One of the traditional biblical genres of praise is the "song of ascents" (Psalms 120-134): that is, a walking-song, or, more precisely, a pilgrimage-song, which worshipers would sing as they made the journey up to Jerusalem to visit the Temple of God. The hymn below is my own attempt at a pilgrimage-song, set to a tune that fits a cheery walking gait: the charming (but rather too repetitive in its original lyrics) "Cleansing Wave" of Phoebe Palmer. Walk with Me I walk this day in pilgrimage Within the Father's grace: A journey from these vales of sin To wonder and to praise. (Chorus): Lord, take my hand and walk with me, My Guide and fellow Trav'ler be; Oh, let Your mighty mercy lead, And on this journey, walk with me. My faithful Shepherd watches me Upon life's winding trail; His rod and staff, they comfort me; His love shall never fail! (Chorus) As Christ and his disciples walked The roads of Galilee, May I too listen and be taught As Christ walks forth with me. (Chorus) Amid the triumph of my King I follow where He goes; Yes, further up and further in, To new creation's hope! (Chorus) One day in glory I will see The Lord who walks with me, And we'll forever journey forth Beside the crystal sea! (Chorus)
Every now and then, a fellow Christian will inquire into my testimony of faith, saying something along the lines of, “Tell me about when you were saved.” Of course, I’m happy to share the story of how I came to know the Lord, but every once in a while I take that opportunity to make a winsome and important theological point: “I was saved two thousand years ago, on the hill of Calvary.” Now, on that bright morning in Jerusalem, I found myself standing in front of that very spot—the place where Christ had won my salvation, the place my whole life’s journey revolved around, like the Earth to the Sun. This was the moment I had been waiting for with heart-aching hopes. Though I hadn’t set high emotional expectations for any other spot on our pilgrimage itinerary, whenever I had imagined this particular place, the thought was instantly met with a rush of bright tears.
As I had feared, our time looked like it would be shorter than I hoped to have there. But now I was here, and with the place itself before me, those old fears melted away in the grandness of the moment. We entered the courtyard that stood beside the church, where the main entrance was nestled in the corner between the nave and the transept. It was a huge, old, complicated church, and I had spent hours studying maps and pictures of its layout, so I knew what to expect. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre can often present a bewildering—and in some cases, distasteful—experience to novice pilgrims, but if you know a little about the place and its arrangement, it takes on a wild and mystifying sort of charm. One of the things the church is well known for, aside from enclosing the traditional sites for both Jesus’ death and resurrection, is that it is jointly managed by a handful of ancient denominations that are constantly competing, sometimes in tremendously acrimonious ways, against one another in their claims on the place. But that didn’t bother me much—it seemed oddly fitting, in a way, that the church of Jesus’ death and resurrection should be rather like a portrait in miniature of the global church—sometimes divided by silly and stupid quarrels, but still, in a mystery of grace, forming a single, grand, beautiful community of faith with one another.
The first thing I looked for, before even entering the church, was a little stairway to a small chapel up on the right, which commemorated an ancient pilgrim whose story had blessed the shape of my own journey. Mary of Egypt, a young prostitute living in Alexandria back in the days of the old Byzantine Empire, had decided to join a group going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. She had done it in a spirit of mockery, as a bit of a jest, and had paid for her way by seducing various other pilgrims as she went. When she finally reached this spot, though, standing before the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, she had felt both an overwhelming desire to go inside, yet also a crushing awareness of her own sin and unworthiness. And, as the story goes, the Lord had mercy on her, and in a single moment, as her heart-cry of despairing faith reached out to him, he cleansed her completely of her life of sin. In fervent repentance, she dedicated the remainder of her days to God, serving him as one of the wandering prayer warriors of the Judean wilderness: one of the greatest “desert mothers” of them all. Her story spoke to my own deep desire for transformation, gave hope to my dream that God might somehow have mercy on me by giving me such a spirit of unflagging thirst for holiness that nothing could ever stand in the way of that pursuit again.
