Sunday, June 17th, 2001
Exploring Jerusalem

I spent the morning of June 17th doing something I have come to enjoy on this trip more than anything else . . . I was praying about, meditating on, and reading through the scriptures. After lunch, my friend Abraham and I traveled into Jerusalem to St. Savior's monastery to meet up with one of the other friars. Abraham had arranged for an Irish priest named "Frederico" to guide us through the Old City. Frederico was a warm and highly intelligent priest who spoke excellent English (with a slight Irish accent of course), possessed a very witty tongue, and was greatly unselfish with his time. He only had a few hours to spend with us, because he had to officiate a mass. However, he was able to be an excellent tour guide and told me many things about the history of Jerusalem that I would not normally have heard (including many tidbits from the Christian perspective).

Father Frederico in the marketplace

One of the first places we visited was the "Upper Room." This is the place where the Catholic Church "celebrates" the day of Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit was first given to the early church. It was an interesting building, but did not grab my attention. Both my guidebook as well as father Frederico stated that there was great controversy concerning the Upper Room and that it was probably not the legitimate site of the Upper Room. However, it makes for a good tourist activity, which is unfortunately what a good deal of the city has become about.

From the Upper Room, we visited the Church of the Dormition (which disturbed me - yet another "Mary Monument") and we saw the Tower of Antonio (which historians believe is one of two possible locations where Christ may have been condemned to death by Herod. To get to many of the spots in Jerusalem, Father Frederico, Abraham, and I found ourselves walking down different portions of the Via Dolorosa. The Via Dolorosa commemorates the traditional route that Christ took from his condemnation to his death at Golgotha. Of course, all of these points are in contention as historians disagree as to where Christ was condemned and no one knows for certain where he was crucified or buried. Even so, the various Stations of the Cross evoke a certain spiritual reflection that is powerful and moving (I commented on the Via Dolorosa on the June 11 entry).

After spending an interesting time in the Church of the Flagellation, we breezed through a number of interesting sites including the Tomb of King David (also regarded as not having authenticity) and we checked out a huge, underground cistern. Descending the tunnel to get to the cistern, truly gave one a "feeling of archaeology" with its narrow passageways and twisting contours. Afterwards, we began a lengthy stay at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This immense church was a project of Helena, the mother of Constantine, who was a Christian and established many of the "official" Holy sites in Jerusalem. As legend has it, she was shown in a dream where the true Golgotha was located and she ordered her servants to excavate there. Upon discovering the location, they also uncovered a cross. To test the authenticity of the cross, she instructed a recently deceased person to be placed on the cross and he reportedly came back to life! This confirmed for all people present that they had found the one, true cross of Christ and the location of his death.

In a related story, I own some swampland in Florida . . .

pathway to an ancient cistern

Abraham was forever smiling

beautiful dome above the Garden Tomb

one of the Guardians

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was built around the location of Golgotha and incorporates not only his place of crucifixion, but also the garden tomb where he was raised from the dead (the tomb of Joseph of Armithea). It was a very solemn location and one of incredible beauty, size, and spiritual energy.

another beautiful dome

centerpiece of the dome

Soldiers stand before the Calvary rock

Golden altar at Calvary

an incredible mosaic near Golgotha

my friar friends have a chat

However, the most interesting thing about the church had nothing to do with the church itself, but with something called the "Status Quo." The Status Quo is a term that we are very familiar with and use quite frequently. In fact, within the last two years I had written a poem entitled, "Status Quo." However, I learned in Jerusalem what it really means. Webster's dictionary defines it as, "The existing condition or state of affairs" and it usually denotes "settling" for something politically neutral and/or mediocre.

The original Status Quo of the Holy Places was a document issued by the Ottoman Turks in 1852 and later reaffirmed in Article LXII of the Treaty of Berlin (1878). The Status Quo established and froze all rights to Holy sites including those of the Holy Sepulcher. Whatever rights existed prior to the agreement, were guaranteed after. Rights that were not maintained would be forfeited. Thus, a constant presence at these sites is required.

