There are many disputes in the world over “holy places.”
In Turkey, there stands a building called Hagia Sophia—which in Greek means “Holy Wisdom.” It’s actually named after Jesus—who, in I Corinthians, is called “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (I Corinthians 1:24). This magnificent edifice was built to the Saviour’s glory in 537 A.D. For more than 900 years, it was the site of wondrous Christian worship. Emissaries from Vladimir of Russia in the 900s were enraptured by the worship there: “We did not know if we were in heaven or on earth. But we know God dwells among these people.”
Then in 1451, the Turks conquered Constantinople. And the identity of Hagia Sophia changed radically—it became a mosque, devoted not to the worship of Christ, but of Allah. With the rise of Mustapha Kemal “Ataturk” in the early 20th century, Hagia Sophia changed from a mosque to a museum. Seeking to deemphasize the role of Islam, Ataturk made Hagia Sophia “neutral ground” religiously. But recently Turkey’s direction has changed radically. The Erdogan government has rolled back many of Ataturk’s reforms—and suggested turning Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. The Turkish supreme court recently handed Erdogan a setback and rejected the idea of turning the great church back into a mosque. But now Erdogan is using U.S. recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights as a talking point to turn Hagia Sophia back into an Islamic sanctuary.
Another holy place that has been embroiled in controversy is the Temple Mount—the site of the Jewish Temple (destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, save for a single wall) and now also the site of two mosques. The place is the third holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina. It was in Muslim hands until 1967, when the Israelis captured it along with all of east Jerusalem. The Israelis wisely left the Muslims in charge of the site—it is administered by an agency in Jordan. In spite of that, the site continues to cause turmoil. Jews may visit there but are not allowed to pray —a policy stringently enforced by Muslim guards. Violence occasionally breaks out. Conspiracy theories that the Jews plan to take over the site are widely distributed.
A small order of nuns owns a magnificent convent in Los Angeles. The local Roman Catholic diocese saw an opportunity to make some money, so they made arrangements to relocate the nuns and to sell the property to a famous pop singer. The nuns, however, sued the church to keep the property. Things got nasty. One of the sisters actually dropped dead in court, so overwrought was she that the church would take away the nuns’ long-time home.
How sad it is that holy places, which should be sites of peace and serenity, so often become venues for anger and dispute.
My perspective on holy places was largely shaped by something I heard Bishop Kallistos Ware (a convert from the Church of England to Greek Orthodoxy) say many years ago. He said that three key words in Christianity are one/some/all. Ware applied this to the idea of holy places: One place is holy—heaven, the dwelling of God. Some places are holy—places like the Temple Mount, Hagia Sophia, and yes, our sanctuary at St. Paul’s where we encounter God in the Word and the Sacraments. But ultimately all places are holy. God is everywhere, and that means every square inch of His creation is filled with His presence!
Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land were popular in the years before the Muslims conquered it in 637. People rejoiced to visit the very places where Jesus walked. There is a famous memoir by a nun who visited Jerusalem during Holy Week. How moved she was to celebrate the events of that blessed time at the very sites where they happened! The very places where Christ sacrificed Himself for our salvation, and rose again to give us life! The rituals carried out in Jerusalem influence our Holy Week observance to this very day.
A great Christian thinker named Jerome lived in the Holy Land during this time. Someone from Europe wrote him a letter, saying that they hoped they could make the journey to Jerusalem to grow closer to God. Jerome wrote back, telling them that the journey was perilous—and that they should take heed of the Saviour’s words: “The Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). In other words, what counts is not holy geography but the dwelling of God’s Spirit with us—the Spirit who makes us into holy places. “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 6:19)
Even if we cannot make it to Jerusalem this Holy Week, we still can know the awe and the wonder of this holy time—right here in Amityville, right here at St. Paul’s. Christianity is a wonderfully local religion. Our Muslim friends are required, if at all possible, to make the haj pilgrimage to Mecca—but in our faith, we get everything we need right here where we live, in the Word and the Sacraments celebrated in our church, in the Spirit living in our hearts.
A poem I love—which has been a part of our current angel Bible study—is Francis Thompson’s “The Kingdom of God” (subtitled “in no strange land”). Some of the verses are:
O world invisible, we view thee! O world intangible, we touch thee!
O world unknowable, we know thee! Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!...
Not where the wheeling systems darken, and our benumbed conceiving soars
The drift of pinions, would we hearken, beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.
The angels keep their ancient places—turn but a stone and start a wing.
Tis ye, tis your estranged faces that miss the many-splendoured thing
But (when so sad thou canst not sadder) Cry—and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder, pitched betwixt heaven and Charing Cross.
Yea, in the night, my soul, my daughter, Cry—clinging heaven by the hems;
And lo, Christ walking on the water Not of Gennesareth, but Thames!
Change “Charing Cross” to “Merrick Road”
(yeah, I know it doesn’t rhyme) or “Thames” to “Great South Bay” and you’ll get
the poem’s message—God’s kingdom is not in outer space, nor far across the
sea…it’s right here where we make our home!
He makes His home with us!
So if you can’t make it to the Holy Land during Holy Week this year—or any year—St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Amityville will more than do. Join us!
God loves you and so do I!
Pastor David W. Anglin