The Old City of Jerusalem never fails to deliver something new and interesting. Each visit It is a filled with unique sights, smells and sounds.
Jerusalem didn’t disappoint June 8 when I entered the Damascus Gate just as the Muslims were leaving the Mosques after Friday prayers. The city gave me a new experience, new understanding. The covered streets and open plazas were teeming with people. The Muslims were ending their holy day; the Jews were readying themselves for theirs. Caught in the middle, I felt like a salmon swimming upstream in a river guarded by hunger bears. There simply wasn’t enough space for all the people coming in and those going out, much less the street vendors crowding in on the walkway.
It took some time and a bit of pushing to make it through the first plaza area (not too wide and about the length of a football field) to the narrow, covered streets so characteristic of the Old City. A few years back this crowd would have bothered me. But this time, it was fine. It was an experience.
Once we entered the covered streets dating to the Crusader period we street lined with little stalls and rooms filled with goods for sell. In the Arab Quarter it’s meat, fish, nuts, spices, produce, shoes, clothes, toiletries and much more. In the Christian Quarter it’s t-shirts, trinkets, souvenirs, olive wood decorations and religious items like icons, candles and anointing oil. Every purchase is an exercise in haggling.
The walls in Old City are covered with an ancient, crusty patina. Some areas are fairly clean; other corners are downright dirty. The air is heavy with the smell of cigarette and hookah smoke and an occasional whiff of aromatic spices and roasting meat.
The first time I came to the city, I expected some type of spiritual experience. But I don’t remember any profound moment that I felt any closer to God. I do remember thinking about man’s potential along with his deep depravity. I don't mean this as a critique, merely an observation.
Even the sites related to Jesus leave me empty. The legacy of the humble, suffering servant and Savior of the world is remembered with too much bling. The most likely site of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection – the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – does not inspire me to worship Jesus. I don’t think of Jesus this way. The place where He may have been laid is covered in tacky layers of gold, marble and bedazzlement. The traditional site of the cross, located in the same building, is surrounded by altars and too much decoration. These are odd ways to remember the Savior who told the Samaritan woman (John 4:23), “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.”
In this ancient, historic city you see many expressions of devotion, age-old racial/religious divisions and the danger of religion without relationship. But I love Jerusalem and I love its people and I enjoy going there. Jerusalem is me and it’s you. Seeing the city’s flaws is like a look into our own souls. The profound spiritual experience I have in Jerusalem is not so much about who God is, but who I am without Him.
Jerusalem keenly illustrates what we become without intervention and our need for a Savior. Good thing Jesus intervened for you and me … in Jerusalem.