Have you ever touched a holy rock, stroked a sacred stone or perhaps picked up a precious pebble? If not, definitely put Israel on your bucket list – I wish I hadn’t left it so long.
I am not especially geologically minded, but I have to confess to picking up an awful lot of stones from beaches over the years. They inevitably end up on window sills, mantelpieces or the bathroom shelf. Down on the shore of Galilee last week, I watched a lady bending down to pick up very small pieces of what looked like black and white gravel and carefully stowing them in a plastic bag, which she stuffed into her rucksack. Hum…I pondered to myself. Could these be the very stones Jesus had walked on when he wandered down to the lake and called across to some chaps busy cleaning their fishing nets? It was sort of possible…but there were so many possibles all around us.
The church behind us that morning had a very large odd shaped rock which formed a centre piece for the altar. We had watched as people laid clothes on it and stroked the rock and kissed it. It is possible this was the rock Jesus had used as a BBQ base for his hungry disciples and is also rumoured to be where Jesus told Saint Peter, he was the rock on which he’d build his church. There seemed to be a blackened area on it. I touched it too. But what if it was the rock? What would that mean for me?
Back in Jerusalem and Bethlehem there were more significant rocks…Rocks that marked the place where he was born, where he died and was crucified, even the place where his body was laid before he rose from the dead. So many actual physical links to an unseen God. Then there were also the caves, some marked with carvings, where he may have been held prisoner and another where he was most likely to have been born. When we walked the streets of Jerusalem we knew these weren’t the actual streets and cobble stones Jesus had walked, as the city is a few metres higher than it was 2000 years ago. But in one narrow street we wandered into a deep basement of a convent where it looks like there is part of the actual Roman road, with its chariot lines still visible. I ran my sandals along the grooves and imagined a man stumbling under the weight of a wooden cross. Was this one of the streets which Jesus walked on? Shouldn’t I take off my shoes now and feel the same smooth stone on the soles of my feet? The thought sent a shiver down my spine.
Despite all these stones and rocks and possibilities, it was by the lake and on a hillside where I actually felt God. He wasn’t in the two carefully selected stones I bought back from the lake shore. I wasn’t really aware of Him in some of the most sacred sites and churches. For me the Jesus I have got to know, who I hope to meet one day, was somehow very present beside me, on a balcony as I looked across the Sea of Galilee, where lights flickered along the shoreline and pinpricks of stars were speckled across the black sky above. It was there I heard His voice. He was also with us in a field on a hillside, where there was a cup and a chunk of bread on a rock. But most importantly, He is here now beside me as I write on the tiled steps by the front door in the afternoon sunshine in Cyprus.
The Holy Land was a special experience. I have seen some places where Jesus was, where he ate, walked, talked, slept and died. Most importantly though He didn’t stay there and I’m so happy He isn’t just in the rocks and stones. He is here, ever present and the whole world is a ‘Holy Land’ because He is risen and He is here.