The Bedrock of Israel: Churches and Sacred Places in Israel

It’s been nearly a year since my trip to Israel, and I am still trying to process it. Maybe it’s because the trip was wedged between two hectic and difficult semesters. Maybe it’s because I had no idea what to expect, especially since the only knowledge of Israel I had to bring with me on the trip came from the Bible. Or maybe it’s because it took writing this essay to identify the improvements in my perspective that travel tends to bring. Because it is a bizarre thing to say, “Remember that time we went with all of our closest Hillsdale friends to a bar in Nazareth?”, or to return to Hillsdale and sit in the pews at St. Paul’s and listen to Scripture readings about places you have now visited.

But this trip did more than just establish Israel, the Holy Land, as a real place in my mind. Visiting Israel redefined for me what it means for something to be a sacred place. And this epiphany went beyond the surreal, sheer joy of visiting the places from the Bible stories of my Sunday school youth: dipping my toes in the Jordan River, gazing at the Sea of Galilee while standing on the Mount of the Beatitudes, walking around the ruins of Caesarea Philippi or the steps leading up to the Temple Mount. While visiting Holy Land sites was indeed at the heart of the trip, there was no way to see them outside of their real earthly state, bound up in church tradition, caught between three major western religions and a fragile political situation.

The scope of this essay will be limited to my perspective as a Christian visiting the Holy Land; I could go on for pages about how this trip helped me understand Judaism, the history of the Middle East, and present-day Israel’s politics, foreign policy, and culture. Nevertheless, it is my hope that this meditation on sacred places will be a beneficial preparation for those Hillsdale students who are traveling to Israel this January and a fitting way for students who went on the trip last year to reflect upon their experiences once again.

The Bedrock

The exact locations of most of the events in the New Testament remain unknown. The many churches we visited were reconstructions of even older churches built over sites determined by tradition, and the ruins we visited were still only outlines of and clues to what first century Israel looked like. But any sort of (peculiarly modern?) expectancy I had for historical accuracy was quickly and resoundingly surpassed by my awe at the devoted Christians who persisted in returning and rebuilding churches at these sites, even as political power over the land of Israel changed hands time and time again.

Each church was a physical reminder of the impermanent and passing nature of man’s structures, of the extreme frailty of mosaics and altars, of the ease with which stone walls can be torn down, only barely leaving the trace of a foundation. Yet the many layers of ruins and repairs that some of these churches have should point us towards both the nature of tradition and the trust that we ought to have in it.

I am reminded of an analogy Hilaire Belloc once used to describe tradition. In his essay, “A Remaining Christmas,” he goes into great detail about how his home in England was built over many centuries, and the way in which he and his family celebrate Christmas in it each year. The house and its traditions are built up and added to, ever so carefully and tenderly, over a long period of time, and through this all manner of hardship, pain, and destruction is weathered.

This house where such good things are done year by year has suffered all the things that every age has suffered. It has known the sudden separation of wife and husband, the sudden fall of young men under arms who will never more come home, the scattering of the living and their precarious return, the increase and the loss of fortune, all those terrors and all those lessenings and haltings and failures of hope which make up the life of man. But its Christmas binds it to its own past and promises its future; making the house an undying thing of which those subject to mortality within it are members, sharing in its continuous survival.

In a similar fashion, these churches seem sustained physically by their layers and spiritually by their long tradition as the destination of pilgrims and wanderers. Twentieth century walls are built around fifth century mosaics, such as in the Church of the Multiplication. The foundation of a fourth century church is visible at the Church of the Primacy of Peter, which was rebuilt in 1933. These churches have grown up over time, by patchwork efforts spread through centuries, out of a foundation that marks and commemorates as sacred the words, actions and life of Christ while he was on earth. And like Belloc’s home in England, the survival of these churches makes them a stronghold in which mortal man can be at peace as he casts his gaze heavenward.

For many of these churches, the centerpiece is a rock. The altars at the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, the Church of Peter’s Primacy, and the Church of the Multiplication are all built over a piece of limestone bedrock, which protrudes underneath, humbly and unimpressively. Though gorgeous religious artwork from all time periods adorns each of these churches, the centerpiece is a rough, uncut piece of rock; the most important spot in the church is, quite literally, scratched out of the earth. This is a striking reminder of Psalm 18:2: “The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” Furthermore, it’s a remarkable effort by the builders of the church to get to the very root of the place, to the very rock of the earth, and mark it as something sacred, to cut through all the layers of tribulation and destruction of the history of the place and touch its foundation: Christ. This bedrock is meant to mark where he multiplied the bread and the fish, or where he told Peter, “Upon this rock I will build my church,” or where his birth was announced to Mary by an angel. In the end, we don’t really need to know the exact geographical locations of these places; rather, simply being in the Holy Land and joining with the thousands of Christians who, for centuries, have held these places sacred is enough. Tradition makes this enough.

