On this day in AD 70, the Romans breached the second wall of the city of Jerusalem, driving the Jewish defenders of the city back to the first wall. The siege would end with the destruction of the city and the Jewish Temple and the dispersal of the Jewish people.
However, even in a ruinous state, Jerusalem would retain a place in the hearts of Jewish, Christian, and, subsequently, Muslim people. Bloody wars and merciless battles would be fought for possession of the “holy places.”
Set 1100 years after the Roman siege of the city, there is a moment in Ridley Scott’s 2005 epic film The Kingdom of Heaven, where the character Balian—a crusader who has come to Jerusalem to defend the Holy City—sits on a hillside above the city, allegedly the hill of Calvary.
Balian sits in the darkness and feels a complete lack of any sense of holiness. There is no sense of the presence of God in the place. Scott chose the title of the film carefully—the violence and the hatred perpetrated by the church and the crusaders contradicted everything that people might associate with heaven. The Crusades were about recovering and holding on to the “holy places,” as though meeting with God depended on going to a particular place.
A Presbyterian friend, who visited the Holy Land during the 1980s, would have agreed with the thoughts of Balian. He described going to the church of the nativity in Bethlehem and the church of the holy sepulchre in Jerusalem and feeling no sense of God’s presence. Bethlehem and Jerusalem and the holy places there were so much the centres for dispute and disunity, that he felt that there was no space for God.
Perhaps there is a want on my part, but I would have concurred with my friend about a sense of the lack of God’s presence. Going to the shrine of Saint Martin at Tours, to the shrine of Saint Ignatius at Loyola, to the great cathedral at Chartres, to the shrine of the Magi in Cologne, I remember feeling a great flatness: there were thousands and thousands of people, but among them I could not find Jesus of Nazareth. Perhaps it was my own fault, but, for me, God was not especially present there anymore than he is anywhere else in his world.
The stories of people meeting with the Risen Jesus in the Bible are not in the “holy places” of the time. They do not meet Jesus in the Temple or in the synagogues, they meet Jesus in the ordinary places. They meet Jesus in the garden, in a room where the doors are locked, walking along the road to Emmaus, eating food at the lakeside in Galilee. Jesus meets people in their own lives.
A farmer I knew in Northern Ireland used to say that she believed that unless she met with God during her work on the farm during the week, it was pointless her going to church in the hope of meeting with God on a Sunday. The farmer would have agreed with writer Monica Furlong who, in her book Travelling In, told of two very unexpected encounters:
During the two years just before and after I was twenty I had two experiences which led to religious conversion. The first occurred when I was waiting at a bus stop on a wet afternoon. It was opposite the Odeon cinema, outside the station, and I was surrounded by people, shops, cars. A friend was with me. All of a sudden, for no apparent reason, everything looked different. Everything I could see shone, vibrated, throbbed with joy and with meaning. I knew that it had done this all along, and would go on doing it, but that usually I couldn’t see it. It was all over in a minute or two. I climbed on to the bus, saying nothing to my friend – it seemed impossible to explain – and sat stunned with astonishment and happiness.
The second experience occurred some months later. I left my office at lunch-time, stopped at a small Greek cafe in Fleet Street to buy some rolls and fruit, and walked up Chancery Lane. It was an August day, quite warm but cloudy, with the sun glaringly, painfully bright, behind the clouds. I had a strong sense that something was about to happen. I sat on a seat in the garden of Lincoln’s Inn waiting for whatever it was to occur. The sun behind the clouds grew brighter and brighter, the clouds assumed a shape which fascinated me, and between one moment and the next, although no word had been uttered, I felt myself spoken to. I was aware of being regarded by love, of being wholly accepted, accused, forgiven, all at once. The joy of it was the greatest I had ever known in my life. I felt I had been born for this moment and had marked time till it occurred.
Monica Furlong meets with God not at a great cathedral, not on a pilgrimage, but at a bus stop outside the Odeon Cinema and sitting on a park bench, amongst the lawyers’ offices, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Holy places are where people find them.