It felt like a dream. I was walking down the road from the Mount of Olives to the Kidron Valley with a group from seminary. Across the valley staring back at me was the Beautiful Gate, the entrance to the temple mount. It’s very likely that when Jesus triumphantly entered the city of Jerusalem during Passover he passed through this gate. Bordered by olive trees, I slowly walked the road toward the valley floor. The Garden of Gethsemane to my left; straight ahead across the valley was the temple mount; to my left, across the valley was Caiaphas’s palace.
We were in the place where the Logos of God became flesh. For me, standing on the steps of the High Priest’s, Caiaphas, palace smashed space and time together. In that place we could see the approximate location of the upper room, the Garden of Gethsemane, the road to Jerusalem down the Mount of Olives, and the palace of Pontius Pilates. From this one point we could trace the steps of Jesus in the final days leading up to the crucifixion.
In that moment, all my years of reading the Bible, listening to sermons; all the flannel board depictions from Sunday school became real. It was, for me, the difference between seeing the sonogram image of your baby and seeing your baby for the first time. What was flat becomes three-dimensional. Everything becomes more real. Everything is more beautiful.
Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth (Psalm 50:2).
The word ‘Zion’ is used for the first time in the Bible when David took control of Jerusalem. Soon after this, the Ark of the Covenant, the presence of God, is brought into the city thereby making Jerusalem the center of worship in Jewish life. Most of the time, when we read the word ‘Zion’ in the Old Testament it is a reference to Jerusalem. But Zion became much more than a reference to the city of Jerusalem; it became a reference to the presence of God. Emmanuel. God present with us.
Christian hope is rooted in the incarnation of God—the act of divinity putting on flesh and getting dirt under his nails and salt on his lips and crows feet in the corners of his eyes from squinting in the sun. Zion, that place where the divine is present because heaven and earth co-mingle is no longer a mountain top but is now a person. Through the incarnation the ineffable God became effable. Perceivable. Tangible. Palpable. Touchable.
And then, as if that were not enough, in a perfect demonstration of love and beauty, Jesus Christ walked through the streets of the city carrying a cross so that he might bear the sins of the world on the very cross rubbing his shoulders raw. After his resurrection and ascension, Jesus sent the Spirit on Pentecost so that the presence of God might dwell in every believer. There is no other love like this. There is no other story that compares to this story. There is nothing that is as beautiful as this.
Out of Zion, the perfection of Beauty, God shines forth.
On the third day of our trip, we got into a van and went to East Jerusalem. We went where the road was filled with potholes and crumbled on the edges. We went where the trash was simply thrown over the side of the hill. We went where the houses had water tanks on the roof in case the water was turned off. We went where people lived in fear of their houses being demolished without warning. We went where, literally, the sidewalk ends. On the third day of the trip we saw the wall.
The wall exists to separate Jews from Palestinians. The state reason for the wall is security—which it does provide. But it also separates family from family, friend from friends, rich from poor, haves from have nots, and people from hope. As we drove across the checkpoint in the wall into the city of Bethlehem, the birthplace of the hope of the world, our guide said to us, “Welcome to prison.” This was a place where people cannot travel freely within their own country. If a Palestinian from Bethlehem wants to go to Jerusalem, even East Jerusalem—which is supposed to be Palestine’s according to the 1949 Armistice Agreements—they needed a permit. And even if they got a permit they are not guaranteed passage.
This is a place where front doors are welded shut so people are funneled into alleys allowing others to use the road without worry. This is a place where kids have to hold a non-violent protest for their right to play soccer in an alley. A place where a woman and her son can’t walk down the street without being harassed by men putting their stake on land they claim belonged to their ancestors.
This is a place where a young mother, holding one of the most beautiful babies I have ever laid eyes on asked me, “What do you think Palestinians deserve?” All I could say was, “To live in peace.” Quietly she looked at the floor and whispered, “Why doesn’t the rest of the world does not think that?” This is where people are forgotten, rejected and stripped of hope.
Out of Zion, the perfection of Beauty, God shines forth?
Suffering doesn’t just exist in Palestine. Our world is filled with people who feel rejected, untouchable, and unwanted. There are people stuck behind physical walls feeling this. But there are many imprisoned behind emotional, societal, and spiritual walls. Suffering in the shadow of Zion is not just the experience of the Palestinians. When those in whom the Spirit of God dwells fail to love those who are hurting, marginalized, neglected, or forgotten in our midst, we find stuffing in the shadow of Zion.
Romi, an Israeli man who lost his 14 year old daughter to a Palestinian suicide bomber, sat across from us telling his story. Next to him sat a Palestinian man whose brother had died in an Israeli jail after being beaten and the treatment he needed withheld. Together they told us of the deep healing that needed to happen on both sides of the wall. Israelis were hurting. Palestinians were hurting. And together they were working to bring peace to the land. They told us about their efforts and the progress being made on a grassroots level. As they talked, Romi said something that, to this day, has reverberated in my brain. He said, “We bang our heads against the wall, and there are cracks. . .cracks of hope.”
While he didn’t state it as such, it is what I believe we as Jesus’ disciples should be doing — so the beauty of Zion may be seen by the world. No, we can’t meet all the needs of the world. Nor can we solve every problem. But we, followers of Jesus, can bang our heads against the walls. And from behind the walls, through the cracks, out of Zion, the perfection of Beauty, God will shine forth.