First Lent Reflection: What makes Jerusalem sacred?


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At the foot of Mount Sinai in Egypt, lies this ancient monastery of St. Catherine. (Slide 2). There has been a religious community there since at least the fourth century, when Christians sought a more austere life in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine to practice their faith.

This building – at least, the basilica and the surrounding walls – were built by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. (Slide 3) It is claimed to be the oldest continuously inhabited monastery in the world. The site includes, in addition to the living quarters and refectory, a library of ancient religious texts and a museum with some of the most famous icons known.

It also houses this unprepossessing bush – (Slide 4) a variety of the raspberry or blackberry family known nowhere else in the world. This, by tradition, is the Burning Bush of Moses from the reading we just heard. It is said to have grown there since the time of Moses, and is depicted in this 12th century icon in the museum there. (Slide 5)

But when Moses had that life-changing encounter with God in the middle of the desert while he was keeping an eye on the sheep, there was nothing about the location that made it special. It was just another bit of desert in the vast expanse of the Sinai wilderness. In Jewish tradition, it was the event that was sacred. It was only later Christian tradition that chose to mark a particular spot as the location for the sacred event.

Christianity likes to make places sacred. So the first question from my thesis is – what was it that made Jerusalem sacred, and how did it become to be regarded as such?

The answer may appear obvious – this was the place where key events in the Gospels happened. Here Jesus walked and talked, lived and died – and rose again. This is the heart of it all. But it’s not as simple as that. During the first few centuries of the Christian faith, the primary Holy City of the faith was not Jerusalem but Rome. Not only was this the centre of the empire, but also the place of martyrdom under successive persecutions. Rome became the pre-eminent Christian city, and remained so for centuries. Jerusalem was an insignificant backwater of the Empire.

Slide 6 – maps

The main reason for this was that in AD 70 – some 30-40 years after the crucifixion – the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem, ousted the Jewish rebels who were holding it, and then set about killing or expelling the whole of the Jewish population. This included the first Christians, who were still considered a Jewish sect. They tore down and burned the great Temple which Jesus knew, and laid waste to the whole of the religious parts of the city. It became a wasteland, and in the subsequent century the whole layout of the city was altered, rebuilt as a roman city with a new layout, and the usual great central street, the Cardo Maximus, acting as the central axis of all traffic and activity. Virtually nothing of Jewish – or Christian – Jerusalem from the time of Jesus was left.

So even if the Christians of the early centuries had wanted to commemorate the places of the key events of Jesus’ life, the places were submerged under the new city layout with streets, shops, forum and temples to the Roman Gods.

Thus it remained for several centuries. Change began in the early years of the fourth century. The Roman emperor of the west, Constantine, won a decisive victory over the emperor of the East, Maxentius, at a bridge called the Milvian bridge over the river Tiber in Rome. Constantine marched triumphantly on to the capital of the East, Byzantium, renamed it after himself – Constantinople, and established himself there. (That’s current day Istanbul).

But the night before his decisive battle, Constantine had had a great vision. He had seen a blazing cross in the sky, and heard a voice saying ‘In this sign conquer’. Convinced that he had won his victory with the blessing of the Christian God represented by the cross, he issued an edict making Christianity a tolerated religion within the Empire and bringing an end to Christian persecution and restoring property to Christian families.  His mother Helena, already a devout Christian, then set out on a grand imperial visit to Palestine in 326-328, the last years of her life. As part of her visit, she sought the  location of key places associated with the life of Jesus – his birth at Bethlehem, his death and resurrection in Jerusalem, and his Ascension on the mount of Olives. The building of Churches on these sites to facilitate pilgrimage was authorised. (Slide 8)

The problem was that no-one knew exactly where the events had taken place. In particular the destruction and rebuilding of Jerusalem by the Romans had caused massive changes to the topography of the city. And yet, it seems possible if not probably that local Christian groups had somehow retained a memory of the location of Golgotha and passed it on through the generations.

