Easter stories surprise me. “Appearances,” the Apostle Paul calls them. Fleeting, confusing, frightening — I sometimes wish for something more substantial and ongoing, as detailed, perhaps, as the stories about Jesus’ death. Now that was convincing! But resurrection? Well, often Jesus isn’t even recognized: Mary mistakes him for the gardener; Cleopas and his friend, en route to Emmaus, spend an afternoon in Bible study with the risen Christ and have no idea with whom they are journeying; Jesus appears at dawn walking down the beach of the Sea of Galilee, and only after much squinting through the morning mist does one disciple finally cry out, “It is the Lord.” Though even then, I almost hear a question mark at the end of that statement.
But perhaps this tells us something about how we ourselves might encounter the risen Christ this Easter: an elusive glimpse that cracks open our hearts, that requires openness and attentiveness, imagination and faith, and a willingness to discover Jesus in a garden or an upper room, on the shoreline or the road, at a table where bread is broken, or wherever we find ourselves in the day-to-day.
Let me tell you a story. Last spring, I was in Jerusalem on a two-month sabbatical, hungry to see the Holy Land. I remember a warm day in March, heading off for a visit to the Upper Room, where Jesus and his disciples are said to have gathered for the Last Supper. I wanted to walk in Jesus’ footsteps before the crowds arrived for Holy Week; a pilgrimage of sorts, yearning for a moment of holiness, a connection with the Spirit.
I made my way to Mount Zion in the southwest corner of Jerusalem, map and guidebook firmly in hand; went beyond the city walls, got lost, asked for directions, found my way, finally arrived. It’s always a tricky business, searching for “holy sites,” as you wonder, “Is this the ‘real’ Upper Room?”
I had done my research: today’s “Upper Room” had been a mosque for the past several centuries, during Ottoman rule. Before that, in the 14th century, the Franciscans had restored a damaged 12th-century Crusader chapel, which was built on top of a destroyed fifth-century church, whose foundations dated back to the second century or further. By the fourth century, the room is being mentioned as a destination site in the narratives of early pilgrims. But does the pedigree prove anything? What makes a room holy? Are we talking history? Tradition? Metaphor? Or is it simply that centuries of prayer and devotion have scraped this place “thin,” making it particularly permeable to the Spirit?
Whatever. I walked down the final passageway, through a pointed-arch entrance into a small courtyard, and climbed the corner stairs up to a perfectly ordinary second-floor room, spare and simple. I sat down and tried to meditate on foot washing and the Last Supper, on Jesus’ resurrection appearances (because this was supposedly the same room where the risen Christ had confronted his frightened disciples, including Thomas with all his doubts) and finally on Pentecost (because in the economy of religious imagination, this room is also believed to be the place where the disciples received the Holy Spirit). A lot of meditation possibility here. The walls echoed with memory: “Do this in remembrance of me!” “We have seen the Lord!” “Receive the Holy Spirit!”
But it was difficult; a Jesus encounter doesn’t happen on command. It isn’t something you create yourself, no matter how determined your meditation. And in truth, the room was a disappointment: plain walls, a few benches, some columns and arches, no artwork worth mentioning. It was hard not to feel some cynicism about so-called holy sites. The day was hot, and I was thirsty. Then I noticed a pile of cat droppings a few feet from where I was sitting; it’s amazing how that acrid smell can fill a room and banish prayer. When a busload of American tourists arrived — loud, overweight, cameras snapping — I fled to the rooftop, where at least there was a good view of the city. So much for holiness! So much for Easter thoughts!
But then it changed. Oh so faintly, beneath my feet, I could hear the sound of singing coming from the room below. I recognized the tune and the words — our church’s gospel choir had sung this in worship at home just a few months ago. I even knew the bass line. Without thinking, I found myself running down the stairs, back to the Upper Room. Those American tourists were a travelling choir, maybe Mennonites, who knows. But they were singing their hearts out, faces uplifted, in gorgeous harmony, on and on, as if the music would never stop:
We are standing on holy ground,
And I know that there are angels all around.
Let us praise Jesus now,
For we are standing in his presence on holy ground.
These ordinary tourists were transformed, had become the angels they were singing about. And the room, it too was changed, filled with the presence of . . . well, of Christ. I started to sing with them, with the Spirit. I felt my cynical, superior judgments slip away. My eyes filled with tears, and my heart felt strangely warmed.
Easter came early that spring.
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