The Prophet asks him to bathe seven times in the Jordan.  When Naaman hears this he’s furious.

Naaman became angry and went away, saying, ‘I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?’ (2 Kings 5.11-12)

As we looked into the waters of the river today where we had come to renew our baptismal promises you knew what he meant.  But in the end he was persuaded to do as the prophet said and was healed.  We renewed our promises and some entered the water and were spiritually and physically refreshed.

The Jordan today


Not everything is as we sometimes imagine it to be and we can be disappointed when our religious imagination has run away with itself. But into this water Jesus entered and

‘a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ (Mark 1.11)

God can work through the dirty water of life even through the dirty and often disappointing water of my life and bring me, bring you, to the Promised Land and that perfect river that flows through the city.

Almighty God,
we thank you for our fellowship in the household of faith
with all who have been baptized in your name.
Keep us faithful to our baptism,
and so make us ready for that day
when the whole creation
shall be made perfect in your Son,
our Saviour Jesus Christ.

The Noble Sanctuary

My dad was very good at bricklaying and when we were younger and the family was expanding he would build an extension here and there to the house to make sure that it was big enough to provide a good home for us. I remember him digging the footings and laying the damp course before the cavity wall began to rise and gave shape to whatever it was he was building, an extension to the living room, a utility room, an office, an extra loo. The walls he built helped to create a home.

Today was a very special day.  Earlier in these six weeks I visited the Temple Mount and I again visited it with the Caterham Team Pilgrimage.  On both occasions we entered by the tourist route and through the Morocco Gate. On each occasion it was wonderful and a privilege to be up there. But, as a result of the excellent relationship and the trust that has been built up between St George’s College and the Waqf, the Islamic trust with the care of the holy sites and more besides, today we were to be allowed into the al-Aqsa Mosque, the third most holy site for Muslims, and the Dome of the Rock.

The interior of the dome of the al-Aqsa Mosque


Before the Second Intifada, known as the al-Aqsa Intifada, which began in September 2000, partially provoked by the visit of Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount, pilgrims were allowed to go into both the Mosque and the Dome. Since then we haven’t been able to except by invitation of the Waqf, and that is a rare privilege.

So we entered not by the tourist gate but by the gate for honoured guests which is by the Lion (St Stephen’s) Gate.  The women in our group were modestly dressed and we were all on our very best behaviour as befits guests. Instead of calling it the Temple Mount we called it by its proper name ‘Haram al-Sharif’ which means ‘The Noble Sanctuary’.

We were modestly dressed


This is a perfect name for this most wonderful place.  We were led by an Islamic guide who told us something that I had never realised, that the whole site is the mosque not just what we call the Mosque.  The whole site is holy, the Dome of the Rock is but one of the domes in the mosque and in fact every where you look there are domes large and small.  And for Friday prayers and other holy days the men pray in the Mosque and around it, the women pray in the Dome and around it but that they are all in the mosque.

The whole place has a nobility that I always find in Islamic architecture. The symmetry, the colours, the harmonious style is calming. There is water and it reminds me of the opening of the poem by Philip Larkin ‘Water’

If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

In the al-Aqsa there are rich carpets and gilding, fine windows and mosaics. It is the same in the Dome of the Rock.

Yet what is so special for us is the rock beneath the golden dome. We went beneath it into the cave. This rock is the summit of Mount Moriah, the rest of the hill lost in the level platform that was constructed around it by Solomon and then most spectacularly in the 1st century BC by Herod. It is a monumental piece of civil engineering. But the summit of the mount is there, plain rock, for all to see.

Beneath the rock


Here Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac (or Ishmael according to the Quran); here was the threshing floor of Araunah (Ornan) the Jebusite, purchased by David; here the Ark of the Covenant rested; here Solomon built the Temple as we are told in 2 Chronicles

Solomon began to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the Lord had appeared to his father David, at the place that David had designated, on the threshing-floor of Ornan the Jebusite. (2 Chronicles 3.1)

From here the Israelites left as slaves; to here they returned from exile in Babylon. Here Herod built the Second Temple and to here Jesus came.  He wouldn’t have seen the rock as we did.  That was in the Holy of Holies (so we believe) and only the High Priest could enter that, and only once a year. But into this Noble Sanctuary Jesus walked.

The whole Temple site was destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans and the place remained empty, a dump. But from this rock in around the year 621 the Prophet Muhammed, led by Gabriel, journeyed by night into heaven and was instructed by God, returning to then instruct his followers.

A majestic sight


This rock has a nobility for us all, Jews and Christians and Muslims and as we stood in the cave beneath it the sense of this being a true holy place was tangible.

