(The second in a series of posts in which I reflect on my “group study pilgrimage” to Israel, February 10-20. First post here.)
I saw Lily Tomlin’s one-woman show, “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” way back in the mid-80’s. In the play, aliens trying to understand humanity are intrigued by what one of Lily’s many characters calls “Goose Bump Experiences,” those mysterious moments of transcendence that cause human spines to tingle and that manifest themselves physically in that fleeting phenomenon of the flesh.
Since seeing the show, I’ve been on the lookout for Goose Bump Experiences. But they don’t manifest on command; I have never been able to wake up in the morning and say, “I’m going to have a ‘Goose Bump Experience’ today,” and then make it happen. Like love and, for me at least, faith, Goose Bump Experiences are always unexpected.
In Israel, I saw many amazing, meaningful things. But the Goose Bump Experiences were indeed always a surprise. Here are two . . .
Goose Bump Experience Number One – Here I Am
We spent our second night in Israel at Ginosaur, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. After dinner, I exited the dining room and followed a sign “to the Sea.” I sauntered down that paved path alone – my inner introvert appreciated some solitary time in the midst of traveling with 36 other pastors. I was in no hurry and it was still less than a five minute walk. I had no deep purpose for my stroll; the crisp evening air and the charge of being somewhere I’d never been were enough to get me moving. The huge buffet supper I’d just wolfed down didn’t hurt, either.
But as I wandered down that path, my mind wandered and I found myself remembering. The Sea of Galilee. I had first heard of it in Sunday School years and years before – Jesus walking on water, Jesus calming the storm. A miraculous catch of fish! Cutout characters on a flannel board. Then, years when those stories meant nothing, years when I did not believe anything that could not be physically explained – walking on water, how ridiculous! – could happen. Now, here I was walking to that very sea.
I never expected to be here. Not just geographically, not just physically at the Sea of Galilee, but here in my journey of faith. Here as someone who believed in the miracles and the teaching and the compassion that happened on and around this body of water. I never expected to trust my life, to pin my very being, to the One who had walked here 2000 years before.
Who had walked here.
Yes, a definite Goose Bump Experience.
Goose Bump Experience Number Two – Watching the Audience
In “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life of the Universe,” those aliens trying to understand humans finally manage their own Goose Bump Experience. It happens at a play. The aliens are overwhelmed not just by the emotion of the but of the communal nature of the feelings. It turns out that the goose bumps came from watching the audience; no one had told them to pay attention to the play . . .
There were times during the trip to Israel when the sarcastic cynic that dwells just below my surface poked his jaded head up for air. Standing in line in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was one such time.
The queue was to get into the Edicule (or Aedicule), the “little house” which housed the Tomb of Christ. Well, maybe. There was a competing spot for the tomb in another part of Jerusalem we’d visit later in the tour. But this was the place with the big – and I mean huge – church.
And speaking of competition, this humongous church isn’t big enough for the squabbling denominations that call it holy. Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Coptic, and so on all have staked out their territories. The Ethiopian Christians have a chapel on the roof because they weren’t allowed inside. The Coptic Church attached their own little structure to the main Edicule (a little house on the little house?) I appreciate denominational diversity, but rival churches in a place purported to commemorate the place where Jesus was crucified (upstairs and to the right) and was buried (downstairs) does not strike me as very “holy.” And certainly contributed to my deteriorating attitude in the line.
Just being in a line did not help. I hate lines. I will change lanes three or more times at a grocery store if I sense one or another is moving a little faster. But there was only one line here, a mob of humanity waiting to get into the two little rooms of the Edicule where the public is allowed; one contains what is left of the stone rolled in front of the tomb, and one is a memorial to where the tomb itself was located. Why a “little house” to impede traffic at all, I wondered. Surely there was a better, more efficient way to move people through.
Had they thought of getting a consult from Disney World?
Yes, those were the unholy thoughts that increasingly filled my mind in that hour and a half line. It was kind of cool to hear folks being shushed by Priests of All Denominations, though (the Copts were especially harsh).
I admit my recollection of reading during the wait was less Mark the Evangelist and more Mark Twain who, in Innocents Abroad (one of my favorite books), wrote about this place:
When one stands where the Saviour was crucified, he finds it all he can do to keep it strictly before his mind that Christ was not crucified in a Catholic Church. He must remind himself every now and then that the great event transpired in the open air, and not in a gloomy, candle-lighted cell in a little corner of a vast church, up-stairs – a small cell all bejeweled with flashy ornamentation, in execrable taste. . .
I actually think the ornamentation is quite beautiful, but when my place in line finally reaches the front of the Edicule, I am more intrigued by the 15 or 20 foot-high candles (How do they light those things and put them out? Whose job is that?) than by the prospect of my imminent entry into the place where Christ may have been entombed.
But then . . .
I am almost to the door that will allow me entry into the Edicule. Finally. But right there is a special entrance into the line for dignitaries and the infirm. A group of three is allowed to join the queue right in front of me. There are two women who appear to be about my age and another woman who could be as ancient as this place. She is bent over as she walks. “Shuffles” is a better description of her movement as she leans on the two younger women for support. I can’t help but ask, “How old?”
“Eighty-seven. Now she can go happy.”
The accent is American. My first thought is, “How did they ever get her onto the plane and through the airports to get her here? That’s some kind of love in action right there.”
What comes next aren’t thoughts at all. I step into the first chamber behind this woman and (I find out later) her granddaughters. She places a hand on the glass case that holds the stone that sealed the tomb, not for support but in reverence. Her eyes close and she is still. Then, leaning on her granddaughters, she steps into the main chamber. It is not big enough for me to join them but I watch through the door. She lays her arms and whole torso on the rock shelf there. Her lips move in silent prayer. She weeps. So do her granddaughters.
So do I.
Tears and goosebumps.
Watching the audience.
Does it really matter if this is the exact spot of Jesus’ tomb?
What really matters is that the tomb was empty. It still is.
I think that’s what that aged woman knew. That is the thing of which I needed to be reminded.
That trio could have gotten in front of any of the thousands of people in that line. They got in front of me. What a gift. What grace.
Thanks be to God!
(I should note that “The Search for Intelligent Signs of Life in the Universe” was written by Jane Wagner.)