Copied here from Hemlandssånger, Jan. 1, 2019, with some light editing and compulsive tinkering, because I want to give it more thought and (maybe) write something more about the issues it raises …

nativity6

Pilgrims from Eastern Europe lighting tapers at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, when I visited in November 2012.

A print version of this article came in the current (Dec. 19, 2018) issue of Christian Century. I don’t know what to think of it, so I’m just going to park some links and quotes here — along with a couple of articles about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is prominently featured in it — for convenient reference until I can give it more thought.

It’s by Amy Frykholm, an associate editor at Christian Century, and the headline to the online version of her story says it all, “The relics in Jerusalem didn’t move me. Why?” Her answer is more nuanced than a brief pull-quote will allow, but it boils down to this:

… I see now that I have a tendency to believe that if something is really true, close to ultimate reality, then it’s not something you can look at. I was the child of a mostly abstract faith. I had been given some theological concepts and taught to marry them to biblical texts and ethical deeds. The sum total of this, with the addition of mostly silent and inward prayer, was what I called faith. This or that holy rock hadn’t come into it. And there was no room at all for the veneration of relics.

I have strong mixed feelings about that. I visited the Holy Land shrines Frykholm discusses, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and I had some of the same reaction. In fact I’m quite sympathetic. But I’m also uncomfortable with the idea that faith is all about cognition and intellect — Word without sacrament, in Lutheran terms …

That said, I didn’t bend down to venerate the relics, either, when I visited the Holy Land with a group of Lutherans from Rock Island. (For one thing, at my age I’m never sure I’ll be able to get back up.) I think there’s something quintessentially Protestant, for better or worse, about my attitude.

I’m strongly reminded of my grandfather. When we’d visit him in Michigan, he would take us to the downtown Presbyterian church in Grand Rapids on Sunday morning. We’d sit in our pew through most of the service, but when the sermon was over, he got up and left and we followed him out. I guess he figured he’d got what he came for.

But I’m just about the opposite.

I don’t mind a good sermon — even though I’ve got to admit I’ve done a fair amount of public speaking myself, and I tend to focus more on the showbiz aspect of it.

But overall, I can’t separate out the esthetic experience of worship from the doctrine that is being proclaimed — and I wouldn’t want to do that if I could. I guess I want my transcendent messages grounded in the here-and-now, and I’m open — at least in theory — to physical symbols of the transcendent. Icons, if you will.

So I’ll have to think it all over: I respect Frykholm’s attitude, and that of a Penn State student whom I’ll also quote below. After all, they’re speaking out of my own heritage. But I’m sensing more, something else. A commenter on Frykholm’s piece, Steve Garnaas-Holmes, came close when he recalled his experience in one of the chapels at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre:

<blockquote>Then a woman in a brown shawl and orange scarf with two bags of groceries walked up the aisle. She set down her bags, knelt and began to pray. She kept at it a long time. I was transfixed. Like her I ignored the chattering crowd. She was connecting with Jesus. So in prayer I went with her. Standing there, brought by her faith to where Jesus was, I thought. “Oh, yes. This is the place.” This is where prayer has been happening for 2000 years. It’s not history or geography that makes this the place, and certainly not the trinkets and the hype. It’s the prayer.</blockquote>

A lot to think about here. In the meantime, here are the salient quotes from Frykholm and a couple of links.

Amy Frykholm, “The relics in Jerusalem didn’t move me. Why?” Christian Century, December 19, 2018 https://www.christiancentury.org/article/first-person/relics-jerusalem-didn-t-move-me-why

Technically I knew how [to venerate the relics at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre]. I had spent enough time with Orthodox Christians and enough time in Jerusalem to know how to cross myself and bow in front of relics. I knew that one could kiss the glass or lean one’s forehead on the glass in a gesture of respect. But I couldn’t do these gestures with authenticity. Crossing myself and bowing felt imitative and hollow.

… It was hard for this Protestant to figure out what to do, and that troubled me. Never had I felt so proximate to my fellow Christians and yet so distant from them.

At the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem I waited in a line with dozens of Russian pilgrims until we went down some stairs and entered a little cave where we stooped under a small opening. There was a rock that marked the place where Jesus was born. Or was it a rock that happened to be in the cave where Jesus was born? Or was it (as I had overheard one guide explaining) a rock that someone had told St. Helen was important in the Nativity story? I couldn’t keep track. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do in the presence of this rock or exactly why I had waited in line to see it. But the people around me touched it and crossed themselves and prayed over it.

Next to the rock stood a priest in a black robe collecting money in a basket. He was making change, and sometimes arguing with people about how much change he should give them. The presence of dollar bills surprised me. I recognized my own cultural bias in thinking that financial transactions that had to do with religion should be hidden or that the presence of money is tawdry. That’s obviously not how these people saw it.


Sister Martha, a woman who ran a school for girls in al-Azariya (Bethany), told me that ours is an incarnational faith. We claim that God, in the form of Jesus, walked on the earth. These were the places that he touched. That kind of claim isn’t made, she said, in Islam or Judaism. The specificity of place had a special meaning for Christians.

