One of the experiences a pilgrim has in the Holy Land is being able to walk where Jesus walked. I find that enormously powerful. Having time in the city, as I have, is enabling me to go to some of the places we don’t have time for on our normal pilgrimages. I decided to go to a couple of those today.
Last week I visited both the Western Wall, often called the Wailing Wall, and managed to find the ‘Small Wailing Wall’ in one of the back streets. But what we see in both of these places is just the tip of the iceberg. The Herodian platform, on which the 2nd Temple was built and on which the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque now stand, is huge. It was built to provide a large level platform on which the most holy place for the Jewish people could be constructed, the Holy of Holies in which the Ark of the Covenant was kept and the Temple in which the presence of God, the Shekinah, was experienced. The levelling out was important because the Temple was to contain the very peak of Mount Moriah. It was a huge act of civil engineering, comparable to the building of the pyramids in Egypt, a monumental act of bringing massive quarried rock in to level out the natural outcrop of rock.
It is now possible to visit the tunnels which run along the outside edge of the west side of the Mount – so the extension north of the Western Wall that we can see and visit. I was told that I should do it. But I had to think about it before I booked my ticket because the tunnels themselves are controversial.
The tunnels opened in 1996 to huge protests. 62 Palestinians and 14 Israeli soldiers died in the protests that followed their opening and over 1200 people were injured. Muslims were concerned that the excavations would unsettle the Mount and threaten the stability of their holy places. They also objected to Israel digging beneath the Muslim Quarter and by so doing declaring that the whole of Jerusalem was under the control of the Israeli authorities. The tunnels remain problematic especially as visitors to them finally emerge on the Via Dolorosa opposite Stations I and II in the Muslim Quarter.
So I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing by visiting but in the end decided to do so. I may have been wrong in that.
What you see in the 75 minute tour are the massive stones, the rocks of which the Mount is built. One of the first stones we were shown is almost 14 metres long and weighs 128 tonnes. No one quite knows how it was moved into place. The tour continues through the chambers created by the Mamelukes who built these arched spaces so that they could build a residential area above them. We saw cisterns and an aqueduct, a blocked up entrance to the Temple Mount and the street that ran alongside the wall. Because we were walking up the slope of the natural hill we eventually arrived at street level. This was at the end close to where the Antonia Fortress stood, the place to which Jesus was brought during his trial. There we stood on the street itself, shops would have been alongside us, the wall of the Mount on the other. This was a street from the time of Jesus and it was amazing to be there and to be able to walk upon it.
Whilst we were doing the tourist thing Jews, men but particularly women, were making their way to various prayer spaces alongside the wall. The belief is that though the Temple was destroyed the Shekinah never left the place, God did not abandon this holy site nor the people. I can’t say that I felt it to be a holy place but it was incredible to be there – though I wept inside for the blood that had been shed for it.
I made my way from there to somewhere that also claims to be very old. In the Armenian Quarter there stands the Syrian Orthodox Convent. It isn’t easy to find in the warren of tiny streets and passageways round there but I eventually I got to the gate that led from the street into the courtyard. A sister was at the reception desk and unlocked the Church of St Mark for me. Sister Justina then told me (at some length) about the place and the many miracles associated with it.
The claim is that this was the first church and that when it was damaged in AD70 when the Temple was destroyed and so many houses burnt to the ground it was within three years restored. Pilgrims are often taken to the Cenacle on Mount Zion, a Crusader room above King David’s tomb, which is said to be on the site where the disciples gathered with Jesus for the Last Supper and which was the Upper Room that they made their base until Pentecost. But this church of St Mark is the rival to that. I was told that this was the house of Mary the mother of St Mark and it was here that the disciples gathered, here that the Spirit came at Pentecost. Who knows?
But what I do like is the story that this was the house that Peter came to after his release from prison by an angel. You can read the story in the Acts of the Apostles 12.5-17.
After his release Peter finds himself in the street. The angel leaves him. Then the Acts of the Apostles tells us
He went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many had gathered and were praying. (Acts 12.12)
Then we get what for me is the most wonderful bit of the story. I love the fact that in some places in the New Testament we are told a person’s name for what seems no good reason, but it must have been for a good reason, the person must have been known, even though they are just a name to us.
When Peter knocked at the outer gate, a maid named Rhoda came to answer. On recognizing Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed that, instead of opening the gate, she ran in and announced that Peter was standing at the gate. They said to her, ‘You are out of your mind!’ But she insisted that it was so. They said, ‘It is his angel.’ Meanwhile, Peter continued knocking; and when they opened the gate, they saw him and were amazed. (Acts 12.13-16)
It is such a human part of the story, such a natural thing to do, Peter, the escaped prisoner being left on the street knocking at the door because the maid, Rhoda, is so excited to hear his voice. It’s so real it makes you smile. I wonder if Rhoda was pleased that her reaction was recorded for all generations – the maid who kept ‘the Rock’ standing at the gate? I hope she was thrilled and not embarrassed. I stood in the crypt of the church where the original house stood – perhaps Jesus had been in here, perhaps this was where the wind and flames appeared. But I hope I stood where Rhoda was overwhelmed with joy. Thank God for Rhoda’s everywhere because even they are rocks of the faith!
you build your house upon the rock,
you build your church upon the rock.
We thank you for Mary, Mark, Peter and Rhoda
and the living stones of your church today.