Gregory Tucker reflects on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and draws our attention to a church that is often overlooked
I have just finished re-reading H.V. Morton’s classic 1934 travel journal In the Steps of the Master. His lucid account of one of those typically English jaunts around foreign parts paints a more colourful picture of the Holy Land than many a modern lavishly illustrated guide book. Morton’s charming character portraits and beautifully narrated anecdotes capture that quality of innocence and timelessness which still pervades the land which Our Lord chose to grace with his human presence, in spite of all that has occurred there in the years between Morton’s journey and the present day.
I have been immensely privileged to have the opportunity to make pilgrimage to the Holy Land on six occasions since I began attending church some ten years ago. I recall the evening before my first visit – there had been an incident at the prison in Jericho, and it seemed for some hours that our trip would be cancelled – the priest who was leading the party told me that if I let it take hold of me, I would return as often as I could for the rest of my life.
The ‘it’ did certainly take a firm grip on my heart, and the draw of the Land, the memory of the sacred shrines, and, perhaps more than anything, the friendships that have emerged there, call to me to set this place as my destination above all.
I am quite sure that readers of ND will be familiar with the venerable Christian tradition of pilgrimage, and many will themselves, no doubt, have walked in the footsteps of our ancestors to the holy shrines of these islands – Walsingham, Canterbury, Lindisfarne… – or perhaps further afield, to Lourdes or Compostela or Guadalupe. You will recall how one is changed by the journey in company with friends old and new, how hopes and fears are met with mercy and grace. You will know the comfort of prayer in a place hallowed by sincere intercession, and the gift of renewed intimacy with Our Lord which comes in the places which he has set aside for his purpose of reconciliation and healing. You will know the deep attachment to these places of holiness which we often form so quickly, and the spiritual energy which sends us out from them to serve the world.
Witness to God’s presence
All of these things are, of course, true of pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The whole land is the shrine par excellence because the ancient land of Israel, the land of God’s chosen nation, is the stage on which the eternal drama of our creation and redemption was played out in time.
The very earth itself bears witness to the presence of God Incarnate. In this place, this place to which God led his people from captivity, this place where he established the great temple of the old covenant, where the psalmist praised God enthroned upon the cherubim, where the prophets spoke the truth of the Word, where Jeremiah lamented and Ezekiel saw the fiery glory, in this place God completed his work in his Son.
There is, then, profound meaning to be found in this Holy Land. A pilgrimage to this place, and individually to the shrines within its borders, is a step towards fleshing out the scriptural story of God’s faithfulness which is appropriated to us through our incorporation into Christ. One is invited to behold in person particular places which tell of moments at which the in-breaking of God’s grace was perceptible. The shrines of the Holy Land somehow root the Christian story for us in things to which we can relate. These places are a witness, when beheld with the eyes of faith.
This last point directs us beyond the physical testimony of the places of the Holy Land, for the stones in themselves are of little significance. The empty tomb did not tell of the power of Christ’s resurrection to the disciples, for they did not understand. The wood of the cross did not speak of the perfect sacrifice to be accomplished, for they fled from him at that hour. The power of these concrete witnesses is not contained within themselves. As much as pilgrims are overawed by the Tomb of Christ – the cramped, warm little cell, dimly illumined by the flickering light of two dozen silver hanging lamps, with the sweet odour of frankincense and chrism – it is only a cherished tomb.
Likewise the glorious rock of Calvary with its life-size iconic Rood, or the cave of Bethlehem bedecked with rich hangings (in true Greek Orthodox style, covered with a thick layer of protective plastic), or the great Basilica of the Transfiguration atop Mount Tabor with its tabernacle chapels of Moses and Elijah, and magnificent mosaics.
Journey of the heart
So much is also true ofthemanyother destinations of devout pilgrimage. The significance of Walsingham is not to be found ultimately in its miraculous well, let alone in a twentieth-century take on an eleventh-century vision of a first-century Levantine town cottage, which may or may not now lie beneath the gargantuan Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth (which building, incidentally, is perhaps the clearest example of the gross betrayal of the shrines of the Holy Land by the Franciscan Custody in the wake of the Council!).
The truth is (and we have rather laboured the point) that Christian pilgrimage orients us not to sacred places or objects, but to grace. In our pilgrimage, the great pilgrimage of Christian faith towards the city of the beatific vision, and the individual particular pilgrimages of our lives which are sacraments of that original journey, we are reoriented to God at work in the world and in ourselves. In placing our trust in what God has been shown to have already done, we hope that he will continue his work of redemption in us. Pilgrimage is a journey of the heart towards its rest in Christ. The veneration of the sacred shrines which completes our pilgrimages is a token of our faith in God’s work (even when the accompanying prayer goes something like ‘Lord, I really don’t get this and my life is a mess. Amen.’), and the immovability of the shrine, a sign of his inviolable faithfulness and unrelenting mercy.
