This week, thirty-six St. John's Pilgrims stood on the Mount of Olives, looking across the Kidron Valley to the Holy City -- a breathtaking view to be sure. Down in the Old City, we walked the mile-long route of the Via Dolorosa (Way of the Cross) from the Antonia Fortress built by Herod the Great to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Anyone who tours here quickly learns that there are sometimes differences of opinion about where a particular event recounted in the Gospels actually took place. This can be frustrating for pilgrims who naturally want to know where "X" marks the spot... the spot where Jesus prayed in the garden, the spot where Jesus celebrated the Last Supper, the spot where Jesus stood before Pilate, the spot where Jesus was crucified, the spot where Jesus was buried and appeared first to Mary risen from the dead. For example, and without going into explanations, while the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is favored by most archaeologists to be the location of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, others consider the so-called Garden Tomb outside the current Old City walls to be more evocative of Jesus’ death and risen appearances. So who is right? Which location marks the spot? We simply can't know for sure.
It was thrilling to travel to Mary's home in Magdala and see the first century synagogue that Jesus no doubt attended and even taught in when visiting his friend and follower; or to walk up the very steps to the famed Triple Gate which Jesus himself would have used to enter the Jerusalem Temple from the south. But admittedly, we found no 1st century graffiti boasting, "Jesus was here!" -- I think that kind of evidence is called (1) "the Gospels," (2) some first century writings by historians like Josephus, and don’t forget (3) the massive cultural evidence of a world that has been indelibly marked by Jesus’ words and works.
But the larger point is that regardless of where we place the "X" marking the events of Jesus’ life and passion in this Holy Land, we sensed that the importance of the journey was more than finding another "X" and snapping another photo for our memory books, but to respond to what happened here with genuine curiosity, faith, and love. If "X" is the first letter in the Greek word for Christ (Χριστός) often appearing in ancient churches, then to know that our hearts are marked with the "X" where Christ himself lives and works is most important of all.
Hope to see you all on July 8th, when I return with my fellow pilgrims to share more about our journey to Israel/Palestine.