“Welcome home!” This is first thing Mike, our tour guide, said to us upon arrival. Blame it on the jet lag, but the only thing that registered in my brain was dissonance. It’s not that I was hostile to being welcomed “home”—just a bit tired and cranky. I couldn’t help but argue the obvious, that this place was no more my home than Jamaica or Seattle or Newark. Now, of course, I see what he was getting at.
For centuries, Christians have felt the pull of Jerusalem. Horatio Spafford, author of the beloved hymn “It Is Well with My Soul,” left his home in Chicago to await Christ’s return in Jerusalem. His wife Anna survived him, making Jerusalem her longtime home—longer than she lived in her native Norway or Chicago. The American Colony Hotel stands today as part of their legacy of home-making in Jerusalem.
As the Spaffords and countless others have discovered, there is such a thing as a soul home. The Holy Land is perhaps the most prominent soul home in the world.
As for me, some part of me is still there. Some part of there remains with me. This, I believe, happens through the eyes.
There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became,
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day,
Or for many years or stretching cycles of years. . . .
I developed a strange habit after returning from the trip. Throughout the day I’d glance at the clock and think, “It’s noon here, so it’s 8 p.m. there.” What’s the point of this 8-hour addition habit? To imagine. When it’s 9 a.m. here, it’s 5 p.m. there, and in my mind’s eye I remember what 5 p.m. in January in Jerusalem looks like.
Let’s say it’s 9 a.m. here and 5 p.m. there: what do I see?
I see the worn rectangles of a courtyard beneath our feet. Behind us looms a slab of bedrock with an unlikely tree sprouting from its side, like some massive, antlered beast napping on Mount Zion. Before us stand a bronze statue of Peter denying his connection to Jesus—Non novi illum—and Mike, the tour guide, placing the emphasis squarely on Peter’s repentance and God’s overwhelming forgiveness.
For us it’s dusk on Friday afternoon, for many locals it’s verging on Sabbath. As the sun lowers in the sky, the air chills. Suddenly, the vista beyond the trees lights up like a jewelry store. Evening rays slant across the city, kindling golden domes—this jewelry catches the eye first. The eye then travels from golden domes to golden stones—the extraordinary limestone Legos of which Jerusalem is built—suggesting a sort of unity, visual if not actual.
A sudden shock of recognition: so this is what the poets meant by “Jerusalem the Golden.” I’d assumed that such descriptive language was set aside for the New Jerusalem, all golden streets and jasper walls. Yet the golden setting before our eyes seems like a striking preview of beauty yet to come.
It’s not only the beauty of stone that stuns the eye, but the striation of colors: a slate-blue sky above, muted green vegetation below, and in between the glow of terraced limestone, stone made flesh-colored through the alchemy of winter afternoon light.
There’s the word I’ve searched my mind for: flesh, not in the context of sin or temptation or Peter’s clumsy denial, but in the light of the many-membered body of Christ. In the elusive light of unity, foreshadowed by these stones.
“The Jerusalem stone, so resilient and supple, bows to the transient follies of humankind, bearing testimony like a hundred witnesses, and yet, remains silent.” –Chaim Be’er
But this is all very impressionistic. Is it obvious that I really don’t know where to begin with sight, most privileged of human senses, on a sight-seeing tour? Well, it’s true: I don’t know where to start.
While I appreciate all five senses, sight surely dominates my imagination. The visual is built into the word imagination—a sort of room in the mind where images are created and altered. On the trip I took 200 pictures on my iPhone, but I took countless more with my eyes, filling up the tank of imagination. It’s difficult to narrow down this mass of images.
Okay, here’s the less impressionistic account. We saw everything. Maybe not everything, but we got our money’s worth. In one week, we saw the important sights of Herodion, Bethlehem, the Judean Desert, Jericho, the Jordan River, Qumran, the Dead Sea, the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, and Jerusalem.
We saw white clouds in all manner of shapes, from wisps to chunks, suspended in the bluest of skies. Truly, as the hymn says, “the daylight is serene.”
We saw the Judean Desert, an expansive sandbox. I never knew how beautiful wilderness could be.
We saw a sycamore tree that may have been climbed by a “wee little man.”
We saw a shower curtain in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Iconic.
We saw the Sea of Galilee, gauzy with morning fog, from a wooden boat.
We saw 1923, my favorite number, at the gate of the Bethlehem Bible College.
We saw the Garden Tomb. What you’ve heard is true: it’s empty.
We saw much more than I can describe.
We use the word see as shorthand for experience or encounter, while deep down we realize the insufficiency of just seeing. If not, we’d all be satisfied sitting on the couch looking at photos, negating the impulse to travel. But we want to be there, not only to see but to experience it in the flesh; not only to see with our eyes but with our bodies. Even our hearts.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said,
“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light.” Matthew 6:22
Thanks to the gift of memory, the sights we see become part of us, and we carry them with us. They prompt us to do math involuntarily and remember the peculiar slant of the sun’s rays six thousand miles away. They cause our light-filled bodies to resonate with the golden stones of a place that may become a soul home. They render our dreams in poetry.
Roses are red, Violets are blue,
Jerusalem is golden, and God loves you.
Whoever you are, with your eyes wide open.