Thursday, 15 March 2007

Wishful thinking?

I touched briefly yesterday on the question of the authenticity of some of the Holy Land sites. Can we really be certain that the much-photographed silver star in the grotto under the Church of the Nativity marks the spot where Jesus was born? Did Our Lord’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection really occur in the places now indicated in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre? Everyone will have a view – I certainly do – but at the end of the day the passage of time and the events of history have conspired to introduce greater or lesser elements of uncertainty about many of the key sites and each of us needs to decide to what extent that uncertainty is important. It’s easy to be cynical about the whole set up and to dismiss as unlikely anything that cannot be proven empirically. But such cynicism can be hugely destructive. To have historical sites as a focus of devotion is of immense value to countless numbers of people and if the provenance of some of the locations is somewhat dubious then, frankly, so what. If this or that event didn’t happen precisely where the guide books say then we are certain enough about placing other parts of the narrative not to have to ‘prove’ every single last detail.

Perhaps the one place over which there is no argument at all is the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane at the bottom of it. No-one doubts that this is the place Jesus used to escape to at night to pray or that he prayed there the night before he died. I wonder if I am alone in sometimes wishing to conflate the Garden of Gethsemane with the Garden near the tomb where Mary Magdalene encountered Jesus on the morning of the resurrection. That wish got a considerable boost this morning when I visited the Russian Orthodox Convent of St Mary Magdalene. Maybe I was just receptive to the convent’s patronage and the fact that a picture of the lady the Orthodox refer to as ‘equal to the apostles’ confronts one the moment one steps through the convent gate but I could so readily picture the Easter morning encounter happening right there.

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