Wednesday, 3 December 2008

jerusalem (5) - the apprentice

View from the Quarter Cafe towards the Mount of Olives

Some people may be familiar with a T.V. programme called The Apprentice. In this show Sir Alan Sugar sets out to find an apprentice who will come and work for him after successfully completing a series of challenges in competition with other contestants on the show. One of the tasks set is to send the candidates out in groups to a foreign city with various tasks to complete and there are often disastrous results. Well today on the course we were split into groups and sent to different quarters of the old city with various questions and challenges but without the fear of hearing Sir Alan say you’re fired at the end of the day. My group was sent to the Jewish quarter to look round, get a feel of the layout and culture of the place and to meet someone who lived there. It was a very good way of getting to know an area and some of the people and at the end of the exercise there was some fascinating feedback. One group for example had actually met the Armenian Archbishop and others had been the recipients of very generous hospitality.

The Jewish quarter stands out because it is very different from other parts of the old city. Many of the buildings are more modern having been built since 1967, there are synagogues all over the place, the area is quieter and the streets are clearer with few of the market stalls that are the feature of the rest of the old city. The people are for the most part easily identifiable by their religious dress, hair cuts and language (Hebrew rather than Arabic) and many seem to be ‘walking with a purpose’ around the streets. There was a clear military presence and groups of young conscripts were being walked around the area as part of their training. We ate lunch in a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Western Wall area with superb views across the Al-Aqsa Mosque to the Mount of Olives. I made sure I paid my bill because the restaurant owner had a gun strapped to his belt and looked like he knew how to use it!

My colleagues and I enjoyed a very pleasant chat with a young woman who ran a shop at the beginning of the Cardo, a shopping arcade area in the Jewish quarter with lots of jewellery shops and art galleries and very different from the heaving market streets in the rest of the old city. Michelle and her husband Nathan had moved from Canada a few months ago and her enthusiasm and joy at living and working in Jerusalem communicated something of the frontier spirit attitude that many of the younger Israelis in the city seem to have. One of our tasks was to buy a souvenir from the area to sum up our visit so we went for a print of the Western Wall, however, one of the other groups did much better by producing sweet cakes from the Moslem quarter for all the course members to share.

Appartments in the Jewish Quarter with an excavation of some of First Temple Jerusalem underneath.

Over the last couple of days I have continued to think about the whole issue of holy places and pilgrimage. I’ve been reading a very useful book by Graham Tomlin and Peter Walker entitled: Walking in His Steps which has helped me to distil some of my thoughts. They suggest that we shouldn’t see these places as holy in the sense of being mysterious channels to get through to God; nor should we view them as places where there is some special presence of God. These places are not sacramental in the sense of being a means of grace and there is a danger that if we see some places as being particularly holy, we may lose sight of all the other places in the world where God is at work; because they don’t look particularly holy or religious they could be ignored or somehow seen as less important. The places where we live and work and worship in our everyday lives for example are supposed to be holy in the sense that God should be present and at work there as much as anywhere else.

Walker and Tomlin do suggest that we might find it helpful to think of the places as holy as a way of acknowledging the significance of these places to us as human beings of what has happened there in Christian history; these places can be special to us within human history, places of memory and association. Their way of describing this is to see these places as ‘holy’ in a historical rather than theological sense. These are sites of significance within religious history, so we may not want to venerate them but we should profoundly respect them and the impact they have had on people who have visited them.

‘What gives these biblical sites their extra potency (compared , say, with a site of secular history) is that they bring together in a unique way two vital strands in our faith: its foundation in past historical events and its experience of the living God in the here and now. So for people of faith, those who have encountered God in Jesus Christ, such places can deepen their imagination and renew their faith in striking ways as they reflect on what their Lord did in this location.’

The second insight from the book on this matter is the reminder that Christians have travelled to these sites to pray, reflect and remember upon the events that took place there for centuries. So the holiness may be seen to derive from the devotion and the love of the Christians who have been there over the years and when we visit we are aware of ‘the great cloud of witnesses, those who have lived, prayed, worshipped in these very places in the past’. This is helpful when it comes to the question of whether the events accorded to them really took place at particular sites. It is because of a site’s association with an event and that generations of Christians have come to pray and meditate there, that the place ‘has a power to concentrate our minds and hearts …… and therefore to refresh and reinvigorate our faith.’

Tomorrow we head off early for Bethlehem so a good opportunity to reflect further on these matters. Shalom.


Anonymous said...

Fascinated by your journey and observations. Look forward to the next instalment. Note the sunshine, we are experiencing sub zero temperatures. See you soon. Dave chest

Tim Goodbody said...

Hi Philip,
In in teh Holy Land 97 with Graham and Pete we came up with a term "antecedent holiness" to indicate the difference between somewhere (say your local church) that you see as holy becase of what you experience there, and somewhere (like the Temple steps or the sea of Galillee or wherever you are going next) where things actually happened.