Later in the day we stood on the steps beneath the south wall of the Temple.  Up these steps from the Ophel the pilgrims would come and Jesus and his disciples came, to enter the sanctuary of God. But if you look from the steps, across the City of David to the village of Silwan and beyond, you see the Israeli Security Barrier, the wall that has been erected to keep the Palestinians out of Israel. Not every wall creates a home, not every wall defines a noble sanctuary. Some walls that we build are an affront to humanity.

Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989
The fall of the Berlin Wall


27 years ago today, 9 November, the wall that had divided Berlin began to come down. Construction of the wall had begun on 13 August 1961 and it took until 1989 for the thawing of the Cold War to result in the breaching of the wall and a new age of freedom to begin. But in Belfast the British Government built a wall, a ‘Peace Line’ in 1969.  It is still there. (It is amazing the names we give to walls to deny they are walls – the Peace Line, the Separation Barrier!)  And on the day when we celebrate the freeing of the people of Berlin a man is elected in the USA promising to build a wall along the Mexican border. Ironic is not the word.  It has no nobility and cannot create sanctuary.

Jesus, you tore down the walls that divided people;
challenge our desires to build walls
that divide and don’t include,
that keep people out not bring them in,
that have no nobility
and create no sanctuary or home.

What do we call Jesus?

We were set an interesting question first thing this morning when, in preparation for the group visiting Bethlehem, we had an introductory lecture on the birth narratives that we find in Matthew and Luke and what the members of the course would find in the city of his birth. The question was not so much how do you reconcile the Matthean and the Lucan accounts of the nativity but how much we actually know about Jesus. ‘If you were asked to fill in a birth or death certificate for Jesus how much do you, do we, actually know?’

Not easy to complete


It was a good question.  First name – Jesus. Surname ….. well, it’s not Christ, uum, not sure … Barjospeh? Well no, that would never do. Barabbas? Well we saw the confusions around that name in a former blog!  Leave it blank.  Mother – Mary.  Father – back to the questions again.  Place of residence of the parents – well Matthew says Bethlehem, Luke says Nazareth.  Place of Birth – we’re back on course, Bethlehem, we all know that.  This form requires two witnesses with home addresses.  Well, some Magi came according to Matthew, but they were strangers and deliberately left no forwarding address so Herod couldn’t trace them.  Luke mentions shepherds but they’re definitely of no fixed abode.  Angels are unreliable witnesses as far as form filling is concerned.  Perhaps old Simeon and Anna will do – and the address for Anna ‘The Temple, Jerusalem’ could not be better, the best postcode in town.

I’m being facetious but only to make the point.  We know few ‘facts’ about Jesus and the facts we do know are disputed and depend on faith. Do I go with Matthew who tells us that the Holy Family lived in Bethlehem or with Luke’s Nazareth based story? Do I go with an annunciation to Joseph in Matthew or to Mary in Luke? Do I go with a story of persecution and slaughter that mirrors the actions of Pharaoh wanting to kill all the Hebrew boys as Matthew tells it or one of welcome in the Temple as Luke tells it?

The whole cast on stage


Of course, in just a few weeks time as we watch children perform nativity plays in our schools and churches, as we go to Nine Lessons and Carols in our cathedrals and parish churches, we know that we deal with the complications by ignoring them and just squashing everything together.  The shepherds will trip over the kings in the crib scene even though their paths never crossed. We cope with it because we know that the story has a deeper message that does not simply involve the ‘facts’ with which a form could be completed.

In fact I didn’t go with the group to Bethlehem and nor did Canon Wendy Robins, the Bishop’s Press Officer for Southwark.  Instead we went into the West Bank to visit two projects, to find out more and see how we might support them.  One, Jeel al Amal in Bethany, I had visited many times before.  The other, Al-Shurooq School for the Blind, in Beit Jala, a village on the edge of Bethlehem, was new to me.

In both of these we saw Jesus at work, in action, through those who believe in his name.  Both schools have Christian foundations but serve the whole community regardless of faith, ethnicity, or gender.  Both serve children who have severe needs – at Jeel children who are orphans or have endured terrible domestic problems; at Al-Shurooq those with no or little sight and some with multiple physical and mental needs. In both tremendous work is being done by Christians for the whole community.

The question they ask at Jeel al Amal


We heard of a little boy, deaf-blind, who was living in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Jericho.  His family didn’t know how to care for him – so they didn’t. He was found wandering, filthy, no shoes and the school was able to take him in.  He is now beginning to communicate and gaining confidence.  He goes back to his family at weekends who are better able to cope with him as a fieldworker is supporting them.  He returns to school, smart and washed and ready for the week.