We passed beneath the great doorway, and I made a quick sign of the cross. Ahead of us was a group of women kneeling by the stone associated with the story of Jesus’ preparation for burial, and I knew that just to my right, behind where the tombs of the great Crusader-lords Godfrey and Baldwin had once stood, were the stairs that led up to Golgotha. To the left, I also knew, was the great round rotunda where the Edicule stood: the little church-within-a-church that housed Jesus’ empty tomb. We turned right, climbed the narrow stairway to the chapel there, commemorating Jesus’ crucifixion on Calvary, and joined the back of the line of those waiting to kneel down and touch the ground beneath the altar. Many Protestant pilgrims rue the fact that Calvary looks absolutely nothing like they imagined it: encased within a church building, one would never know that it was anything other than an upper story of the church unless one were told so. But we, in our desire for preserving the original state of things, are simply seeing things from the lens of our own culture; many other previous generations of Christians thought it a far finer thing to surround and encase the most precious places of Jesus’ life with monuments grand and beautiful. So you have to use your imagination a bit to remember that you are now standing atop what was once a hill that lay just beyond the city gates in the crook of Jerusalem’s wall, and to see in the gold-edged icons of the chapel a reflection of the glory of what Jesus did there on that bleak and rocky rise.
So amid the dark stonework of the ancient church, we waited. The line moved slowly, ever so slowly. I drank in the beauty of the artwork over and around me while I waited, watching each pilgrim stoop down and reach beneath the altar, to where the old rocky surface of Golgotha could still be felt. And it was just then that Onus came up beside me with an apologetic expression on his face. “Sorry, Matt—we’re going to have to leave as soon as we’re through with this line. We have to make our appointment at the Garden Tomb, or else we lose our spot.” I groaned inwardly. To leave the Church of the Holy Sepulchre without ever having even stepped into sight of the Edicule of Jesus’ tomb!—it was a heart-sinking blow. The one place I had most wanted to see—the place I would have traded seeing all the others for—was being ripped away from me. Onus gave an apologetic pledge that he would try to make sure we could return later on that day, but I knew that the chances for such things were slight foundations on which to set one’s hope; particularly since we had two other sites on our itinerary after the Garden Tomb.
Feeling suddenly desolate and forlorn, I approached the altar of Golgotha. In a way, it was just right, though—to have to let go of my own fleeting hopes, to be forced to let die an imagined future that I had clung to with great desire—it was just a small piece of the far greater sorrow and despair that Jesus’ followers would have known as they stood on Calvary. I looked at the icon of Christ crucified, hanging there before my eyes, and thought of his pain-wracked sacrifice on the cross—the climactic act of his endless love, which overturned the universe and poured the grace into my soul. And then I knelt down, reached beneath the altar, and put my hand down into the hole. There my fingers brushed the craggy stone on which his blood had been poured out; there, kneeling at the foot of the cross, I had finally arrived at the place I had long told people about: the place where I was saved two thousand years ago.
Back in Roman days, Golgotha had stood in the middle of an old quarry. Before that section had become engulfed in the ever-growing city, its stone had been cut for use in building projects. There was one section of poorer-grade stone, however, that had been left standing in the quarry, and that formed the little hillock of Golgotha. It was, quite literally—(just as the ancient prophecy of the Psalms had said in reference to Christ and his sacrifice)—“the stone the builders rejected.” That stone had become the cornerstone of my life—I had felt the foundations of my existence; I had come for the first time to this spot, in the middle of an ancient city thousands of miles from my home, and found that I had known the place all along.
This new hymn is based loosely on several passages in the book of Ecclesiastes, which our church's prayer-meeting group just completed a long study in. I've set it to the traditional Celtic tune "Wild Mountain Thyme," with an extra bridge-chorus that is my own addition.
To All Things There's a Season
To all things there's a season, Times for laughter and for tears, Times for living and for dying, 'Mid the ever-circling years; Allelu, praise Him, Allelu.
(Chorus): Praise the Lord in your sorrows; Praise the Lord in times of joy; Ever let your heart sing to Him: Allelu, praise Him, Allelu.
In all life's changing seasons, Times of war and times of peace, There never is a season When the praise of God will cease; Allelu, praise Him, Allelu.
(Bridge-Chorus): Hallelujah, praise the Lord! Hallelujah, praise the Lord! Hallelujah, praise the Lord! Allelu, praise Him, allelu.