So why then go to the Holy Land? Well, of course, there is merit in venerating these sacred sites, as there is of the many others which God has made holy by his presence. The pilgrimage will not be in vain when the heart is set on God. And the shrines of the Holy Land are particularly important in the way that they contribute to the furnishing of the scriptural imagination and connect us with the particularity of God’s saving work, and help to join us to that life which is the singular pattern of our calling to holiness.
But over my years of visiting, I have found something else, something unique to the Holy Land. I wish to turn your attention to the beautiful German Benedictine Church of the Dormition on Mount Zion. It is a place often neglected by pilgrims, especially those with limited time who, rushed around by guides most used to touring European protestants, look only to the explicitly Dominical sites.
Church of the Dormition
The Abbey of the Dormition is a handsome structure with a tall campanile and church with a distinctive conical roof which sits a little to the south of the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, adjacent to the Franciscan Cenaculum (a medieval building sometimes claimed as the ‘Upper Room’) and the entirely inauthentic ‘Tomb of David.’ The cylindrical nave of the abbey church is encircled by beautiful side altars, the floor is inlaid with a mosaic of the creation and the zodiac based on early synagogue floors, and from the apse of the quire, a Byzantine Virgin and Child look down upon the assembled brethren.
The most significant thing about this church, however, is its crypt, but not because it conceals any ancient tomb or bedrock or bones. Descending the spiral steps, one emerges into a low, vaulted room with robust columns. At the west end, in an apse decorated with the eastern Christian image of Christ bearing the soul of his Virgin Mother into paradise, stands an altar set upon a piece of an ancient pillar into which is set in tesserae the inscription, ‘De columnis basilicae primaevae matris omnium ecclesiarum cui nomen Agia Sion aedi~c exeunte saec IV’ (‘From the columns of the early mother of all churches which is called Holy Sion, built in the fourth century’). Anciently upon this hill stood a church which commemorated the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and thus constituted the church as the Body of Christ. At the east end, in another apse, a beautiful fresco depicts the Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples and the Blessed Virgin in fiery orange.
Story of salvation
The principal area of the crypt is dominated by a space whose footprint follows that of the upper church – circular – reminding the observant pilgrim of the rotunda of the great Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in which stands the Edicule containing
the Tomb of Christ. Around the edges, chapels furnished in remarkably diverse styles recall some of the national Marian shrines to be found in Europe. In the centre, a baldacchino overarches a slender life-size figure surrounded by lamps and flowers.
The woman reclines upon a substantial stone burial couch. Her robes and veil are of cherry wood; her delicate face and hands of ivory. In the cupola over her are depicted six women whom God called to be part of his story of salvation in the Old Testament: Eve, with the snake and forbidden fruit, Miriam playing her tambourine, Jael holding the tent peg with which she killed Sisera, and Judith bearing the head of Holophernes, Ruth with her barley, and Esther in royal apparel. Around her kneel pilgrims from around the world who come to light a candle or pray with their beads at the place where the Holy Spirit came upon the Church and where the Virgin fell asleep before she was taken by the love of her Son into the bliss which awaited her as the reward for her faithfulness to him.
The face of the Virgin is serene, yet the grey veins in the ivory give the appearance of tears running down as she weeps silently. The Virgin rests knowing that God’s work in her has been completed and she awaits the inevitable final consummation of his purposes, but the longing for this
consummation and the sins which stand in its way are the cause of pain and sorrow. Her hands, too high on her breast to be comfortable, draw the world which her Son has redeemed to her in maternal care.
This shrine of the Mother of God in repose captures the eschatological tension of Christianity which is particularly significant on Mouth Zion, in that place where, according to Scripture, God will establish his throne forever when he brings in his kingdom. In the cool crypt of this modern church, outside the walls of the contested Old City, on the 1964 armistice line, where once there stood the basilica which marked the spiritual foundation of the Church, in the face of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we see an image of our faith: contentment and resignation to the loving purpose of God mixed with anxiety for its realization; the woman who bore the Incarnate Word, vessel of salvation and pledge of our future glory, lying beneath the earth of Holy Zion, David’s Zion, Isaiah’s Zion, Zion of St Paul and St John the Theologian, patiently awaiting the final rising of the Sun of Righteousness.
Call to grace
This is what is unique about the Holy Land. It is a drawing close to the end of time, a foretaste of the eternity of the resurrection and a foresight of the conclusion of God’s story of love. In the Church of the Dormition, and especially in this image of the Virgin, we have an icon of this truth.
The hitherto unmentioned central figure of the baldacchino which supports the church above the Virgin in repose is, of course, Christ himself, beckoning his sleeping Mother to her place at his side in glory. Around him, a text from the Song of Songs, ‘Surge, propera, amica mea, columba mea, formosa mea, et veni’ (‘Arise, make haste, my love, my dove, my beautiful one, and come’).
Through these words Christ speaks to each of us. He calls us, at the end of our earthly pilgrimage, to our rightful home, to the company of his saints and most especially of his Mother. He calls us now to the life of grace, to rest and to work in the hope of glory, and to the vision of his eternal dwelling place in Zion. ND