… Maybe, I thought, despite the rhetoric that I had so often used at home, my faith wasn’t incarnational at all. It certainly wasn’t incarnational in the way it was for my fellow pilgrims or for Daniel and Sister Martha.

I see now that I have a tendency to believe that if something is really true, close to ultimate reality, then it’s not something you can look at. I was the child of a mostly abstract faith. I had been given some theological concepts and taught to marry them to biblical texts and ethical deeds. The sum total of this, with the addition of mostly silent and inward prayer, was what I called faith. This or that holy rock hadn’t come into it. And there was no room at all for the veneration of relics.

In Jerusalem, I realized that my version of the incarnational faith may be incarnation lite—more a principle than an intimate way of relating to the physical world. I was repeatedly invited to see and respond to the physical world in ways I couldn’t quite manage. I could only go through the motions.

I felt cut off from common devotional experience and from a natural connection to other Christians—apparently, most other Christians in the world. All I could do was add my own prayer, silent and inward as it may have been, an almost agnostic prayer, in that place which has been collecting the prayers of pilgrims for thousands of years.

Kristin Romey, “Unsealing of Christ’s Reputed Tomb Turns Up New Revelations,” National Geographic, Oct. 31, 2016 https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/10/jesus-christ-tomb-burial-church-holy-sepulchre/

Oct. 26

While it is archaeologically impossible to say that the tomb recently uncovered in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the burial site of an individual Jew known as Jesus of Nazareth, there is indirect evidence to suggest that the identification of the site by representatives of the Roman emperor Constantine some 300 years later may be a reasonable one.
. . .
According to Dan Bahat, former city archaeologist of Jerusalem, “We may not be absolutely certain that the site of the Holy Sepulchre Church is the site of Jesus’ burial, but we certainly have no other site that can lay a claim nearly as weighty, and we really have no reason to reject the authenticity of the site.”


Sarah Reese, “Church of the Holy Sepulchre” [E-Portfolio ENG 202A], Penn State
http://sites.psu.edu/sarahreeseeportfolioeng202a/the-church-of-the-holy-sepulchre/

[She was a junior in anthropology at Penn State. Parenthetical citations refer to the paper she submitted for her portfolio.]


Today, the church is structurally sound, but as loud, crowded, chaotic and eclectic as ever (see Figure 8). With no signs, labels, or directions, it is easy to get lost in the church, or find yourself in front of some monument or chapel and have absolutely no idea what it is for.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is truly unique. “This is the only church in the world where first-century Herodian, second-century Hadrianic, fourth-century Constantinian, eleventh-century Byzantine, twelfth-century Crusader, nineteenth-century neo-Byzantine, and twentieth-century modern masonry are visible in one place” (see Figure 6) (Cohen 2008: 4).

My first impressions of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre were not favorable. I found myself lamenting the deification of stuff and the value of a place over what happened there. Then, as I considered the reasons as to why I found myself hating the place so passionately, I realized something:

Perhaps, in the midst of all it’s hopeless politics, weird architecture, and international importance, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre ends up being the perfect monument to Calvary. It symbolizes the perfect paradox of Calvary: the viciousness and ugliness of humanity and the beauty of unconditional love and the sacrifice made to rescue it.

Cohen, R. 2008 Saving the Holy Sepulchre: How Rival Christians Came Together to Rescue Their Holiest Shrine. New York, NY: Oxford University Press

Israel Study Tour Diary 2012 http://sites.psu.edu/sarahreeseeportfolioeng202a/israel-study-tour-diary-2012/

August 5, 2012

… I don’t know how to describe my feelings toward the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, other than to say it had a bad vibe. There was so much rushing about, and crowdedness, denominational animosity, and opulent gildedness around, it felt like the meaning behind what the church was supposed to be about was lost somewhere along the way. I also didn’t like the griminess or the darkness either (even though it is a cemetery). To me, the place was just a miserable mish-mash of stuffy opulence and it stunk to high heaven of the value of piles of stuff (even if it is archaeological) over faith and the meaning of what happened at Calvary. I just felt very depressed with the whole place and it is probably my least favorite site thus far. My own Christian background could be one reason why I feel this way. While I enjoy being able to visit the places where Jesus was or perhaps seeing what he may have touched or saw (walking in his footsteps so to speak), I don’t think that you can somehow contact God at these places more efficiently than you could anywhere else. To me, they are still just places and things and enshrining them and holding such veneration for stuff is flirting with idol worship. I just found the whole setup disgusting.

Aug. 7
The Garden Tomb (see image 5) was so soothing (even if it can’t be the real tomb). I thought it was a very nice garden where people could come, stop, and think about Jesus. I wish that was the case with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The clamor and bickering and rush were not in evidence at the Garden Tomb and I really loved it so much more than the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

[PE — the Garden Tomb, as I understand it, was proposed by 19th-century Englishmen as an alternative site of the crucifixion and is maintained by a Protestant foundation as a shrine with a gift shop and plenty of shady locations where tour groups can hold devotions. We visited it with the group from Rock Island and found it quite pleasant. ]

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