In the Synoptic Gospels (so I read – I haven’t counted them) there are eleven references to Gehenna. In many translations these will read as ‘hell’. So for instance in St Matthew’s Gospel, in a rather uncompromising passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says
‘It is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell [Gehenna].’ (Matthew 5.29)
Well, I decided to walk to hell, to Gehenna or the Valley of Hinnom, and see it for myself. It’s a large valley on the west and south of the Old City and meets the Kidron Valley at the southeast corner of the city. It had a notorious reputation, a place of ancient child sacrifice, other horrors and in the end was used as the city’s refuse dumping ground and incinerator. The rubbish was dumped in the valley and burnt and there was a constant fire going. It was hot and horrible and, I suppose, it stank. It was like a hell-hole and so it gained that reputation, hence Jesus talking about hell by reference to this valley. Nowadays it’s part of the national park that extends around part of the old walls of the city of Jerusalem and people are jogging there and having their picnics. But as you head down towards the rather beleaguered and explosive Palestinian district of Silwan (where Sunday morning’s gunman in Jerusalem hailed from) then it becomes more hell-like. The Israeli response to acts of terrorism, like that on Sunday in which three people, including the gunman died not far from St George’s Anglican Cathedral (I heard the gunfire and the subsequent cacophony of sirens from the roof terrace here), is to demolish all or part of their home which will invariably house their extended family – and that, so I’ve been told is what has been happening in response to Sunday. To me it seems to increase that feeling of creating a hell for all who live here.
I got to the valley early – it was going to be hot again – and it was a steep descent and a steep climb back out of the valley but well worth going.
From Gehenna you can walk back up the slopes beneath the city wall and see the various levels of development especially close to the Citadel which stands at Jaffa Gate. But I wasn’t wanting to look at these stones but at some others. My intention was to see the Alexander Nevsky Church. This Russian church stands close by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a building begun in the mid 1800’s but which allowed for a huge amount of excavation on a very important site.
If you’ve never heard of Alexander Nevsky, who the Russian Orthodox Church canonised in 1547 but who lived from 1221-1263, he was a Russian prince but with a reputation for holiness. In an account of him written immediately after his death it says
“… He was taller than others and his voice reached the people as a trumpet, and his face was like the face of Joseph whom the Egyptian Pharaoh placed as next to the king after him of Egypt. His power was a part of the power of Samson and God gave him the wisdom of Solomon … this Prince Alexander: he used to defeat but was never defeated.”
The church is attached to the Russian Hospice built to house pilgrims and is calm and beautiful inside. There are many portraits of Czar Nicholas II, his Czarina, Alexandria and their children. It is a place that seems to have stood still in time. But what is amazing is what is contained within it.
Before you reach the church which is at the heart of the complex there is a wonderful archway part of an entrance to the main forum established by the emperor Hadrian when he rebuilt Jerusalem as a Roman colony in the 2nd century. Then heading through you arrive at a threshold to a gate. It’s now under a glass covering and pilgrims kneel to kiss it. It’s thought to have been where Jesus left the city on the way to Calvary. This threshold may have been part of an arch built by Hadrian, but it was later re-used as an entrance to the Holy Sepulchre.
To the left is what is even more amazing – ‘The Eye of the Needle’. It was a small gap in the Roman wall through which individuals could enter when the gates had been shut at night. A person could get through it but not an animal. If this really is the Eye of the Needle then what Jesus says makes sense
‘Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ (Matthew 19.24)
No camel could get through!
The whole places is like a Via Dolorosa in miniature, a real treasure house and people walk past without noticing it because outside it looks like a grand building, not a church. But opposite it on the other side of the street is something that looks very much like a church. It’s the Church of the Redeemer, the German Lutheran Church. It has become a place very dear to my heart as it is there that we have celebrated the Eucharist at the end of following the Via Dolorosa on Diocesan Pilgrimages. It’s a simple yet stunning church built on the site of the Crusader church, St Maria Latina. I’d been many times to the church but never had time to see the excavations beneath nor climb the tower.
The excavations are good but the tower is brilliant. The bell tower rises above the surrounding district. Ascending it is hard work. I counted the steps. The 1st stage is 48 steps; 2nd stage 60 steps; the 3rd stage 70 steps. I make that 178 steps! But the views across the whole city from the top are simply breath taking (in a different way to the steps!). On every side is a jumble of roofs and domes and towers and beyond, hills.
I was close to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre so I headed there but via the Coptic Church of St Helena. This church is on the roof of the Holy Sepulchre but it’s built above a huge water cistern discovered by Helena and her workmen. The steps down to it are narrow and slippery but at the bottom you can see a cistern with water still in it and the echo is amazing.
I was heading for the entrance of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre however. Yesterday I had visited the Rockefeller Museum which is very close to St George’s Cathedral. It is the only museum in Jerusalem that doesn’t charge for entry. The impressive building was designed by the British Architect I referred to in a previous blog, Austen Harrison, and is beautified, especially in the central, open air, water cooled central court, with the work of Eric Gill.
It contains lots of archaeological treasures, lots of flint stone implements, lots of pots, glorious carvings in wood from the al-Aqsa Mosque and in stone from Hisham’s Palace. But the must see items are two lintels removed from above the two entrances to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In restoration work in the 1930’s the Crusader lintels were removed and put into the museum. No attempt has been made to replace them with copies and, indeed, the eastern entrance has been sealed up as today’s pilgrims can easily see.
The lintel that was above the eastern door which led pilgrims to Golgotha is a tangle of foliage, intertwined, dynamic in which are caught naked human figures, dragons, centaurs, beasts of every kind. It’s the chaos of hell, that God brings order to. The image it provides of hell is different to the one of the Valley of Hinnom, but powerful and chaotic.
The western door led to the Holy Sepulchre and the lintel depicts some of the acts of salvation of Jesus – the raising of Lazarus, the triumphal entry, the cleansing of the Temple, the Last Supper. The Romanesque carving is tremendous. The detail is incredible and in it the carver added touches of humour. In the panel depicting the raising of Lazarus an onlooker at the back has his hand over his nose and mouth because of the stench that is predicted when the tomb is opened; Lazarus is being loosed from his bonds in response to Jesus command
‘Unbind him, and let him go.’ (John 11.44)
The lintels couldn’t be more different in style, yet they date from the same period and described to people entering beneath them, hell and heaven, condemnation and salvation.
In another room is a lovely figure of the Good Shepherd from the Byzantine period, the youthful, unbearded face of Jesus looking at us. The whole museum is worth going to and you won’t fight the crowds – there was no one there.
Finally, I visited the oldest church in Jerusalem. It’s the Church of St John the Baptist. This church was founded in the 5th century, probably around 450-60 under the Empress Eudokia. It is possible the church was built due to the presence here of the relics of John the Baptist, which were sent to various cities in the 4th century including Jerusalem and in front of the iconostasis is a portion of the skull of the Baptist that you can venerate. There is a tradition that this is the site of the house of Zebedee, father of the apostles James and John – but that may be a confusion of John’s. The church was much restored by the Crusaders in the 11th century and became the base for the Knights Hospitallers and the Order of St John. So this is the birthplace of the St John’s Ambulance! It’s now a Greek Orthodox church, hard to find and hidden away but deeply holy and just what I came looking for.
There amongst the frescos was one of the resurrection that brought the theme of my day together. Jesus is dragging our first parents, Adam and Eve, by the wrists, from the chaos of hell to the peace of heaven. It was a wonderful conclusion to a journey, a day of blessings that has taken me from hell to heaven!
you entered hell to bring us to heaven.
May those who live in the hell
of war, persecution and oppression
know the peace you died