Israel: The Day My Heart Broke

This post is part of a series exploring my recent trip to the Holy Land.

There’s something about coming to the end of your own resources that gives God room to speak and work in your life. By Monday, we had been traveling for a week. Every bit of it was amazing and exciting; but I was tired. Not overwhelmingly so, but tired enough to welcome a bench on the path and a moment to sit alone for a second. I was coming to the end of my own resources and there wasn’t enough espresso in Jerusalem that would replace a nice long nap.

Ramp to the Temple Mount
Approaching the Temple Mount. The Wailing Wall is below.
When My Heart Became Heavy

We woke up at 5:15 a.m. and got on the tour bus by 7 a.m. It was important to get an early start because we were going to the Temple Mount. We would have to go through a security checkpoint in order to get there. Also, we wanted to beat the crowds.

The Temple Mount is the location where the Jewish Temple was built. It was built on Mt. Moriah, where Abraham had prepared to sacrifice his son, Isaac, before God intervened by sending a lamb for the sacrifice (Genesis 22). Around the time Jesus walked that ground, Herod the Great had greatly expanded the grounds around the temple. He added to the courtyards around the temple, building up the top of the mountain with retaining walls. Today, some of these walls still stand.

Portions of Herod’s Western Wall are still accessible today. Residential buildings and earth cover other parts of it.  (It is worth remembering that Jerusalem is a living city, continually building on the foundations of it’s past inhabitants). The Western Wall Plaza is the section of the wall known also as The Wailing Wall. It is the place that is in the closest proximity to the most scared area of the Temple, the Holy of Holies. Therefore, it is a holy site. Daily, Jews come to pray at the Western Wall.

The appointed time for organized prayer at the Western Wall had begun as we arrived at the security checkpoint for the Temple Mount, located above the wall.  We heard the prayers and chants of those leading prayer; and we heard whistles, too. People blowing whistles. Our tour guide didn’t seem disturbed. It was a normal occurrence. But it was disturbing for some of us, so we asked about it. “Probably another protest,” he said, as we walked up the ramp, over the prayerful, and toward the Temple Mount. I’m not used to the counter-melody of prayer and protest.

People have asked me if I saw a lot of guns on my trip. That’s partly because this region of the world has a reputation for militancy. We saw a few here and there, mostly because every Israeli citizen, male and female, spends time in the military. On the way to the Temple Mount–that’s when we saw the presence of arms.

Along the way, we saw a sign with a rule put forth by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel:

“Announcement and Warning. According to Torah Law, entering the Temple Mount area is strictly forbidden due to the holiness of the site.”

Why? Because it is unclear as to which part of the Temple Mount is the site of the Temple and, in particular, the Holy of Holies where only the chief priest was allowed to go.

This is an interesting sign because there is another point of tension: the Temple Mount is currently the site of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque. Mount Moriah, today, and for the last few centuries, is a Muslim holy site.

Police and armed guards patrol the Temple Mount. While it is under Israeli sovereignty, Muslims have religious sovereignty. Therefore, it is lawful for Jews (typically reformed Jews who would be less inclined to heed the Chief Rabbinate’s warning) to visit, but not to pray. The police will stop a Jewish person from praying on the mount. They will also stop any visitor whose appearance or actions don’t demonstrate proper decorum.  (This is why the women in our group had their heads covered with scarves).

At one point, we saw a group of Jewish visitors walking the Temple Mount. They walked in a square, with an Israeli police escort on each corner. Guards eyed them continuously as they walked by.

We could hear the prayers below at the Western Wall; we heard the whistles; we saw the guards; and we heard the history. At some point, the minarets called out the start of prayers for the Muslim people.

“If anything were to happen, it would happen here,” our guide said of the geopolitical and religious tension.

That tension was palpable, even on a day of relative peace like that Monday. It was a somber morning for me. My spirit was heavy. Not with questions of the veracity of the Muslim faith or the Jewish faith; or with presence of one religious group or another on the Temple Mount. Not because I had a sense that anyone was approaching their stance in anything other than their own good will according to their own beliefs. My spirit was heavy because I was in a place that illustrated the brokenness, division, and tension throughout the world

The place we walked is one of the most contentious places in the Middle East, if not the world. It is the cradle of religious, geopolitical, and cultural differences. As such, it is rife with tension and has been for many, many years.

It was alive and filled with potential energy. And it weighed on me. I brought up the rear of the group and had very little to say as we toured the area.

When my Heart Broke

A tour doesn’t always offer time for reflection or decompression. We have a lot to see, we have appointments at sites, and the Holy Land is a living place. So we immediately left the Temple Mount and began our tour of the Via Dolorosa, the path that Jesus walked, carrying his cross, on the way to his crucifixion.

We began at the Antonia Fortress which adjoins the Temple Mount. This is the place where Jesus received his sentence and his cross. We journeyed down to the basement where the guards would have kept watch over prisoners. The pavement in this area is dated to the time of Jesus. It is one of the few places where we can say, with some level of certainty, these exact stones touched Jesus’ feet.

The Via Dolorosa would not be a reflective experience. As it was in Jesus’ day, it is lined with active shops and residences. Tourists and residents make the path busy.  So, knowing that for many of us, this was the most important experience along our tour, we insisted on taking a moment to reflect and prepare in the basement of the Antonia Fortress.

There, in one of the rooms where Jesus may have awaited his cross, we sat and read Luke 23 and then sat in silence. I had no indication that I would feel anything. I was tired, burdened, and ready to get started. But there in that silence, I recognized the tension that I felt in that square footage had been felt for thousands of years. Religion, politics, power, and culture had clashed in this place over and over and over again. They clashed when Ciaphas, Herod, Pilate, the crowds, and Jesus met there.

When Jesus stood up in this place, he rose from the last time that he would sit during his earthly life. From here he would carry his cross, sometimes falling, but never sitting in rest, to Golgotha. To be crucified. To die.

Slowly the tension built in my spirit. Slowly the tears filled my eyes. But suddenly the sobs wracked my body.

I had no more energy to hold it back. I didn’t want to weep. I definitely wasn’t interested in people seeing it. But I was at the end of my resources, and God was using that moment to minister to me in the heaviness of my spirit.

The tension that I felt there exists in the world. It exists in our own land. In our own lives. Within each of us. But it doesn’t have to overtake us. Because one day, it all fell upon a man and crushed him. He was buried. And he rose from the dead. And he spoke to a man named John and said:

“[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away…. See, I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21:4-5).

The cracks in a broken heart can make room for God to work grace in our lives. And, just as they have in the city of Jerusalem, God will continue to build new things on the rubble of our brokenness. What God builds is good.

Emotionally and physically tired, yet comforted and blessed, we continued our journey on the Via Dolorosa.

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