Jerusalem, more than any city of the Holy Land, is a place of layers. This is generally true of most places here. Long before Jerusalem was the City of David, it was the city of the Jebusites, the city where Melchizedec, King and Priest, ruled and prayed – he who offered bread and wine and received tithes of Abraham.
But the city of the Jebusites, and perhaps cities before that, are only among the deepest layers. There is the Jerusalem of David and of the First Temple. There is the Jerusalem of the Second Temple, expanded by Herod and trod by Christ and His Apostles. There is the Jerusalem of the Roman Emperor Titus who left it as a pile of rubble – the Jerusalem of Hadrian who changed its name and erected Roman temples. There is the Jerusalem of Byzantium with its excavations and erection of Christian shrines. That Jerusalem is followed by the Jerusalem of the Saracens and the Crusaders. On top of all of this is modern Jerusalem that mixes everything together, patrolled by soldiers with wary eye. The streets seem like those of a Byzantine Bazaar, though the goods offered can be as modern as those found anywhere.
Through all of this the pilgrim winds his way. Amid shouts of the vendors in their medieval stalls, the blaring of a Muezzin chanting prayers and calling to the Muslim faithful, he follows signs and looks for the holy places. There he will find more layers. A recently restored Byzantine chapel, above layers (sometimes accessible) of earlier shrines. Today we entered the Orthodox shrine that marks the birthplace of the Virgin Mary. There is the Church, and there is the stairway that leads deep underground to the level of the Jerusalem at the time of Christ. There you find a home that is hollowed out of the rock. Mary lived in a structure that is more cave than house. Along with the pilgrimage you find the rare treasure. In this case it was the keeper of the shrine. A local Jerusalemite who once lived in Dallas, TX. He shared a story with several of the women pilgrims of an encounter he had with the Mother of God deep in the recesses of her home that is found at the bottom of so many stairs. He said she “thanked him for taking care of her home.” There were other details. It melted away many layers.
I see Jerusalem as something of a metaphor of our modern world. We do not simply live in the modern world, but in a world that is nothing more than a layer that hides the many worlds that have gone before. If there is any characteristic of our modern world, it is that most people are unaware of what lies beneath them – and thus of the origins of anything at anytime.
This makes the journey to the heart all the more difficult. For the heart not only knows the present – it remembers all the past. In that Holy Place can be found Paradise itself, both the deepest layer of our existence and its final goal that lies beyond all we know.
Each life is something of a microcosm of this layering. Our stories are not usually simple but frighteningly complex, often including layers that were built even before we were born. There are parts of myself that were parts of my father and his father before him – and long before that. Orthodoxy does not speak so much of “original” sin as “ancestral” sin. Our sin seems to lie in layers – and thus we confess our way deep into the heart of who we are, healing sometimes far more than our own self.
Several times since coming to Jerusalem I have heard it said, “Solve the problems of this place and you will have solved the problems of the world.” I look at this place and its reflection of our modern lives and say, “You may be right.”
As a closing thought – there is a value – a particular value – in the antiquity of Orthodox worship. Modern worship suffers from the amnesia of its age. It cannot go deeper because it has no depth. Orthodox worship has its layers – like the reality of the world itself – and it invites those who participate to reach into those same layers and come to the reality of God. Healing the Jerusalem of the heart will indeed heal the whole world.