Bishop of Southwark - The Rt Revd Christopher Chessun
Six weeks ago, shortly after the beginning of Lent, I was in Jerusalem where with the Dean I was leading my third Diocesan Pilgrimage to the Holy Land
We were a happy band of about 90 pilgrims. Bonds of friendship were forged and renewed. Hearts were uplifted. Eyes were opened. We trod the very stones on which God, born as one of us, himself had trod two thousand years before.
For the first four days of our pilgrimage we stayed in East Jerusalem, just outside the Old City walls, close to the Damascus Gate, the entry to the Muslim quarter of the Old City. As it is so everywhere in the Holy Land, there were deep echoes and resonances in this place. It must have been through a gate in a similar position in the ancient city walls that Saul of Tarsus set out on his journey to Damascus, seeking, as he thought, to arrest the followers of Jesus, but destined instead to meet the Risen Lord on the Road to Damascus and to be himself taken captive. And today, of course, the road to Damascus has its own terrible and sad resonances as we reflect on the pitiless suffering of so many in Syria.
But of course uppermost in our minds as we trod these streets was the drama of Holy Week. It was from a different gate in the Eastern wall of Jerusalem, that we set out to walk the Via Dolorosa, the long straight road to Golgotha, which our most reliable traditions locate on what is now within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Slowly, some of us walking with great effort, we followed the Way of the Cross, with its fourteen stations, each challenging us to reflect, to pray and to identify in awe with Christ in his suffering as he carried his Cross and fell three times under the weight of it.
At different times and moments in our lives, different aspects of our journeys strike a chord and bring us to a deepening awareness of God’s loving purposes. This is particularly so on a shared pilgrimage when holy places, the Holy Scriptures, and God’s holy people come powerfully together. With the recent death of a very dear cousin much in mind, it was the Fourth Station in which Jesus meets his Mother which moved me deeply on that particular day. We bring our own losses to the foot of the Cross.
That long walk was in my thoughts, as I am sure it was in the minds of my fellow Pilgrims, this Friday, as we have all entered, so far as our courage and imagination has allowed, into that most terrible journey that our Lord suffered. And if we have entered into that journey, into the yearly repeated pilgrimage of Holy Week, not flicking ahead in the book to the amazing happenings on Easter day, but staying with the experience from which God did not exempt his only begotten Son, then we have done a good thing.
Besides the drama of the Via Dolorosa, however, there was something perhaps even more powerful in the experience of staying for four nights so close to the Old City. For one could at any time choose to step out of the door, turn right down noisy dual carriageway of Sultan Suleiman Street, find a gap in the central reservation, cross over, enter through the Damascus Gate, walk through the hubbub of market stalls on Beit Habab Street – more a tunnel than a street – and arrive, after fewer than a thousand paces, at the very place where the whole nature of our human existence was transformed.
The Synoptic Gospels do not tell us where the tomb was, but in John, in the verses just before those we have heard today, we read that Joseph of Arimathea, aided by Nicodemus, laid the body in a tomb that was in “a garden in the place where he was crucified” (Jn 20.41) And it is this that convinces us that our forebears were not wrong to build the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where they built it.
Thus the end point of the Via Dolorosa to which we had all walked, is in about the same place as that spot from which Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the resurrection, ran on that first morning to find John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and Peter, and to which they in turn ran.
We may imagine John arriving ahead of Peter, but, pausing on the threshold of the tomb, waiting for Peter, few seconds behind him, panting and flushed, and characteristically pushing past, eager to see what he has been told. But when they are both inside the tomb and they have both seen “the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself” (Jn 20:7) it is again John who is the quickest not only to see but to believe in what he has seen. We can perhaps imagine his mind working: a grave robber would surely have taken the cloths too; someone who had been merely revived, not resurrected, would not have the presence of mind to leave things so tidy. At any rate, it is John who first “saw and believed” (Jn 20.8)
This is our Easter story to which we must become witnesses too. God became one of us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and was put to a terrible death, making the Cross the instrument of redemption, with God then raising Jesus up to live eternally, as he will raise us up on the last day.
This is our hope, this is our truth. We are right to repeat this story, right to trust it and it is for us to retell it. But there is something uniquely powerful about staying just five minutes’ brisk stroll from the very spot where it took place. And what is so powerful is that it is both so ordinary as well as so utterly extraordinary.
These are narrow streets. The people in them are shopping for clothes and pastries and spices and soft fruits. It is a place where people have walked and sat and met for centuries. It is this place and not another. For all that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre tries to do honour in richness and beauty to the immensity of the story whose site it guards, it was in this very same place that God chose to change everything. It was in such an unpromising spot that the hope sprang up which will never disappoint those who come to understand the nature of faith, hope and love. It was on these stones and not on other stones that the Saviour walked to his cruel death and appeared first to Mary Magdalene in the garden.
Let us hold to this, this Easter season. Mary ran, her feet landing on some stones and not on others. John ran faster than Peter. They like us were challenged to believe something which all but defied belief which is why the gospel accounts of the revelation of the risen Lord describe their seeing first and only more slowly realising what they were seeing as sight was matched by belief.
And there was, indeed, something different about the risen Jesus. Although his risen body bore the wounds of his passion, what had been sown perishable had been raised imperishable. Just as the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24. 13-35) did not recognise the risen Lord at first, so Mary, until she hears his voice calling her by her name, thinks that Jesus is the gardener. He has been changed, just as we too “will all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet” (1Cor. 15. 51-2). Yet later, at another particular place – another of the places we were able to visit on our pilgrimage, the risen Jesus sat on the shore of the Sea of Galilee with his disciples, eating fish for breakfast.
This is the remarkable fact of the Christian life. This is what the Priests of Classical Paganism, the devotees of the Mystery Cults, and the Gnostics, all thought foolish about us. And it was with these alternative world views in mind that Paul wrote to the Corinthians “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom” (1Cor. 1.25) The remarkable fact is that our ordinary life, here and now, in this place and not another, is shot through with eternity and in Holy Week wherever Christians gather together it is as if we are walking the streets of Jerusalem for we are all following in the steps of Jesus.
There is no special meaning, no hidden password, no occult secret into which we need to be initiated. God raised Jesus to eternal life near what is now a street market. The hope which he unleashed upon the world on that extra-ordinary day in that ordinary place, is our most extraordinary hope, here and now, in our ordinary days and ordinary places and here in this sacred space where many have come day by day each and every day of Holy Week; and many come day by day each and every day of each and every year and have done so for 1400 years.
“This is the Lord for whom we have waited” (Is. 25.9): a human being like us, yet also immortal God, who entered into our ordinary life to bring our ordinary life into the eternal. So, then, as we walk these streets, as we sit at home, as we go to our work places and our schools, in the midst of the divine ordinariness, and the extraordinary divine, “let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” (Is. 25.9).
Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!