Where Two or Three Are Gathered

        Conflict over the location of sacred places of Christianity comes to a head with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Garden Tomb, two different sites that mark the location of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. The sites at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre have been venerated since the third century. The Garden Tomb, which is an authentic-looking tomb cut out of rock, has its evidence too, though it was not discovered until the nineteenth century. The site is now surrounded by a garden, with a few designated areas for outdoor worship. Unfortunately, the disagreement over which site is more likely to be the correct one also brings out every single fracture in the Church: Protestants prefer the Garden Tomb, and Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics prefer the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. And even within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, there is a long history of conflict between the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches, as well as Coptic, Syriac, and Ethiopian Christians, who are all territorial over which parts of the church they worship in.

        Dismayed as I was by the divisiveness, in the end I was far more drawn to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre than to the Garden Tomb, because there I found myself humbly behind a long line of pilgrims who have venerated this place for hundreds of years. One of the most remarkable things about this church is the Edicule, an 18th century structure built to enclose Christ’s tomb. Although I didn’t get the chance to go inside the Edicule, I read recently in National Geographic that the restoration being done to the tomb and the Edicule revealed that the original limestone slab that served as Christ’s burial bed was completely, miraculously intact, untouched for centuries. Archaeologists say that it is likely that even with the turbulent history of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (which has been destroyed multiple times by wars or earthquakes, and then rebuilt by a patchwork of structures) the tomb’s location has remained unchanged. Though it is impossible to know whether this was actually Jesus’ tomb (this particular site was first recognized in the third century, under the rule of Constantine), that Christian pilgrims have visited this church and venerated these places for roughly 1700 years makes this a tradition that bears tremendous weight.

        Yet the division between Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants over these sites remains an inescapable, seemingly irreparable blight, something that certainly didn’t go unfelt among those visiting with the Hillsdale group. But recalling Jesus’ words, spoken in the context of resolving conflict within the church, is a comfort here: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them” (Matthew 18:20). Even with the continual tearing down and building up of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the division among Christians between the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Garden Tomb, we must trust that Jesus will be among us when we are gathered in his name.

So would it benefit Christians to agree on a single site? For now, I can only pray for reconciliation and point towards the ecumenical opportunities that arise out of these two places. Both have developed their own traditions, and both illustrate important aspects of sacred places. A walk around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is an education in church history, each chapel, altar, or mosaic a palpable trace of Christians come before us. The thought that kept running through my mind, as I fixed my eyes upon the images and icons of Christ that are everywhere in the church, was that this place is holy. Gold leaf traces its way along grimy stone, ancient, subdued mosaics clash with the brilliance of newer pieces of art, everything shot through with transcendence. But where this church can be complex and disorienting, the Garden Tomb provides a welcome simplicity and quietness, in a setting where pilgrims can more easily envision the events surrounding Christ’s resurrection as they actually happened: the women bringing spices to the tomb and seeing the angel outside of it, John outrunning Peter to the tomb, Peter dashing inside the tomb and seeing only the linen cloths.

Set aside arguments over factual, archaeological accuracy, and these two places will have something to learn from one another, especially regarding the spirituality present in each place’s tradition.

Jerusalem, the Golden


“Jerusalem the golden,

With milk and honey blest—

The promise of salvation,

The place of peace and rest—

We know not, oh we know not

What joys await us there,

The radiancy of glory,

The bliss beyond compare”

from The Lutheran Hymnal

        The hymn “Jerusalem the Golden,” taken from Bernard of Cluny’s twelfth century poem, “On Contempt for the World,” is an excellent example of the kind of presence the city of Jerusalem and the land of Israel have in the Christian imagination. It is a place of “eternal rest,” where all the saints, angels, and martyrs sing to Christ, their Savior and King. It is a beautiful, familiar image, one that carries even greater weight in my mind and heart now that I have seen earthly Jerusalem in person, whether while walking along the Via Dolorosa or looking out at the city skyline while standing atop the Mount of Olives.

        But this present-day Jerusalem can only be understood by through awareness of its tenuous existence, and the violence that threatens the country daily. A major focus of the trip was Israel’s foreign policy and the conflict in the Middle East. We had the opportunity to see much of this first-hand. We drove through the West Bank, toured the Golan Heights near Syria, and spent an afternoon in Sderot, a town near the Gaza Strip that is bombed almost weekly. All the while, I could only stand aghast at what I saw of a country at war, because I would get to go home, to a place completely safe from any kind of violence like this.

        It was in this context that we were introduced to Israel’s many sacred places—Christian, Jewish, and Muslim—that have both caused and survived so much conflict. I cannot do justice here to sacred places like the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock. I can only be reminded of another hymn, entitled “The World is Very Evil.” It is to the same tune as “Jerusalem the Golden,” and the verses are from the same poem by Bernard of Cluny.

        “Strive, man, to win that glory;

Toil, man, to gain that light;

Send hope before to grasp it

        Til hope be lost in sight,

        Exult O dust and ashes,

        The Lord shall be thy part.

His only, His forever,

Thou shalt be and thou art.”

These two hymns that I now hear in church with my memories of Jerusalem and Israel in mind, help clarify what it means for a place to be sacred—it reaches to the rock of the earth, amidst the dust and ashes and subsequent repair and renewal, and simultaneously points our gaze heavenward.

        “Exult, O dust and ashes.

        The Lord shall be thy part.”

Sarah Reinsel is a senior studying English.

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