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The grittiness of Christian faith

November 19, 2015
George Weigel

JERUSALEM – Walking through the narrow, winding streets of Jerusalem’s Old City on my first visit here in 15 years, I was powerfully struck once again by the grittiness of Christianity, the palpable connection between the faith and the quotidian realities of life. For here, as in no other place, the believer, the skeptic, and the “searcher” are confronted with a fact: Christianity began, not with a pious story or “narrative,” but with the reality of transformed lives. Real things happened to real people at real places in real time – and the transformation wrought in those real people by those “real things” transformed the world.

The most transformative of those “real things” was the encounter with the risen Lord Jesus, the one those real people had first known in this real place as the young rabbi Jesus from Nazareth. That encounter, and the radical transformation of lives that to which it led, remains, today, the greatest “proof” of the Resurrection. For how else would a ragtag bunch of men and women from the bleachers of civilization have found the commitment and courage to go out and change the world, had not something utterly unprecedented happened to them: something that shattered the boundaries of their expectations of the possible; something that demanded to be shared?

All that happened, just as the pre-Passion ministry of Jesus happened, was, is, and always will be. There’s nothing ethereal-Gothic about Jerusalem’s Old City or its Christian focal point, the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher: It’s all grit all the way down, as you walk past stall after stall of souvenir and curio stalls, their sameness broken by the occasional spice shop with its distinctive aromas of cinnamon and cloves, en route to the places where, according to ancient tradition, the events that changed the world and the cosmos took place – Calvary and the empty tomb. And the basilica itself is the very embodiment of grittiness, for there is no aesthetically pleasing symmetry here, but rather a hodgepodge of architectural and decorative styles, ranging from classic Byzantine to delirious-modern-Italian.

Yet none of that matters. For if the Son of God came into the world, to redeem and glorify us in it, then the places most closely associated with the redemption should reflect the grubby diversity of the human condition. And so it is here, as pilgrims from all over the world hustle, bustle, and jostle their way toward the 12th station, the site of the crucifixion, and the Aedicule that surrounds the empty tomb. The distractions don’t distract, though; the 12th station remains the easiest place in the world to pray, in Brother Lawrence’s sense of prayer as “practicing the presence.”

The dowager Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, came here to find the true cross. What you find here in 2015 has little to do with what Helena found. It takes an extraordinary act of imagination to conjure up Golgotha and the rocky tomb in today’s ramshackle church. But the basilica is here because she came here and became a special witness to the fact that Christianity begins and continues with lives transformed by an encounter with the one, who makes all things new.

Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington, D.C.

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