Navel gazing

Belly buttons are odd things aren’t they. We don’t talk a lot about them but we all have one, a birthmark in many ways.  It’s such a visible reminder of our birth, of the process of growing in the womb, supported by, feeding from our mother.  And they’re a reminder of that act of separation in that traumatic moment of birth when we are physically separated from the one to whom we owe our life.  The cord is cut and we are left with this fascinating scar.

The Greeks had a word for it, why wouldn’t they, the omphalos, and whilst that word refers to the physical navel, the belly button, it also refers to a stone that marked a place of real significance.  The most famous was in Delphi, a beautiful stone marking the navel of the world.  But many places claim to be that navel, the place where the earth was formed out of divine love – and Jerusalem is one such place.

Mappa Mundi

The Mappa Mundi


The old maps, such as the wonderful Mappa Mundi, placed the Holy City in this pivotal spot.  You knew where you were in relation to that place, just as distance in London is measured from the statue of Charles I just south of Trafalgar Square.  That is point zero for London; Jerusalem is point zero for much of the world and especially for Jews, Christians and, to a large extent, Muslims.

It’s a year now since my sabbatical came to an end.  You will find in the side bar a link through to the blog I kept during those three months, which I called ‘Sabbatical Thoughts’. The bulk of the time I spent living in Jerusalem, in east Jerusalem to be exact, at St George’s College which is on the Nablus Road just a short distance from the Damascus Gate.  The College is located next to St George’s Cathedral, the home of Anglicanism in in this great city and interestingly the place (in fact in the Bishop’s House) where the Balfour Declaration was signed 100 years ago.

I’d been to the Holy Land on about 25 occasions, leading groups of pilgrims on what was for many the journey of a lifetime.  In fact we are off again in February, almost 90 of us from the Diocese of Southwark, with the Diocesan Bishop, Bishop Christopher and me in leadership roles.  I’m looking forward to being back; I always look forward to being back.

St George’s College hosts many visitors and groups from across the Anglican Communion and every day in the refectory I would sit with one group or another hearing what they were getting up to and sharing in their delight in being in this life-giving city.  Many of those visitors were from the USA.  It was just before the Presidential Elections and, as these were obviously part of that small proportion of citizens of that great country who have a passport and were willing to travel, you can imagine that they were not great Trump supporters.  I can remember one of them telling me about a hare-brained plan he had for declaring Jerusalem the capital of the State of Israel and moving the American Embassy from the actual capital, Tel Aviv, to the Holy City. ‘No!’ we all cried out in amazement, those of us for whom this was news.  But we thought a) he would never be elected and b) he would never do it.

Well he was and he has.

Wandering around this ‘navel of the world’ as I did every day for those six weeks I began to understand more and more just what a delicate balance existed which kept the place relatively peaceful.  There were moments of violence, there was heavy Israeli police and military presence, entering the Damascus Gate was always an intimidating experience even for me who was clearly not Palestinian but was going in and out all the time.  But people were getting on with their lives.  But you could spot provocative acts.


The navel of the world?


The road from Damascus Gate to the Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) which we know as the Temple Mount, is the route taken by thousands of Palestinian Muslims on route to Friday Prayers.  Some settlers have moved into the area and huge Israeli flags now fly above the street in the Muslim Quarter, provocatively. But people just get on with it, get on with their lives, until something happens which tips the balance. But when we tip the balance, deliberately, mistakenly, accidentally in such a delicate place, politically, socially, theologically, we cannot be sure what the consequences will be.

When I’m leading pilgrims around the Holy Land and especially Jerusalem I use the Psalms of Ascent with them.  These are a group of fifteen Psalms – 120-134 – which were written with pilgrims in mind, so called because in Israel/Palestine you are always going up to Jerusalem, it’s always an ascent. Just as now people made their way to gaze at the navel and encounter God at the zero point of creation.  And as they made their way to the Holy City they prayed for it’s peace.

O pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
‘May they prosper who love you.
‘Peace be within your walls
and tranquillity within your palaces.’
For my kindred and companions’ sake,
I will pray that peace be with you.
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek to do you good.
(Psalm 122.6-9)

That has been my prayer since President Trump put his promise into effect.  That delicate balance of east and west Jerusalem, of the Old City with it’s four quarters – Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Armenian – is at serious risk.  We gaze at the navel of the earth, our Mother city and weep for what might be.

we pray for the peace of Jerusalem;
may they prosper who love you.

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