Holy places are creations of the imagination Arguments for Easter v
Monday 17 April 1995
The site of Christ's death and burial is for Western civilisation the holiest place in the world - but where is it?
There are in fact two rival sites in Jerusalem. One is where now stands the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, an unprepossing building which stands in a side street by the Arab market. This is, of course, the Via Dolorosa of pious legend, the path which Our Lord trod, carrying his cross, on the first Good Friday. There are sardonic touches today: a sign informs you that the Via Dolorosa is a one-way street.
The whole area is a chaotic bustle of commercial activity with all kinds of goods and produce on sale, including plentiful religious kitsch. There are probably enough pieces of the "original cross" to make Noah's Ark. But the symbolism is pertinent: if Christ came to die for the world, then this place is eminently representative of what he came to save.
Calvary is marked inside the church by three altars whose proprietors are rival Christian denominations. It is a place of dim lamps and religious confusion, and there is always a clatter as the trample of awed pilgrims and blundering tourists echoes throughout. The scandal of the cross is augmented by the scandal of denominational divisions. Until very recently, the various Christian churches could not agree upon sufficient co-operation even to maintain the decoration of the shrine in decent order; and the Israeli authorities were obliged to carry out necessary safety work on their behalf. The key to the church of Christ's sepulchre was in the keeping of a local Muslim family! The best that can be said of all this is that it is a perfect visual aid of the world of petty jealousies and fervent rancour which Christ came to save.
The other location which some say is the place of Christ's death and burial is half a mile away and it is called the Garden Tomb. This is a much more recent tradition. I do not know - and neither does anyone else - whether this was in truth the place where he was crucified and buried; but I cannot help hoping that it was. It is so fresh. If anywhere on earth is a resurrection garden, this is it: if the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has the classic claim to authenticity, then the Garden Tomb provides the romantic association.
It is under a hill in the shape of a skull - Golgotha, perhaps? Also, right beside the Jerusalem bus station. It is such a lovely, pastoral island - like an engraving in a Victorian Sunday school album. I was there last year at the same time as a group of gentlemen from Milwaukee, a little choir, men in smart blue suits and with teeth like the keys on a Steinway grand. The sound of their singing filled the garden: "All in the April Evening".
It does not matter that we do not know where they laid him. Holy places are creations of the mind and the imagination. This is what William Blake knew and it is the truth that provides the emotional-spiritual frisson in his words: "And did those feet in ancient times walk upon England's mountains green? And was the holy Lamb of God on England's pleasant pastures seen?"
Literalism is the enemy of religious experience. That is why claims to have discovered bits of the Ark on Mount Ararat or parts of St Paul's tent in Tarsus are in the end only risible. These things prove nothing. They are only evidences and religion is not about evidence but certainty.
This is not, however, a scientific certainty but a certainty of the spiritual imagination. In the heyday of mechanistic science all the fashion was to find evidences of Christianity - as if the theologian were a collector of fossils. Confronted with this misplaced zeal, Coleridge said: "I am weary of evidences; but make men feel that religion is true."
The whole tradition of English Christianity does just this and never more insistently than in Holy Week and at Easter. There is a panoply of phrase and image which presents the passion story with emotional directness, as Wesley said: "To the heart". There is a green hill far away, without a city wall . . . When I was a boy I was sure that hill was near Otley. For the writers of American spirituals, the Jordan River was the Mississippi and Pisgah was in the Rocky Mountains.
These romantic conjectures are not poor substitutes for evidences and facts. Evidences belong with palaeontology and facts belong with Gradgrind. Where is the Kingdom of God? The Kingdom of God is within you. The tabernacle of God is on no geographical hill and the place of his atoning death is in the Calvary of all our hearts. That, too, is the location of the resurrection garden.
Faith is an act of the imagination. Sacred history is now and England.
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