Above: Overlooking the Mitzpe Ramon Crater, Negev Desert, Israel. (Credit: Natalie Bennett)
Recently I returned from 18 days in Israel and Jordan. Together with my family we toured biblical sites, and immersed ourselves in the complicated history of the nations’ cultural significance.
There’s much to digest about we saw, not least of which is how very green it was, and how unlike all the stereotypes many of the communities were. Yet coming into Easter, it is Jerusalem’s link to Jesus’ death and resurrection that I’m dwelling on.
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There are two sites in Jerusalem where Jesus’ tomb may have been. Both have enough archaeological evidence to warrant their claims, and neither charge an entry fee (although one does have a gift shop).
The first is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Combining Romanesque, Byzantine and Baroque architectural influences, it’s a grand structure to behold. Inside, it’s even more ornate, with vast mosaic ceilings decorating every crevice, adorned with gold, ruby-red and bright blue trimmings. Built to preserve the site of Jesus’ death and resurrection, throngs of tourists clamour to touch a stone on the hill of Calvary.
A small hole allows limited contact with the mount, but the crowd urgently seek to participate in the practice. Hundreds more wait to see Jesus’ tomb, with a rope-lined queue snaking around ‘The Aedicule’ (a 19th century shrine covering the site). You have to have Disneyland-like commitment to get your turn, with at least two hours’ wait time ahead of you. I’m sure I saw kids being shoved to the front!
The other is The Garden Tomb – a tranquil leafy retreat with poppies, lavender and small yellow daisies scattered along winding gravel paths. Visitors stop and pray in a small stone chapel, with gentle melodies of worship spilling from its doorway. Jesus’ tomb sits to the left, embedded in an unassuming rock wall. Its entry is narrow, with waiting pilgrims lining up to duck their heads and step over the threshold. Once you do, cold stone surrounds you.
Hovering overhead, the stone encapsulates you, creating a feeling of intimacy in an otherwise dull cavern. Despite the simplicity of the space, the weight of what it represents is tangible. Whether Jesus really lay here or not, to physically visualise the hopeful sorrow of His burial, and the power of His present absence, awakens a new sense of His love.
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The two sites couldn’t be more different. One carries the nature and tone of a loving and gentle Jesus, the other, a symbol of humanity’s propensity for distraction.
Standing at these locations, I was burdened to take one truth into Easter anew: Jesus desires relationship with us, not to just be famous, adored and revered. He didn’t come to be a religious icon, but as the Son of God and Saviour of the world. Society may write off His life and death as an intriguing historical marker, but His resurrection cannot be overlooked. That Jesus died and rose again distinguishes Him from all other prophets and ‘wise guys’ we admire. The resurrection cements Jesus’ identity as God incarnate, and gives living power to every prayer and promise we hold onto today.
Many religions in Israel cling to ancient traditions, and limit God’s activity to a bygone era. For the Christian though, because of Jesus that’s not the case.
“This Easter, don’t get lost in the traditions of church services and hot cross buns, but thank God there’s no other name but His that brings salvation.”
This Easter, as you contemplate the significance of the occasion, can I encourage you not to get lost in the traditions of church services and hot cross buns, but to truly take a moment to thank God there’s no other name but His that brings salvation. Thank God that you’ve found relationship with Jesus Christ, and pray for the many who are yet to.
In a world with fluctuating sources of meaning and relevance, especially in Israel where countless political powers have had their day, the one dynasty that’s survived them all is that of Jesus Christ.
This year, may we all get a deeper understanding of why.