One of the temptations for Christians coming on pilgrimage to the Holy Land is to look at the place only in relation to the Jesus story. That, of course, is understandable. We want to walk where Jesus walked, to kneel where he was born, to weep where he wept, to bear the cross on the Via Dolorosa, to rejoice at the empty tomb. But this land, this city of Jerusalem, tells so much more than the essential story at the heart of our faith and in so many ways it provides the context for that story. Ignoring what we would call the ‘Old Testament’ ignores everything that led up to the incarnation.
The welsh priest-poet R S Thomas in his poem ‘The Coming’ opens our imagination to the inspiration for the incarnation.
And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, A river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many People
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.
I decided to take the opportunity of escorting a priest staying at St George’s College on a pilgrimage walk down the Mount of Olives and across the Kidron Valley. Canon Henry Segawa, who is Principal of the Uganda Martyrs’ Seminary, Kampala, an Anglican college for the training of those to enter ordained and lay ministry, had not done this walk and so it was good to escort him. One highlight was to go into the Church of Pater Noster and find the Lord’s Prayer in Henry’s own first language, Lugandan. We searched through the place and looked at 170 panels with the prayer in all these languages and then on reaching number 171 right by the exit we found it!
We headed down the hill along the Palm Sunday route. I noticed that the Tomb of the Prophets was open. This is just below the steps that lead from the main road onto the steep road that goes down the hill. We went in. If you’re going take a torch – there is no lighting. The torch that I have on my phone just wasn’t good enough. The tombs are within a complex of graves that go back 3,000 years. It is said that this is the resting place of the last three Old Testament Prophets – Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. The early Christian community used these catacombs and so were laid besides these great prophets.
It is the prophet Zechariah who gives us verses that seem to me to be so positively inclusive that they begin to build that bridge between the witness of prophecy and the witness of the Messiah, the Christ.
Thus says the Lord of hosts: Peoples shall yet come, the inhabitants of many cities; the inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, ‘Come, let us go to entreat the favour of the Lord, and to seek the Lord of hosts; I myself am going.’ Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem, and to entreat the favour of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’ (Zechariah 8.20-23)
Zechariah though gets another mention further down in the Kidron Valley for there next to what is called the Tomb of Absalom (it isn’t) is Zechariah’s Tomb (and it probably isn’t particularly if he’s buried on the Mount of Olives!) But that is an impressive series of tombs, of graves.
In fact the Mount of Olives and the Kidron Valley with its sea of graves, Jewish and Muslim, owes much in the religious imagination to this prophet who is so commemorated there. Later in his writings he says
On that day his [the Lord’s] feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley. (Zechariah 14.4)
As we walked from the top of the Mount of Olives through the Kidron Valley to the Dung Gate and the entrance to the Temple Mount we remembered that the Lord’s feet had stood there. The prophet was right, the son who said
‘Let me go there’
Holy Spirit of prophecy,
as you spoke through your servants in former times,
so whisper into us your prophetic voice,
that we may speak your truth today.