This residual locational memory identified a place now overbuilt by a great temple dedicated to either Jupiter or Venus. Constantine ordered its destruction and an archaeological excavation, at the initiative of Macarius, then Bishop of Jerusalem. The historian Eusebius (then Bishop of Caesarea with jurisdiction over Jerusalem) was doubtful about the possibility of identifying the tomb of Christ, but was convinced when he witnessed the excavation in around 338AD. He records that after the pagan temple had been demolished and all the stone and timber removed from the area:

As layer after layer of the subsoil came into view, the venerable and most holy witness of the Saviour’s resurrection, beyond all our hopes, came into view: The holy of holies, the cave, was, like our saviour, restored to life, by its very existence bearing clearer testimony to the resurrection of the saviour than any words’[1]

Tantalisingly, he gave no clue as to what made him so certain that it was the authentic place. Certainly, no other site has been identified with a better claim.

The identification of a place which could be associated with the memory of the death and resurrection of Jesus became paramount. From the fourth century onwards, the site identified by Eusebius provided a physical link between the account of Jesus’ death and resurrection in the gospels and a specific location in Jerusalem. ‘Constantine created, for the first time, a Christian “Holy Land”’.[2]

(Slide 8)

Jerusalem then became a place of Christian pilgrimage. We know much of this from the writing of a nun named Egeria, who made in 381-384 made a three year pilgrimage round all the holy places from her home, probably in Spain, across the northern Mediterranean countries and down to Sinai itself. She writes with engaging simplicity of her visits to the holy places and her experiences and encounters there. By this time Constantine’s shrine over the tomb of Christ was completed and in use as a major pilgrimage site. This included not just visitors from across the Christian world, but also local Christians, particularly at festivals such as holy week and Easter, for whom the whole city provided the opportunity to take part in extensive vigils, processions and liturgies commemorating the last days of the life of Jesus and his resurrection at Easter. (quote ) Egeria, Bradshaw p. 174

After the building of the pilgrimage churches, the concept of Jerusalem as a Holy City was further developed by Cyril, who became Bishop of Jerusalem in 350AD.[3] He regarded Jerusalem as a place where Christians encountered the presence of Christ in a distinctively tangible way: ‘For others only hear, but we both see and handle,’ he claimed.[4] The importance of ‘seeing and handling’ which Cyril emphasised is linked with the relic of the ‘true cross’ on which Jesus was crucified. The facts surrounding the legendary discovery of this relic are obscure. Eusebius does not mention it in his description of the uncovering of the tomb itself. However, Cyril claimed that ‘the holy wood of the Cross bears witness, seen among us to this day, and from this place now almost filling the whole world, by means of those who in faith take portions from it’.[5]

Egeria describes devotion to the wood of the true cross as a fixed part of the Good Friday liturgy when she visits Jerusalem in 384AD.[6] Egeria Bradshaw 175 Legend ascribes the discovery and authentication of the true cross to Constantine’s mother Helena, who visited Jerusalem in c. 325-327AD; but there is no historical information to substantiate this discovery.[7] It has been argued that Eusebius might have deliberately omitted reference to the cross and to Golgotha in his description, so as to focus on the empty tomb as witness to the resurrection.[8] The wood of the cross nonetheless quickly became a potent and highly prized relic, as a substitute for his physical body, and fragments of it spread across the Christian world.[9]

The church built by Constantine at the site of the tomb of Christ was a massive place. (Slide 9  plan; slide 10 reconstruction, slides 11, 12, 13 Citadel museum model, slide 14 reconstruction, slide 15 edicule).

The establishment of major pilgrimage shrine churches at three sites identified with the major events of Jesus life: his birth, his death, burial and resurrection, and his ascension by Constantine had encouraged this sense of the sacred. It became possible from the fourth century onwards for Christians to tangibly recall these events, not just by visiting the land and walking in the steps of Jesus, but also to see, touch and venerate the places associated with him. Thus, pilgrims began for the first time to recreate through ritual what Jesus had done in history.

The story of the subsequent fate of this great church is also the story of the rise and fall of empires in that tangled area of the middle east, the crossing point of trade routes and invading armies. I’m not going to relay all of the intervening history as the land changed hands time and time again, and the great church underwent successive destruction and rebuilding through fire, deliberate iconoclasm, and neglect. But somehow, despite all that, the site remained identifiable and distinctive as the heart of the Christian faith. When the crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099 they rebuilt the church, albeit on a much smaller scale and with a very different layout. (slide 16)  They ruled in Jerusalem for two centuries and built many other churches commemorating events in the life of Christ. After the fall of the crusader rule, the various ruling Muslims authorities continued to allow pilgrims to visit the city, albeit often with considerable restrictions. Jerusalem became a city of three faiths – Muslim, Christian and Jewish, each with their own areas of the city and their own shrines and holy places.

