Most of what I knew about the Holy Land had come straight out of Lutheran Sunday school: flannel-board Hebrew shepherds in striped bathrobes and sandals, Hurlbut’s lavishly illustrated Story of the Bible, with its images of white sheep on green hills, white clouds in blue skies, quaint boats rocking beside reedy shorelines. Even as an adult, I clung to the image of Israel as a kind of uninhabited parkland, empty except for Jesus and his simple followers.
But now I was here, and nothing looked like I imagined it would.
All around me, modern Jerusalem washed up against the 400-year-old Turkish battlements of the Old City like a furious tide: air brakes, horns, diesel fumes. Exhausted from the long flight and intensive grilling at the airport in Tel Aviv–I was a foreign woman, traveling alone, automatically suspect–I stood with my pack at my feet, shocked at the size of the crowds pouring out of the Damascus Gate and trying to adjust my expectations.
By 8:00 the next morning, I was already at the Holy Sepulchre. It was the holiest week of the year, and I stood watching as old Greek peasant women in their black head scarves and long skirts hobbled toward the massive open doors of the Crusader-built church. Behind them came priests and nuns of all ethnicities: hooded Armenians, shrouded Abyssinians, diminutive Sri Lankans swathed in black. The huge courtyard kept filling up and emptying as the pilgrim river flowed in beneath the arches.
Then the bells began to toll: deep, harsh, earthshaking bells that slammed into my chest and set my nerves to jangling. I staggered inside the huge stone building while the bells went on and on, and people came surging in around me. There, with loud cries, they fell down on their hands and knees to kiss the great beige slab of stone. Glistening with holy water, it is the place where legend says Christ’s lacerated body lay to be anointed. I found myself crouching too, putting out a shivering hand to touch the wet surface. Then I joined the massive throng pressed together in front of the Chapel of the Angel.
Kneeling for a few moments in the Tomb itself proved too much for me. I couldn’t eat or sleep or stop weeping for several days. My idyllic illusions about Jesus had been torn away, and I didn’t know where to turn next. But as it turned out, my Holy Week breakdown was actually a gift. Without that difficult pilgrimage, I might never have realized that my childish faith was not robust enough to carry me through what lay ahead. I needed to become a grown-up Christian.
Thus, the beauty of this long Lenten journey that has the power to bring us face-to-face with ourselves–not as we wish we were, but as we really are. And thus the beauty of Easter week, which moves us from the euphoria of Palm Sunday through the terror of Golgotha to the bar of sunlight falling through the entrance of the wide-open Tomb.
To the masses of lilies, the alleluias of wonder and joy.
Paula Huston “An Easter Pilgrimage,” from the April 2020 issue of Give Us This Day www.giveusthisday.org (Collegeveille: MN: Liturgical Press, 2020). Used with permission.