So serve the Lord with gladness, Through all the years He gives you; When in hardship or in plenty, Let His praises rise within you. Allelu, praise Him, Allelu.
He stretched out his hands on the cross to encompass the ends of the world. For the central point of the earth is Golgotha here… He who set the sky in place with his spiritual hands stretched out human hands. They were fastened with nails for this purpose: that when the humanity which bore the sins of mankind had been fastened to the wood and died, sin might die with it, and we might rise again in righteousness... So take the cross as an indestructible foundation on which to build to rest of the faith.
- Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis 13
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The next day was Wednesday, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the modern state of Israel, and our final day in the country. I awoke with a strange mixture of excitement and dread: excitement for the sights that lay ahead, including the one I had most longed to see, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but dread at the increasingly likely possibility that our schedule would force us to rush hastily in and out of that ancient church without time to pause or pray. I had pressed Onus, in his rearrangement of the schedule, to make sure we wouldn’t slight the Holy Sepulchre, the one place that for ages past had been the defining stop of a true pilgrimage: for travelers, crusaders, and wandering saints, anything less would have counted as a pale half-measure. “It’s the most important place in the history of the world,” I told Onus—and I believe that it is just that, because of the cosmic, history-shattering significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection—so it would have been a grave disappointment to have to shrug it quickly off like just another check-mark on our itinerary. But our schedule had us beginning the day by walking the whole of the Via Dolorosa (“Way of Sorrow”), with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as its end-point, and then going to an appointment set up for our group at the Garden Tomb, a Protestant site thought by some impressionable pilgrims to be a rival claimant to the title of Jesus’ burial-ground. The fact that the Holy Sepulchre was sandwiched between an event that seemed likely to run long, and another event with an immovable start-time, did not assuage my fears.
But I tried to brush all that aside, and go into our final day with a sense of humility and openness, to embrace whatever God had for me on that journey. So we started out early, walking through the northeastern Muslim Quarter of the Old City, until we came to the Catholic monastery grounds that marked the beginning of the traditional Via Dolorosa: the route that Jesus had been thought to walk from his trial to his crucifixion. We had entered the city early enough that the peaceful magic of the sunrise hours still lingered in the air: quiet, empty streets greeted us, and there was a stillness to the city.
The first set of stops on the Via Dolorosa are within the grounds of the Catholic monastery, where two chapels commemorate Christ’s sufferings under Pilate’s guards at his trial. While it is the case that the place stood adjacent to the old Roman garrison, the Fortress Antonia, and that authentic first-century paving-stones reminiscent of the Gospels’ reference to the “lithostratos” at the trial have been uncovered there, it is now the practically unanimous consensus among scholars that this is not where Jesus had been put on trial. Rather, that most likely occurred in the western part of the city, where the Roman officials held court in or near the Herodian palace complex during their infrequent visits to Jerusalem (or alternatively, a site in the central part of the city)—which means, naturally, that the whole route of the traditional Via Dolorosa is nothing more than a pious fiction. Nonetheless, hallowed as it is by time and by the memories and prayers of many faithful pilgrims and saints who’ve walked that path before, each group still walks the route from Antonia to the tomb, remembering Jesus’ sorrows along the way.
Like many other pilgrim groups, we rented a wooden cross at the first station, and then began our long walk through the Old City of Jerusalem. Though we didn’t stop at every one of the traditional fourteen “Stations of the Cross,” we paused every now and then to hold one of our mini-services of prayer, with recitations of the story of Jesus’ passion. At each stop, I would lead the group in singing a verse of the old spiritual “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”—a song which, whenever I hear it now, brings me back to the narrow alleys and market-stalls of the Via Dolorosa. I ticked off the Stations of the Cross as we walked by them; occasionally we would stop at one for a moment’s rest. In one, I was able to share with the group the story of Saint Veronica, a tale which, not appearing in the Bible, tends not to be familiar to Protestant groups. We also paused at an archaeological site along the way, which featured the underground foundations of the old Fortress Antonia, and again beneath the famous Ecce Homo arch, from which Pilate had long been imagined to have proclaimed “Behold the man!” at his final judgment over Jesus.