The crusaders had seen themselves as pilgrims, albeit using military power to regain the city as Christian. Their achievement opened the way for subsequent generations to make the pilgrimage to the holy city and encounter for themselves the holy places.

The great resurgence of pilgrimage really occurred in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Much of this desire came from changing devotional and theological perspectives in late medieval Christianity – of which we will hear more in subsequent weeks.

But what I want to highlight now is how these practices had a huge focus on a tangible, physical experience. Medieval Christians like to touch things, to smell things, to hear things, to read things, to taste things, to look at things, to weep over things, and to kiss things, which deepened their devotional live. Art flourished, relics flourished, sacred objects flourished. It was this deep urge to ‘touch the sacred’ for themselves which undergirded medieval religious practice for lay people. Rosaries, reliquaries, sacred images and books were all treasured. (Slides 17-23)

Equally powerful in the medieval world was the use of the imagination. Devout lay Christians were encouraged to imagine themselves present at the events of gospels through devotional writings which helped them visualise those events for themselves in their minds as they prayed and meditated on the events. In particular, the focus during that period was on the passion of Christ – his suffering and his death. So for medieval Christians, it became a hugely powerful draw to visit the place of his crucifixion and imagine themselves present at the events through kneeling, touching, and kissing the places where this had happened.

The third practice which contributed to the sense of the sacred place was the sacramental life of the Church. The Eucharist was central to faith – again there was the tangible contact with the sacred through receiving the consecrated bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus. So the land where Jesus had been born and walked, where he had been put to death, where his body and been broken and his blood had been shed became a sort of sacramental space. The heart of Christianity is the incarnation – Jesus becoming human – and so encountering the holy places made this more real.

The fourth element of identifying with the sacred places was ritual practice. Christians were familiar with the idea of commemorating events of Jesus passion in the liturgies of Holy Week – Palm Sunday processions, Maundy Thursday commemorations of the last supper, Good Friday meditations before the Cross, accompanied by familiar words and music, hymns, chants and psalms, were all replicated and became more powerful in the city itself.

This is illustrated by the writing of the late 15th century Italian Franciscan, Francesco Suriano. His chapter headed ‘How the Touch of Christ Sanctified this Blessed Land’, describes how every part of the land had been sanctified by the presence and the touch of Jesus:

I wish to demonstrate to you how Christ by touch drew nearer to the Holy Land than to any other part of the world. […] There is not in it a mountain, a valley, a plain, a field, a fountain, a river, a torrent, a castle, a village, not even a stone, which the Saviour of the world did not touch, either with his most holy feet in walking, as he travelled backwards and forward in his preaching, or with his knees when he prayed to the Father, or in truth with his legs when fatigues from walking or when eating he sat down, or with his hands when thirsty he drank of the water, or with his forehead when he made profound genuflexions in prayer to the Father, or with his holy body when at the time of sleep, weary in body, he threw himself on the bare ground.[10]

He continued by writing of the land as being bathed in the sweat, the tears, and the blood of Jesus, concluding: ‘But this blessed land above all parts of the world had the greatest contact with him and therefore it is full of divine virtues and it is become a most holy habitation.’ Not only was the land holy, but ‘holy are the fruits, holy are the trees, holy are the timbers, […] holy is the bread, holy is the water, holy are the stones, holy are everything else’.[11] He saw no distinction between sacred and profane space in the whole of the land. Indeed, he also emphasises that there is a temporal quality in the sanctification: the use of the present tense in his writing suggests that this sacrality was not diminished by the passing of time between Jesus’ life and his own time.[12] For him, the whole land had been sanctified by the fact that here Jesus himself had lived and walked. The movement and travel across the land which was a distinctive part of Jesus’ itinerant ministry suggests that movement within and between places also brought an element of sanctification, which was echoed in the pilgrims’ own journeys, not just to the land but across and within it. Thus, for pilgrims, the whole land was sanctified by Jesus’ physical, incarnational presence, and this then brought a sacramental quality to their contact with the land as a whole and the holy sites in particular.

(slide 24)

Kissing – touching – tears were all ways in which pilgrims could express this physical contact with the holy places, and was a common part of the pilgrimage experience.

