We stood in a tight crowd, unable to move, barely able to breathe, waiting our turn. Security guards with high-powered automatic weapons had been charged with crowd control outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on Good Friday. Only a few could go in at a time.
“Hey, no shoving!” I spoke sharply to the person behind me. I had been pushed hard from behind. A quick look told me that someone in my own tour group had pushed me. She herself was frightened. A second later an older man in our group yelled out, “You just hit my wife! Stop that.” He pushed back.
Someone else yelled, “She’s got two children with her. She’s using her baby as a battering ram to get through the crowd.”
The woman with the children began to yell at the older man. She rained blows on his head and arms. His tiny little wife looked at me, simply terrified. He defended himself but did not hit back. The next day, his arms were covered in nasty bruises.
Before arriving in the courtyard, we had walked the famed Via Dolorosa, the path of Jesus as he carried his cross to his execution. Our Israeli tour guide insisted we start early to avoid the worst of the crowds.
After stopping for readings at the first nine stations, we entered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre courtyard at 9:30 am. The last five stations are within that historic building. At 10:00 am., we’d been led out in groups of five for a bathroom break. A nearby shop was owned by our tour guide’s father and he made his facilities available to us. The church itself would be opened at 10:30. About 500 people had been praying inside since 8:45 am and had to bet let out before we could go in.
The guide had positioned us near where he thought the barriers would be opened, but had misreckoned how the crowd flow would be handled. We were at the wrong end. He shepherded us through the rapidly milling crowd toward the entrance point where we waited our turn.
We stood body-to-body, each watching out for the other so we would not be separated. No orderly lines here. Even so, we had come to worship and that understanding had permeated our waiting and along with most around us..
When the shoving started around 11:00 am, our anxiety levels raised. It would have taken very little for a real riot to begin. Fortunately, others remained calm.
The woman with the battering ram baby continued to push through the crowd until she got to the front of the barrier. She was in the next group to be offered access to the church. Five minutes later, our group got through.
Much to my shock, we saw this angry, scowling, dangerous woman standing outside the church with her two kids. I don’t know that she even bothered to go in. She just wanted to get to the front of the line.
I grieved for her even as I knew her irresponsible actions pushed the crowd to the edge of a dangerous riot where many could have been badly injured or even killed.
I grieved because her selfishness characterizes so much of the world.
I grieved because the essence of Jesus’s message was violated by her actions, yet I would imagine she justified it in her own mind because she got what she wanted.
I grieved because of the fear she brought.
After finally getting into the church, we climbed a scary, slippery steep set of stairs and reached the 10th station, the one that remembers the place where the spikes were nailed into Jesus’ wrists and ankles. There my grief turned to nearly unstoppable tears. The agony overwhelmed me.
We were again caught in a tight crowd, waiting our turn to touch the rock of Golgotha. Suddenly the word came back, “Move back. There’s going to be a procession.”
Moving back was hardly an option, so we squeezed tighter together. I could see little, but in time heard a group of Greek Orthodox priests sing the Good Friday liturgy. I suppose they sang for about 30 minutes, but time no longer mattered because of the beauty of the antiphonal music.
It also gave me time to reflect on our experience and the things we do to one another just to get our own way. Jesus had harmed no one, but his message threatened those in religious and political power. He had to go. Silence him. Keep the people oppressed.
The masses will soon forget such a one so the status quo will remain intact.
Except the dead didn’t stay dead. And the people didn’t forget. And the message did get out. And the doors to the realm of grace were thrown open to the outsider, to the poor, to the oppressed, to the leper, to the women, to all those on the margins.
Those words and that message could have changed the entire world. It has changed the lives of many. But the folks in power co-opted it for themselves, closing again the doors to the realm of grace, restricting access only to the privileged. Again they shut out the outsider, the poor, the oppressed, the leper, the women, all those on the margins. This is the tragedy of much institutional church history.
And that was my Good Friday worship in the Holy Land. Thought-provoking, tear-producing, angst-ridden, and experience-rich. I will never forget it.
[Note: a version of this article is slated to run in the Friday, April 10, 2015 edition of the Denton Record Chronicle.]