On the second half of our walk down the Via Dolorosa, it came to my turn to carry the cross. It was heavier than I expected. Beneath its weight, I wove my way through the now-crowded streets of Jerusalem. The route was commonly full of pilgrims, but it was also a normal set of streets and alleys, filled with all the passersby, residents, and sidewalk merchants one might expect. This seemed fitting to me: the call to take up one’s cross and follow Jesus was not something that took place far away from the world of everyday life, but in the very middle of our busy existences, full of neighbors, jobs, buying and selling, traveling and rest. So there, in the middle of the bustling world, I carried my cross for Jesus. It also struck me as fitting in another way: though I knew, historically speaking, that this was almost certainly not the real route that Jesus walked to Calvary (we were coming from the northeast, he from the south or west), it was not Jesus’ own cross that I was called to bear. When he asked his disciples to take up the cross and follow, it was each disciple’s own cross that he spoke of—the love-sorrowing cost of following a crucified Lord. And when the book of Hebrews speaks of the call of discipleship, it exhorts us to go outside the city to the place of his disgrace—not to walk his own pathway, for there is but one atoning passion, Christ’s alone, which we cannot replicate, but to walk our own journey to meet him there. We all trace our own pilgrimages to Christ, from many different places and through many different ways, but we all meet him at one and the same spot: the rugged rock of Calvary, where his sacrifice and our journeys always intersect.
We came to the ninth Station of the Cross, the last one outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We leaned our cross in the corner of the street and looked in soaring expectation toward the rising domes of the church, now separated from us by just one low wall. We stood there and sang “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” one last time. It called to my memory a dear church lady who had passed away the year before, old and long impaired with mental disabilities, who had loved that hymn and sang it with gusto at nearly every one of our music-based “singspiration” services. It’s not quite right to say that her mental disabilities impaired her, though—rather, they clarified her spirit into the sort of loving simplicity which those of us with more complicated mental lives could only regard as something beautiful and saintly. She had walked her journey—a very different journey than mine—and was now with her Lord. But for both her and me, though our pathways were different, they both intersected in the unshakable reality of what had happened at the place that stood in front of me now: the spot where my life, and hers, and those of a billion other saints, had met the Master at the foot of the cross.
"Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well-ordered mind than a man's ability to just stop where he is and pass some time in his own company." - Seneca, 1st-century Roman philosopher, offering timelessly flattering encouragement to introverts everywhere
My new hymn this week is based on the New Testament theology of the Reign of God (often translated in the Gospels as "the Kingdom of God"). The verses provide an overview of biblical teachings on God's reign in us, God's reign through us, and then the final consummation of his reign in the future. The chorus is based on some of the triumphal angelic songs of the book of Revelation. I've set it to a tune inspired by Henry Work's old patriotic "Song of a Thousand Years," but with significant modifications. As you'll hear in my recording below (and please take my apologies for my shortcomings), it rather resembles a series of trumpet flourishes, and thus it may serve better as a performance piece than a congregational hymn. Lift Up Your Hearts! Lift up your hearts, O saints of God! The King's own Spirit dwells in you: He reigns in you, enthroned in your hearts; The Kingdom of God is within you! (Chorus:) All praise, all honor, and all glory Be to our God forevermore, For He has made this world's dominions The Kingdom of our risen Lord! Lift up your hearts, O saints of God! You're called to be His kings and priests; You sit with Christ enthroned in heaven; His reign flows through your prayers and deeds! (Chorus) Lift up your hearts, O saints of God! That which begins shall be in full: The Lord who reigns within and through you, One day He shall be Lord of all! (Chorus)
I saw all this incredible country before I even remembered its name: everything seemed to fall away into a universal blank under the staring sun, as I came, in the great spaces of the circle of a lifeless sea… For these are the foundations of a fallen world, and a sea below the seas on which men sail… In all our brains, certainly in mine, were buried things as bad as any buried under that bitter sea, and if He did not come to do battle with them, even in the darkness of the brain of man, I know not why He came.
