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.

Snakes and ladders

The day began in Nazareth with the congregation at the Anglican Church – Christchurch. Always a lovely welcome from the small but faithful congregation who don’t seem to resent being swamped by visitors! 

From there it was off to the Sea of Galilee, perhaps one of the most beautiful places that we visit. You realise as soon as you see the lake that this was what Jesus saw and knew. This was where the disciples were called. This was where he taught and healed and was known. This north-western politically contested corner of the lake was where Jesus brought a proclamation of the kingdom that was both imminent and expectant.  This was Jesus’ parish!


We went straight to Capernaum, perhaps one of the most powerful places that pilgrims can visit. Nothing gives you so clear a view of what a 1st century Galilean village looked like as this place with its jumble of houses. As we were told – and this for me was the most powerful moment of the day – ‘the people who lived in these houses knew Jesus.’

The verse from that deeply loved hymn came to mind

In simple trust like theirs who heard beside the Syrian sea the gracious calling of the Lord, let us, like them, without a word rise up and follow thee.

They heard, they followed, they believed. Yet even in this place Jesus was able to criticise their lack of faith. 

And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades.’ (Luke 10.15)

It’s amazing. They lived alongside him and some rejected him. Yet others found new life and healing in him and there in the synogogue he would teach them most profound truths, that he is the bread of life, the bread of heaven (John 6.24-59).

That whole heaven and hell business lived out in this community is then portrayed powerfully in the neighbouring Greek church. The damned and condemned to the flames, the righteous riseibg to join the saints in heaven. As someone commented, such depictions of hell are the original ‘Snakes and Ladders’. 

A game of heaven and hell

We ended in that most wonderful place, the Mount of the Beatitudes where the blessing of our gracious God is celebrated. But even in a place like this it is not all sweetness and light. There are snakes and there are ladders and the people of Capernaum whom Jesus loved, the Jesus of healing, feeding, call and love, who could still a storm on the lakes can also bring a storm into our lives. 

Jesus, call me heavenward, save me from the evil one, that I may climb your ladder of perfection and not slide away from you. Amen. 

Building booths

It’s been a good day in Nazareth. The principal new discovery, as far as I was concerned, were the wonderful excavations which are beneath the Convent of the Sisters of Nazareth. What they have there is simply amazing. There’s a 1st century cave house with the most perfect door and a similarly dated tomb complete with an intact, in place, rolling stone. 

‘Here is the little door’

The poem ‘Here is the little door’ by G K Chesterton came to mind. Obviously Chesterton was writing about Bethlehem not Nazareth. But allow my imagination to wander.  

Here is the little door, lift up the latch, oh lift!

Was there a latch on the door that filled this entrance and made this home secure? And did Jesus live here? There’s no evidence of course just the evidence of our sisters and brothers from Byzantine times who revered this place and worshipped here. The evidence of faith is strong. 

In the afternoon we went to Mount Tabor where I hadn’t been for a few years. It’s a fantastic place. The mount, the views, the church- each is amazing. But what made me think was that whole business of the church ignoring the words of Jesus. 

A rather fine bit of booth building!

Mount Tabor is the traditional site of the Transfiguration (or at least from Byzantine times). So every pilgrim group thatvarrives there in the hairraising taxis reads one of the accounts of that event. Peter, James and John are so thrilled with the experience that they wish to build dwellings on the spot. 

Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ (Matthew 17.4)

But this was not what Jesus wanted. Yet we have built a church with three booths – for Jesus, Moses and Elijah! Perhaps we couldn’t live in the cloud, in the mystery. Perhaps we can only believe if we put one stone on another, see it, touch it. As beautiful as Tabor is perhaps the Mount would be better as Jesus left it – empty – with only the deepest spiritual experience to fix us into the divine. But we like to engage in a bit of booth building rather than entering that more challenging ‘cloud of unknowing’!

Lord, give me the confidence to enter the cloud, to leave behind the security of the senses and to immerse myself in you. Amen. 

Small town, big history

The participants on the Southwark-Zimbabwe-Rochester course all arrived at unearthly hours during the night. After brunch we left Jerusalem and headed north to Galilee and Nazareth. That is where we now are. 

We travelled alongside the separation wall on the way out of Jerusalem

The wifi is a bit of a trial here so I’m typing this with one finger on my phone and this is simply to explain that there won’t be a proper blog until I can find a way to do it. But already I’m thinking about this town. Now it has 85,000 inhabiatants; in Jesus’ day perhaps less than 200. 15-20 families may have lived here. This was a small town but with a big story to engage with. Fascinating ideas. 

When the people rejected Jesus and his teaching, because they knew him and his family, it seems harsh. 

