Faith seen anew in the eyes of Jerusalem

  • August 7, 2013

I’ve just returned home from Jerusalem, mind and heart overflowing. Of many illuminating experiences requiring reflection and expression, I begin with my visit to Calvary.

One day, I walked with companions from the Lion’s Gate towards Jaffa Gate, in the Christian Quarter of the Old City. We were seeking the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — venerated as the location of Jesus’ crucifixion, entombment and resurrection.

Many spots in the Holy Land are dedicated to incidents in Jesus’ life. The Holy Sepulchre has long tradition and evidence to support its being the site of Golgotha, though debate continues. The precise location is not a tenet of any faith, but for centuries this place has been a centre of faith (and conflict).

To get there, we walked along the Via Dolorosa — the route commemorating Jesus’ walk towards death. (Though the actual path He walked is several metres below street level.) We jostled and picked our way through narrow cobbled streets, crowded with sellers, merchandise and people of all sorts, trying to decipher our inadequate little map and interpret the occasional yellow signs. It was hot (a “dry heat,” for you Winnipeggers) but shaded by the buildings that closely line the streets. Appealing smells of food and beverage wafted by. We received persistent offers to purchase items as we passed (my favourite opening line: “Don’t you want to spend your husband’s money?”)

Throughout an extraordinary month of study in the Holy Land, I learned about Judaism, interfaith and international relations, history, sacrifice, conflict, faith. And Christianity. It was mindopening and heart-opening. The Holy Sepulchre adventure crystallized some of those experiences.

A few days before, a Jewish scholar gave us a historical tour which included this church. He also gave me a new way of seeing it, and I decided I must return. The reason for my being in Jerusalem was to study the book of Leviticus, guided by Jewish and Christian professors, and come to know more deeply the traditions of Judaism. For 30 years, the Sisters of Sion have supported this summer study program, Bat Kol. We studied the third book of the Old Testament while encountering the land, the people, their life of prayer — and each other, students from all around the world. The program follows the Second Vatican Council’s declaration that “the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is great,” and we must work for “that mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies as well as of fraternal dialogues” (Nostra Aetate 4).

With my companions’ help, I did find my way back to the Holy Sepulchre. Much can be said about this church, with its long, complex history. The church can seem a little odd, even crazy, to the observer.

In the 19th century, its ownership and care were definitively divided among quarrelling denominations. Today different churches control different portions, the largest belonging to the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics (Franciscans) and Armenian Orthodox. A ladder has leaned against a wall for a century — no one is allowed to move it, fearing further discord, though strife continues to break out at times. The church never goes on Daylight Saving Time, to prevent conflict over the extra hour.

I’d heard these stories, and they clouded my ability to see the site’s holiness. I wondered: What kind of Christian witness is this? Division and quarrelling in the name of Christ? Especially here, where inter-faith relations are so serious?

My introduction to this famous Christian church by our Jewish guide was part of the program. Noting the territorial patchwork the church is also famous for, he acknowledged we might find it unsettling. But, he continued, we might notice a unique, unrepeatable kind of Christian presence. Here, for instance, you can visit side-by-side a Catholic and an Orthodox sanctuary, and be present to both at once. You can see the dynamism of faith and life as nowhere else.

These words made me want to come back and pray at the spot where I could sit before both altars at once, give thanks for our faith and look at it anew. I wanted to hear how God receives the dazzling array of prayers offered in this Calvary where human sin was trumped by divine mercy.

The church was so crowded with tourists that I couldn’t contemplate the two altars without also contemplating humans — lively, messy, creative, sometimes noisy, ever seeking. I sat on the bare floor and watched the people, and absorbed the place, in all its strange beauty. Through a glass, darkly, I saw the fire that’s kindled when God and humanity come together.

I saw much in Jerusalem that recalls the anguish of the human race, as well as its vitality. I learned, that day, to look again at the broken places, and not be afraid of them or give up on them. I’m glad I accepted the unexpected invitation from another faith to see my own faith anew.

(Marrocco can be reached at