It says it all


A little boy came to meet me, blind and with some learning difficulties.  He hugged me and smelt me so that he could recognise me again, stroked my arms as Isaac did with Jacob and his brother Esau.  It was so poignant and resonant with the scriptures. By this stage Isaac was blind and when the younger son, Jacob, eager to deceive his father and gain his elder brother’s blessing, dressed his arms in goat skin and himself in his brother’s clothes and approached his father, we’re told that the patriarch’s response was this.

So Jacob went up to his father Isaac, who felt him and said, ‘The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau …Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed. (Genesis 27.22, 27)

The boy tried to say my name.  It was extremely moving.

The fact I know about Jesus is not what his surname was, nor the precise details of his birth, but that those who follow him do the work that he did and bring his light into darkness, his life to where death stalks, his truth where lies are powerful, his justice where injustice stunts lives, his riches where there is poverty. I know Jesus when I see him and I saw him today.

Jesus, my Lord,
bless those who in your name
proclaim good news to the poor
freedom for the prisoners
recovery of sight for the blind
and set the oppressed free.

Layers of history

There have been few sadness’s for me in spending six weeks in Jerusalem – just a few.  But one of those was missing the final episodes of ‘The Great British Bake Off’, though I hope that I may find some way of catching up with what happened.  Explaining to anyone what is so exciting about watching a tent full of people baking three separate cakes and having them judged is quite difficult.  But I love it – and so did 15.9 million other people who tuned into this year’s final and watched Candice win.  One of the things that I love is seeing some of the spectacular layering of cake that they achieve.  And then the judges, Paul Hollywood and national treasure, Mary Berry, take a slice out of the cake and discover whether or not the layers are of equal depth and balance.

Great British Bake Off
Judging the layers


Today we left Nazareth and made our way back towards Jerusalem but via Megiddo.  I was working it out, I think it is about 30 years since I was last on this archaeological site.  But some of the features that we saw came back to me immediately.

One of the spectacular sights, though one that would be an abomination to modern archaeologists we were told, was a section of the Tel, the archaeological mound that contains the remains of Megiddo, where, some 100 years ago, those working on it took a slice out of it – just like Mary and Paul attacking a mille feuille – and in so doing revealing the layers of history in this place.

The layers of history at Megiddo


Over its long history Megiddo was destroyed 25 timers and rebuilt 24 times and those layers of rebuilding and destruction can be seen in the slicing of the Tel that took place.  It’s like cutting into a tree and counting the rings that give the age.  The layers here tell the story of a place that was on the frontier, on one of the principal trade routes, so strategic a site that whoever held it was in power.  So the Egyptians and the Canaanites and the Assyrians and the Israelites all held the place at one time or another and finally the Persians came and destroyed it so that by the 4th century BC it was uninhabited, never to be inhabited again.  A history lasting more than 3000 years came to an end.

But within those layers are the stories that we know from the Old Testament.  One of the pantomime baddies from the history of the place is King Ahab.  It was under his rule that one of the most memorable features of the place was constructed.  This is the tunnel that took water from the spring which was outside the city walls to a place within the walls where the citizens could access it, even in times of siege. The shaft leading down to the tunnel is 30 metres, the tunnel itself 70 metres in length.  This was a really sophisticated piece of civil engineering and amazing to walk through.

Entering the tunnel



Ahab was the king who was constantly being confronted by the prophet Elijah, the Tishbite (we saw a sign for Tishbe as we travelled along one of the roads – this was his area), who was married to scheming Jezebel, who desired Naboth’s Vineyard. I love that part of the story in 1 Kings 21 when Jezebel finds her husband depressed and sulking because Naboth won’t give up his vineyard.

His wife Jezebel came to him and said, ‘Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?’ He said to her, ‘Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, “Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it”; but he answered, “I will not give you my vineyard.” ’ His wife Jezebel said to him, ‘Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.’ (1 Kings 21.5-7)

When the prophet hears of it he comes straight over and confronts him in the vineyard, cursing both King and Queen. Then we see Ahab repenting and the chapter ends with God saying to the prophet.

‘Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days; but in his son’s days I will bring the disaster on his house.’ (1 Kings 21.29)

He was a baddie and disaster hit his house and this strategic base but here we also see the sophistication and the wealth of his kingdom, here we literally touch the reality of it.  Here in the mountains above the plain Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal, here in the plain of Megiddo the battles were fought for supremacy.

Standing in a place of history


All those Old Testament readings come alive as you stand on the Tel and realise that the layers you see are the layers of real history.  So in a strange way I was grateful to those who used a now discredited technique because they opened up a rich history to me, a history which we still tell each other, a history of victory and defeat, of power and weakness, of duplicity and honesty, of courage and cowardice and the stones were witnesses to all of this.

God of time and eternity,
through your grace and inspiration,
may I learn from the past,
shape the present
and help build a better future.