Sacred Places

Note: This post incorporates content from a foundational theological course entitled, “Formations of Christian Traditions” in which I am currently studying the development of Christianity from 0-1500 AD. We’re reading some really cool texts in this course that I’ve never been exposed to before, one of which I share with you today.

Returning to a space of loss is emotional to say the least, which is why it is so tempting to avoid visiting a gravesite, or a particular room that may remind us of someone we have lost. My visit to the Holy Land in 2015 was unfortunately marked by this loss. It was by the Sea of Galilee that my mom got a phone call from my sister, who was back home in Virginia, saying that she was pregnant with our family’s first grandchild. Yet, by the time we ended our trip in Jerusalem, we had learned that my sister had miscarried. Just as we had walked through the life of Jesus in Galilee to his suffering and death in Jerusalem, so too, we walked through the life and death of this unborn child in our family.  Unbeknownst to us at that time, we had been on a parallel journey both as pilgrims and as family. In the Holy Land, this sacred place, we had a rare connection with the divine, one that only makes sense in time. 

Physical Space

Sailing on the Sea of Galilee with my parents, Oct 2015

Sailing on the Sea of Galilee with my parents, Oct 2015

As a Catholic currently studying the origination of Christianity, I am struck again and again by just how many of our traditions today took root so soon after Christ’s death and resurrection. On this great tradition of pilgrimages to the Holy Land, we honor God’s presence in a particular space, though we may never fully understand its meaning. Like myself, people visit the Holy Land in Israel today in order to see what we believe are the sites of Jesus’ life in the Gospel narratives. In my experience of a Catholic-led tour of the Holy Land, a visit to each site included a prayer accompanied by a Gospel reading about what specifically happened in that space. In the most significant holy sites, a church had been built up around that site, allowing us to celebrate Mass there. My visit turned these events from fiction in mind, to a reality on a ground I could still walk upon today.

In the 4th century CE, a pilgrim named Egeria visited Jerusalem just some three hundred years after Jesus’ passion to commemorate his entrance into the city and his crucifixion. In her diary about her pilgrimage, Egeria places special emphasis on the correspondence of each place to the Liturgy said there amongst her and the other pilgrims. Not only did their readings correspond to the places they toured, but their actions did as well, dramatizing each movement of Jesus’ short time in Jerusalem. On Palm Sunday, she and other pilgrims stood at the gates to Jerusalem with palms imitating the crowds that welcomed Jesus as he entered Jerusalem (Ruth, Steenwyk, Witvliet, 53). Then late in the evening on Holy Thursday, they gathered in the Garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus and his disciples did together before his arrest (54). Though she provides a straightforward and factual account, Egeria offers this bit of commentary: “It is impressive to see the way all the people are moved by these readings, and how they mourn. You could hardly believe how every single one of them weeps... because of the manner in which the Lord suffered for us” (56). Clearly, this combination of place, timing and reenactment all stirred emotions in people—emotions that take the form of prayer through grief for God’s son.

Mental Space

My mom with my new niece, Oct 2017

My mom with my new niece, Oct 2017

Since my pilgrimage in 2015, I have rarely returned to my memories of the Holy Land. It was a trip I could never fully make sense of in between the flurry of sites we visited and the loss of life in our family. Shortly after the start of 2017, though, my sister announced to us that she was pregnant again. While the news for our family was first met with some worry, by October, my niece, Lexie, was born into this world.

Egeria’s account reminded me of the spaces that were most “appropriate” to our family, corresponding not only in place and word, but in what resonated with our expectation for new life. In particular, my mother seemed most drawn to the spaces Mary inhabited. Together, she and I stood outside the supposed room of Mary’s Annunciation in Nazareth, when the Angel Gabriel announced Jesus’ conception to Mary. Standing there together in front of this room, all else that was around us fell silent and remained remarkably still. As I look back on our conversations, it was clear that my mother related to Mary so deeply, in the joy of expecting children and in the challenges of raising them as well. I could sense her expectation and joy in the gift of family and new life that was to come. Suddenly, as I return to my memories of the Holy Land, I am not stricken by grief, but thankful for this new life in our family. While our Holy Land trip had been marked with this sense of sadness and loss, it is with the birth of Lexie that I can see the hope that comes after despair—the resurrection that follows the death, the life that yearns to be lived.

Church of the Annunication, Nazareth

Church of the Annunication, Nazareth

Like those early pilgrims, we go to these sacred places out of tradition, or perhaps obligation, not knowing what we will receive or how we will react. For many of them, observing the death of Christ was a time for deep mourning and tears. Though it may be difficult to fully relate to level of emotion, I am reminded of the times where I have mourned and wept for the loss of a loved one. We cannot always make sense of it, but often it is a sacred place that invites us to that response—a space that houses our pains and invokes our cries.

May we honor these places, and perhaps even return to them in our minds, to help us make sense, to aid us in our mourning and fill us with hope.

For Further Reading: 

Walking Where Jesus Walked: Worship in Fourth-Century Jerusalem by Lester Ruth, Carrie Steenwyk and John D. Witvliet - A fascinating assembly of written accounts, sermons, and environs regarding worship in Jerusalem at this time. Also the source for the Egeria pilgrim narrative I quoted above.

For Further Reflection:

  • What is a significant space in your life for reflection? Would you call it sacred, why or why not? What does "sacred" mean to you?
  • Are there places that house bad memories? How can you return to them? Could you invite them to teach you something?
FaithGreg ThompsonComment