And it also seems that the Status Quo has guaranteed that an extreme and humorous form of overprotective anality will also be present for years to come. Three main groups control the church (Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Orthodox) yet; three other groups have control of at least one section (Ethiopian, Egyptian Copt, and Syrian churches). Each of these churches vigilantly defends their "rights" to different portions of the church. The Status Quo causes huge disputes; as the various groups must pass through each other group's sections to gain access to their own, lean up against other group's walls to make repairs, or time the start and completion of their services to accommodate and correspond to the services of the other groups.

The original Status Quo document of 1852 denied all guardianship rights to the Russian Orthodox Church. This act so angered czar Nicholas I that he started the Crimean War, which lasted over three years from 1853-1856. The costs of the war to all sides exceeded half a million lives lost and the equivalent of half a trillion dollars. Yet wars over the Status Quo are still being fought today. If you have the time and interest, read this brilliant article on "The Church and the Ladder Frozen in Time" by Dr. James E. Lancaster, and a newer conflict over the proposed "new exit" to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (a clear violation of the Status Quo).

I found the Status Quo to be even more fascinating than the church. However, the church was incredible as well. I was especially taken with the heaviness and holiness of the various sites. Each of them was reflective and solemn. However, I remained a skeptic as to their authenticity. As I saw people touch "Calvary," and bow down to worship and kiss the stone where Jesus' body was supposedly prepared for burial (actually, it is not even the same stone, but one that the Catholic church has openly admitted to have replaced several times throughout the centuries due to wear), I was very taken back. When encouraged to "touch" Calvary, I vehemently refused. It just rubbed me the wrong way and I didn't want to touch it. My refusal was met with a certain degree of disbelief, "you don't want to touch the place where Jesus was crucified?!!!" It was an odd moment.

The "Garden Tomb" was another of these places. It evoked tears in many and there was a great deal of emotion throughout the area. I too was emotional, despite my beliefs concerning the authenticity of the site. The bottom line was that there were people shedding tears for the crucifixion and treatment of my Savior, and that was something that translated well to me despite the cultural and language barriers.

While waiting to depart, a UN soldier approached us and asked us in broken English if we had any paper and a writing instrument. He was a Ukrainian soldier, part of a group that had been touring the church with us. However, the group had departed some time ago and he was apparently lost. He took the piece of paper and the only writing utensil that I had (a yellow highlighter) and began writing something. Abraham noted that he was writing names. It turns out that he was writing the names of his ancestors to give to the Ukrainian priests, so that they could pray his relatives out of purgatory (or something like that).

After visiting the Holy Sepulcher, we bid farewell to the noble Father Frederico and got on a sharut back to Bethlehem. On the way back, we were riding with a woman and her two daughters. They were Palestinians from the community back in Bethlehem. The two girls were probably in their late teens or early twenties. Throughout the trip, they kept looking back at Abraham and I and giggling. They must have thought we were cute or something; who knows?

When we finally got to Bethlehem, they insisted on paying for our fare, despite our insurgence. We finally let them do it and thanked them kindly for the gesture. As we left, the girls giggled and waved to us as we went through the checkpoint. I assumed they were flirting with me since my buddy had a certain knot in his belt that would seem to make him unappealing, and I was clearly a rich American, which would seem to make me very appealing (all Americans are viewed as rich in third-world countries . . . and by comparison and through God's grace they are).

After returning to Bethlehem, I went with Abraham to a small restaurant across Manger Square to enjoy a falafel and talk for a while. It was a very nice time. I learned a lot more about Abraham and we enjoyed hanging out together. I have become very fond of the falafel and will sorely miss them upon my return to the states. For about $2.50, you can get a huge sandwich that makes a pretty good little meal.

Manger Square is a very intriguing place, filled with a great deal of activity both day and night. Manger Square is usually the site of all significant political and religious activities. Last year there was a huge rally here in the Square to celebrate the Jubilee 2000 and the turn of the millennium. Both Pope John Paul II and Yassar Arafat were in attendance. In the evenings, the children play soccer in the square center. In fact, I have never seen the square at a time when there have not been children playing. (Note: shortly after leaving the holy land, a 17 year old boy would be shot through the head and killed by soldiers in that same square).

You may download my Israel 2001 screensavers at Webshots



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