- G. K. Chesterton, from The New Jerusalem
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As the day wore on into late morning, we made one last venture out into the wilderness of the Judean Desert. This, our last trip away from Jerusalem, led us up into the scorching eastern hills of Israel, the sparse ravines of the West Bank that still look today much as they had looked when Christian holy men wandered their wastes back in Byzantine days. Our route would take us down through those hills and then into the valley of the Dead Sea itself, far below sea level. I was excited for this excursion, for we were finally going to see just a bit of the old Israel that I had studied so fiercely: the home of those long-gone ascetics, the desert abbas and ammas, who shook the world with their prayers from those very wilderness slopes. (It also happened to be my last chance to venture into new and different habitats, where I might have yet more chances to see new birds.)
We followed a road that traced the ancient highway between Jericho and Jerusalem, and Najji pulled the bus over next to a sun-bleached hill with a large cross mounted on top. As we stepped out of air-conditioned comfort into the full light of day, it felt as if we were stepping into a blast furnace. I don’t know how hot it was, but it may have been the hottest I have ever experienced, trumping even my months in Sudan. A few Bedouin salesmen rushed up and began engaging with some of our group; I bought a cup of fresh-squeezed orange juice and then proceeded up the hill. From the crest, we looked out over a wild, desolate landscape of stony, dusty rises and land so hard-baked by the sun that it was hard to believe Norah’s story about a rare rain making the place bloom just a couple weeks before. The main object of attraction, though, was down in the valley below us: a monastery that clung to the cliffside like an ibex, with old trails leading to the rocky caves where hermits had labored in prayer fifteen centuries before. Most Protestant pilgrimage groups who stopped here were interested in the old tradition that identified this spot as “the valley of the shadow of death” referred to in Psalm 23, and while it certainly looked like it could have been a dangerous passage on the pilgrimage route back in the days of highway brigandage, the ascription struck me as a dubious flight of fancy.
Further, my interest was locked on the monastery itself. This was St. George’s Monastery, named after George the Chozebite, one of its most famous residents. Had I been able to choose, I would have most loved to see the famous Mar Saba monastery, just a few miles away, but that wasn’t on our itinerary, and St. George’s was a satisfying consolation prize. I felt a twinge of regret that I was this close, and yet would not at any point get to step within the hallowed precincts of any of those halls of my heroes—I could only look at them from afar. So I tried to content myself with that, and I called to mind the monastery’s illustrious founder and its namesake—John of Thebes and George the Chozebite, two of the greatest heroes from among Israel’s desert fathers. The monastery they had raised up in those desert wastes clung to a spot in Wadi Qelt that had long been associated with Elijah’s wilderness flight, when God had sent ravens to bring food to the lonely, anguished prophet on the run. As it happened, while we drove away from the overlook site, I spotted a species of raven I had never seen before, one that specialized in just those desert environments: the Brown-necked Raven of Israel’s wastes, and Elijah’s old companion.
After a brief stop for a photo-op with a local camel (on which Onus and I rode together), and another at a desert service station for shawarma sandwiches, we plunged down into the bleakest wasteland of all: the Dead Sea basin. It was like a whole different world. There was more color here than in the hills of the Judean desert—the russet brown of the cliffs, the blue saltwater, the vanishingly tiny fringe of verdure here and there around its edge, the red and black mountains of Moab on the other side, and over all of it a shimmering veil of haze. We would drive the length of it, north to south, all the way to Masada; but before we did, we were going to partake in one of the peculiar rites of passage for all tourists to Israel: a dip in the salty sea itself. So there, amid waves of heat that turned the sand into a scalding oven floor, we rushed down to the beach and, for a few minutes, indulged in the weird thrill of bobbing uneasily in the water. ‘Water’ is perhaps too generous a term, though—it had a silty, almost faintly slimly quality to it, that clung to one’s skin in odd and unnerving ways. It was an interesting curiosity of an experience, which no doubt would have been fascinating had I been more of a student of geology and hydrology, but as it was I was more keen to see Masada than to linger in the salty waves.