Thus the German Dominican Friar Felix Fabri, in 1483, writes as they first catch sight of Jerusalem:

When we beheld with our eyes the long-desired holy city, we straightway dismounted from our asses and greeted the holy city, bowing our faces to the ground, first greeting her King the Lord God , with the sign of the cross, and then addressing her in these words: Hail, Jerusalem, city of the great King . . .

When we had finished our prayer, we remounted our asses, having our eyes full of tears and our cheeks wet with joy” (Fabri I p. 280-1)

Later when they come to the Holy Sepulchre itself and to the mount of Calvary within the Church, he writes: (Slide 25)

And now, before our eyes was displayed that wondrous stone, that desirable rock, with its admirable socket-hole wherein the most holu cross bearing the crucified one was inserted – when we beheld these things, scared and bewildered at their exceeding holiness, we fell down upon our faces on the earth, and one heard no longer psalmody, but lamentation; no longer the singing of hymns, but wailings and groans. Noone was there who could withhold himself from tears and cries; for who could have so hard a heart that it would not be rent in that place, where he neheld before his eyes the hardest rock to have been rent? Who would not even weep aloud in the place where Christ, our God, cried with a loud voice as he hung upon the cross?. . . When we had finished our prayer, we went one after another to the holy rock, and each one as best he could, crawled to the socket hole of the cross, kissed the place with exceeding great devotion, and placed his face, eyes and mouth over the socket hole, from whence in very truth there breathes forth an exceeding sweet scent, whereby men are visibly refreshed. We put our arms and our hands into the hole down to the very bottom. (Fabri I p. 365)

This physical contact was deeply important to medieval pilgrims, as indeed it still is to today’s pilgrims who still touch, kiss and weep over the most sacred points in the city. It not only helped them feel close to Jesus, by their contact with the places associated with his life and death, but it also created a memory by that physical contact.  Next week we will be thinking more about memory – why it was so important for pilgrims to remember their experience and look at ways in which they used memory techniques to preserve their memories – tablets and memory sticks were as important in the 15th century as they are today!

(Slide 26)

For now – perhaps we might think about our own experience of sacred spaces and holy places?

What, for us, makes a place sacred? Is it a church like this for example or our own church, which is strongly imbued with memories of the growth of our faith and those who inspired it?

Is it a place which has become sanctified by an event or by history? A famous pilgrimage place or a shrine to a saint?

Is it a place where we have experienced an encounter with God at a deep level?

How have these experiences enriched and encouraged our own faith?

And perhaps – reflect on our own experiences of pilgrimage – is it the journey, or the destination, which is most important? Or a combination of both?

[1] Wilkinson, Egeria, p. 17

[2] Smith, To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual, p. 79.

[3] See Bonna D Wescoat and Robert G Ousterhout, Architecture of the Sacred: Space, Ritual, and Experience from Classical Greece to Byzantium (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 281-301.

[4] Cyril of Jerusalem Catechetical Lectures 13.22 [accessed 23.01.19]

[5] Cyril, Catechetical Lectures X.

[6] Egeria writes that the Wood of the Cross is brought out in a gold and silver box on Good Friday, the wood and the title are taken out of the box, and the faithful, one by one, go forward to touch the wood with their forehead, their eyes and then kiss it. She also notes that it is carefully guarded by deacons because on one occasion someone bit off a piece of the wood and stole it. Wilkinson, Egeria’s Travels, p. 155.

[7] See Hunt, Holy Land Pilgrimage in the Later Roman Empire AD 312-460, pp. 28-49.

[8] Cody C Unterseher, “The Holy Cross in the Liturgy of Jerusalem: The Happening at the Centre of the Earth,” Worship 85 (2001): 329–50. See also Morris, The Sepulchre of Christ and the Medieval West: From the Beginning to 1600, p. 17, for Eusebius’ reliability as a historical witness.

[9] See Annabel Jane Wharton, Selling Jerusalem: Relics, Replicas, Theme Parks (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2006), p 15. Through the medieval period contact relics such as thorns from the crown of thorns and even dust from the tomb became important, as well as Jesus’ preserved foreskin, held in the papal collection.

[10] Theophilus Bellorini et al., Francesco Suriano: Treatise on the Holy Land (Jerusalem: Franciscan Press, 1949), p. 28.

[11] Bellorini et al., p. 29.

[12] This assumes that the translation accurately reflects Suriano’s original Venetian dialect.

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