Donald T. Williams on a Few Facts I Learned in the Holy Land
Two weeks in Eretz Israel. What have I learned?
• An ibex (a kind of gazelle) is small, really not any bigger than a goat.
• Sunset over the Dead Sea turns the mountains of Jordan blood-red.
• Jesus was raised in a small mountain town. (Our bus could barely manage some of the switchbacks going up to Nazareth.)
• The Sea of Galilee would be at home in the English Lake District (minus the date palms).
• A rock badger is neither a rock nor a badger.
• The holier the site, the uglier the church.
• The Church of All Nations (in the Garden of Gethsemane) is an exception to this rule.
• Palestine is the Latin word for Philistia. After the Jewish revolts, the Romans renamed Judaea with this word to humiliate the defeated inhabitants, despite the fact that the Philistines had long since disappeared into the dustbin of history. The word has no historical connection to the people currently called Palestinians.
• The River Jordan is neither deep nor wide. There appears, though, to be milk and honey on both sides.
• Israelis and Palestinians really don’t trust each other.
• The Dome of the Rock is pretty in its own way, but quite simply out of place on the Temple Mount.
• One does not have to stand at the Wailing Wall to pray intensely—but it helps.
• Sermon on the Mount (Matthew) or on the Level Place (Luke)? The Mount of Beatitudes has both.
• The Muslims blocked up the Eastern Gate to prevent the Messiah from coming in. The Jews and Romans blocked up the Tomb to keep him from going out. The one attempt will likely prove as successful as the other.
• The Holy Land is truly a miraculous place. The same event there can have happened in two very different locations at the same time (or more).
• The Garden Tomb may or may not have been the actual place of the Resurrection (its tradition unfortunately is only a couple of centuries old), but it is what the Holy Sepulcher looked like two thousand years ago.
• The Church of the Holy Sepulcher may not be the actual place, either. Helena (the mother of Constantine) claimed to have found the True Cross there three hundred years after the fact. Maybe . . . but that is still a huge gap. But this site might have looked more like the Garden Tomb before a huge church was built on top of it.
• There was an actual place.
• It was empty on Sunday morning.
One cannot capture the impact of this country in words. You reach for profundities and find yourself grasping trivialities instead, on every attempt (as I have illustrated all too well above). But that is the genius of the Christian faith. It is rooted in history as the nexus of the Incarnation. It is rooted, in other words, in the concrete, mundane details of daily life and in simple facts.
And those facts, in their very mundane simplicity, rather than abstract ideas, are indeed our best handle on ultimate reality. (Not that ideas do not have their place, but they get their meaning from their relationship to those facts.) It is out of a host of stubborn, small facts that the most profound truths are revealed: facts like a baby crying in a borrowed feeding trough, the lame walking, the blind seeing, an unjust death, and an unexpectedly empty tomb; details that alone might seem to mean nothing, but when you put them all together . . .
When you put them together, you get something like this: Baruch attah Adonai, Elohenu, melek ha olam! Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who dost cause bread to spring forth from the earth—meaning from facts: Jesus from the tomb.
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“Wholly Grounded” first appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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