Masada, the old mountaintop fortress that Herod had crafted as his desert showpiece with which to astonish visiting dignitaries, held a special place in my imagination. I had first encountered the story of the place as a teenager, when I was doing research for my first novel, set in the Jewish revolt of AD 70. That war had ended, I learned, with one last, suicidal stand by the brave Jewish rebels who had holed themselves up in this remote mountain palace and held out for years while the Roman army besieged them. In the end, the final defenders opted to take their own lives rather than fall to the Romans’ blades, and the captivating account of their final stand was etched into my memory. (I even modeled the site one of the battles in my fantasy epic, Freedom Cry, on Masada—the old mountain fortress of Tuultomak—and it is a painting of Masada that graces the cover of the novel’s second edition.) I was far from the only one captivated by the story of Masada’s fall; even the Israeli army of the 20th century would, for many years, bring its new soldiers-in-training there to be inspired by the desperate heroism of those last brave rebels.
The location of Masada had been forgotten by the ages (or so I was told), so steep were its slopes and so isolated were its ruins, that it wasn’t until Europeans began exploring the area in the 1800s that it was rediscovered. Nowadays, thankfully, one need not climb the rugged escarpment up to the mountaintop (though there is a trail available for that if you so choose); a modern cablecar glides you gracefully up to the summit. Norah took us on an extended tour of the fortress-palace’s grounds, many walls of which still remained at least partially in place. We saw the grand sweep of the old Herodian palace, complete with cistern water-systems, bathhouses, and a three-tiered balcony palisade; and we stood in the room where the final Jewish defenders drew their lots to decide who would deal the final blows in their mass suicide. One of the most remarkable things of all was that one could still see, in dramatically clear outlines on the valley floor below, each of the Roman army encampments from the siege they had lain two millennia before. Apparently there is very little erosion of wind and rain in the low, breathless vale of the Dead Sea, and so one can scope out the square camps of each of the legions far below, as well as the siege ramp they built to breach the fortress’ walls.
All the while, of course, I was snapping pictures of the varied and ever-present bird life; it was something of an astonishment how many species called that desolate wasteland their home and seemed to make a good living of it there: more of the flashy and beautiful Tristram’s starlings, along with Fan-tailed Ravens, Crag Martins, and Short-toed Snake Eagles, to say nothing of the hardy, ever-present House Sparrows, which not even the most ungodly furnace in the world can restrain. There in that tragic place, where the Jewish homeland met its most heart-rending dissolution; there where the ancient sin-scapes of Sodom and Gomorrah lay sunken in the ancient basin of death; there where the vast armies of Moab and Ammon had been cut low in a bloody, self-inflicted massacre in King Jehoshaphat’s day—there the beauty of God’s creation still spoke the loudest word, and above the sea of death there was life, majestic, soaring on the wind.
Despite all that I knew about Masada even before arriving there, it still had one delicious final surprise for me. As we finished up the tour, Norah turned to us and asked, “Would anyone like to see the church?” Not giving a moment for any of my heat-stricken, footsore fellow pilgrims to respond, I immediately gave an affirmative, and she brought us to a tiny chapel that sat in the vast open space in the middle of Masada. Its walls were largely intact, though without a roof, and in a side-room there was a beautiful mosaic laid out on the floor. The curve of the apse, which looked out over the vista of the Dead Sea, spoke in no uncertain terms that this was indeed a church. “Oh yes,” Norah told us, “some Byzantine monks had a little monastery up here for awhile!”
I smiled at the irony—despite the pretensions of white Western explorers, it had not been they who first rediscovered the lost palaces of Masada; it had been the wandering desert fathers of old Byzantium, many centuries before. After I returned home, I did a little research and found that the monastery there had been called Marda, and that it had carried on with between twelve to twenty monks for most of the fifth century; and that, further, it had been founded by perhaps the most intrepid desert father of all: Saint Euthymius the Great, to whom the monastic movement in Palestine owed much to his inspiring example and leadership. So there, on the very day that I had lamented that I would not get the chance to step into the grounds of one of the monasteries of my ancient heroes, God gave me the surprise of letting me do just that. And so I stooped down and touched the dusty ground, where Euthymius and his brothers had sung and prayed so long ago, and I thanked God that he had granted me the chance to walk in the same daring footsteps they had left behind: to leave off the world’s temptations and live as a lighthouse of prayer, a city on a hill that cannot be hidden.