At Calvary God holds onto us
Some years ago Barbara and I took a group of church members to the Holy Land. We had a good guide, a Palestinian, who did not insult our intelligence by saying that the sites we visited were authentic. He would always offer this disclaimer, “Tradition has it that Jesus was born here,” or “tradition has it that the Garden of Gethsemane was here.”
When he took us to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, he prepared our group by telling us that this was the traditional site of Golgotha and the empty tomb.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is located in the old city of Jerusalem. The streets are narrow and filled with shopkeepers hawking their wares. The church is on the outside and inside–how shall I say–quite ugly. There are three primary custodians of the church, first appointed when Crusaders held Jerusalem, the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic churches. Each of the groups is allocated a specific time during the day for services. There had been a fist fight a few days before we arrived between a priest of the Roman Catholic church and the Greek Orthodox inside the church over something or another. Each group claimed that they and they alone had the rights to the church.
So you can understand why I was far from inspired when our group was herded into the church. The inside of the church is dark and dingy, the incense of generations staining the walls. We lined up, single-file to approach the rocky outcropping near the altar, the place where Jesus allegedly was crucified. I was deeply skeptical and offended by this tourist trap. I was not going to be seduced by this bit of blarney.
One by one I watched the members of our church approach the rocky outcropping. One retired school teacher reached over and kissed it. Another knelt and said a brief prayer. A man in our group with debilitating heart disease, who had a life-long dream to visit the Holy Land, was sobbing convulsively.
When it came time for me to approach the rock, I realized that I might never be in Jerusalem again. And as I stood there for a moment, I realized that maybe it wasn’t this place, but it was some place close by where Jesus had died. And I felt something welling up inside of me, something I neither wanted nor could control, and tears began to leak from the corner of my eyes.
I thought of my dad dying far before his time. And I thought of how bereft I had felt without him in my life, and the resilience of my mother, who had to pick up at the age of 49 and make her way in the world alone.
I thought of Ethel Ritting, a member of my church, whose face was eaten away with cancer, and who had asked me again and again, “Why is God doing this to me?”
I thought of Steve Van Ness, who at 20 years of age was in a motorcycle accident. Members of our church gathered in the in the emergency room of the hospital as news spread about his accident. I stood by Steve as his life ebbed away. We all gathered around his bed and held hands and prayed. And in that circle were his mother and his grandfather and grandmother and his brother.
I thought about all the pain and grief and sorrow in the world, and somehow it flooded in on me there. I don’t know why I was so suddenly and reluctantly moved except to say that at that moment I realized that at the cross all the sorrows of the world seemed to dwell, or at least all the sorrows I had ever seen, all of them entrusted to the outstretched arms of God, and taken to God’s heart as well.
Maybe that’s what it’s finally about, this cross that we embrace, that through it we hold on for dear life to the God who has given us life, and there at Calvary God holds onto us as well.