‘Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?’ (Matthew 13.55)

But he was the lad who had, metaphorically, kicked his ball against their wall. That makes a big difference. 

So – thoughts about this place. And as we walk the streets of Nazareth tomorrow new things to be discovered. 

Jesus, son of Nazareth, bless our homes and communities and the places in which we are too well known to make a difference. Amen. 

The Hooker test

Today in the Anglican calendar we are remembering Richard Hooker, the apologist of Anglicanism, the one who charted the via media that we attempt to travel, sometimes more successfully than at others. What I always associate with Hooker is that idea of the three-legged stool that Anglicans seek to sit on, the stool of scripture, reason and tradition. All three legs need to be of equal length to produce stability! I was thinking about this as I went out today to do a few things I hadn’t yet done and wanted to do before the Southwark-Zimbabwe course gets underway tomorrow.

I began by walking the southern ramparts.  One the first day I was here I did the northern ramparts but hadn’t got onto the other section which goes from Jaffa Gate to the area close to Dung Gate.  Climbing up on the walls does give you good views, but to be honest if you are going to do one section, and you have to pay separately for both, then the northern, from Jaffa to Herod’s Gate, gives better views over the city.  What the southern section does, however, is to give you views across to Mount Zion and the wonderful Dormition Abbey.

Mount Zion and the Dormition Abbey


So, when I left the walls I went into the Mount Zion area. I hadn’t yet been to David’s Tomb and the Cenacle and that is partly because I’ve been to both on many occasions and also because both of them are questionable in terms of authenticity.

In fact they are both part of the same building which is gothic and dates from the Crusader period.  The tomb, which is on the ground floor, is in fact a Cenotaph; the Upper Room, directly above it, a vaulted space, elegant but clearly not the room in which Jesus ate the Last Supper with his disciples.  So why are Jews downstairs and Christians upstairs and both groups equally entering into the experience?

The Cenacle


I think that we can apply our Anglican understanding to all of this. Take the Cenacle for instance and apply the Hooker test.

Scripture – all the gospels talk about a room in which Jesus shared this final meal with the twelve. (Matthew 26.17-30; Mark 14.12-26; Luke 22.7-39; and John 13.1-17.26). So this is well attested by scripture but no real location is given.

Reason – anyone with a simple knowledge of architecture knows on entering the Upper Room that this couldn’t have been the place, or certainly that this room was not the actual room. So no reasonable person can be expected to believe this to be THE place.

Tradition – archaeologists suggest that this site was special to the Christian community from the 2nd century and may well have been the site of the ‘the little church of God’ as described by Epiphanius of Salamis (315-403) as having been in existence since 130 AD. So there is a well established tradition that this was the site and the early church revered it.

As I sat in the room and tried to think this through I found it helpful in not just rejecting the place out-of-hand. The group who had been in the room when I arrived left and I had the place to myself and its peaceful, prayerful character returned.

On leaving I saw that there was an arrow pointing up some stairs I hadn’t noticed on previous more frantic visits.  The roof above the Cenacle is now accessible and gives some good views over the area.  I was on the quest though for other roofs.

The view from the roof of the Cenacle


One thing I hadn’t done was to find the steps that lead onto a section of the roofs over the souq.  So I set out through the Jewish Quarter and found the right street and the metal steps leading up.  The rooftops are used by Jews who wish to avoid walking too much through the Muslim Quarter.  Children were playing up there, men were talking.  Through grills which let out the heat and some of the exotic spice laden smells from the markets beneath, you can see the activity below. But up there is another world with another perspective on this city.

The Star of David inscribed into the rooftop promenade


Finding fresh perspectives is important and there are so many ways of looking at this amazing, multi-faceted, beautiful and fractured city.  It has been wonderful to have the time to get to know it so much better, but I still don’t understand it.  But being here brings scripture alive, tests the reason, and immerses tourist, pilgrim and questioner in tradition, Jewish, Muslim and Christian. Some may wish to escape the reality of the place by walking across the roofs but actually it is in the streets along which a man dragged a cross that real life is being lived out, daily. I sat in a barbers shop waiting whilst a young barber sculpted the hair of a young man.  ‘Where are you from?’ he asked. ‘London’ I said. ‘Arsenal!’ he replied.  Then he said ‘People are bad here.’ His English wasn’t good enough to take it much further and he went back to the hair cutting.

It’s not that people are bad in this city but from any perspective life here is complicated and at times brutal and that brings out the worst but also, at times, the best in people. By the way, I didn’t get my hair cut.  The complicated sculpting of his customer’s head of hair was just going to take too long, so my ‘buzz cut’ will just have to wait!

God you enter our reality
and bring a new perspective.
Bless the people of Jerusalem
and may your peace be their reality.