I wouldn’t call myself a religious person, per se. Rather, I am spiritual and have always had a profound interest in religion, all religions. I was raised Lutheran in a small Pennsylvania town by two parents who had only a passing interest in the subject matter. In high school I was a confirmed agnostic, and very well may still be one today. Regardless, my passion for learning about what drives most of the world to devote themselves to a higher power has always captivated me, which is why I was in spiritual travel heaven (he, he) in Jerusalem.
When The Bible is a Jeopardy category, I always know all of the answers. Even though I’m not a practicing Christian, not really, I know a lot about the faith. So when planning my time in Jerusalem, my guide book was a jumble of notations and dog-eared pages in preparation for Biblical tourism at its finest. Aside from walking the Via Dolorosa and peering down at Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, I wanted to experience this fervent spirituality for myself.
Early on a Sunday morning I was awakened, ironically enough, by the call to prayer at the mosque practically adjacent to my hostel/hotel hybrid. I gathered my things and made the twenty minute walk to the Damascus gate, on the way to the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. I quickly walked through the empty souks lining part of the Via Dolorosa leading to my first destination, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
I had been there several times already, drawn by curiosity and respect for the building itself. The Church is built on the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and his burial, or sepulchre. It contains the last few Stations of the Cross, as well as The Stone of Unction, where Christ’s body was prepared for burial. The site is so important to the Christian faith that no single church controls it, rather it is shared between several.
Walking through the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on a Sunday was a completely unique experience. Almost simultaneously, several faiths were celebrating the holy day in their own, unique ways, independent of each other. I was standing next to the Aedicule, which houses the Sepulchre, when suddenly a fast moving procession of young priests of an indeterminate faith came rushing in, each pounding the ancient floors with canes, obviously announcing the arrival of someone. Soon, after a few minutes of waiting, I realized who it was that merited such an introduction – it was the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem.
Hunched over in dark robes, and stopping to chat with parishioners, the Patriarch slowly approached the holy site. He entered the holy chamber and emerged a few minutes later, proceeding to the center of the church where he led services.
I stood atop a balcony and peered down at the unfolding scene, modern but timeless. I slowly left the Church and walked through the souks to the nearby Lutheran Church of the Holy Redeemer.
Built in the 19th century, the large church and hospice is the newcomer in the neighborhood, but has built a strong following, particularly amongst German and English speakers in the city. It is one of the few places where Sunday services can be heard in these languages, and I intended on attending at least one service in the Holy City during my time there.
I was nervous, I hadn’t attended a church service in more than a decade and I was afraid that I was going to be called out, or lightning would strike or something. Instead I was greeted warmly and invited to the small Crusaders chapel where the English service was held, the St. John Chapel. It was aptly named, as the current church lies over part of the massive Crusader hospital and church complex once home to the Knights of St. John Hospitalier.
The service was pretty normal really, led by an American pastor, I could have been in Duluth or Minneapolis. Afterwards, I walked across the street to a small café, sat down and ordered fresh pomegranate juice. I sat there for a few moments reflecting on my morning involvement with two completely different spiritual experiences. I wasn’t sure which was more gratifying or more representative of the city, but I did feel like I understood this enigmatic town a little bit more.
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