Opening the door

There is something very intriguing about closed doors – we often find ourselves wondering what is behind them. That is the premise of course of books like ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. Open the door and a whole new world lies beyond; you never know what treasures await you.

This weekend I am in Jerusalem attending the Centenary Celebrations of St George’s College. The College was founded 100 years ago to train priests for the church out here. But over the years it moved from doing that to providing study pilgrimages for individuals and groups from across the Anglican Communion. The College is in the Anglican Cathedral close and so part of the wider community that exists here. I first experienced the welcome and the facilities and the opportunities that the place provides when I spent half of my sabbatical here in 2016. I came out here with the intention of finding places that pilgrims to the Holy Land and particularly to Jerusalem seldom, if ever, visit. I have since been back on a number of occasions.

So it is great to be part of the celebrations. Canon Richard Sewell is the Dean of the College and the Course Director is Canon Mary June Nestler. With other staff here they form a terrific team.

As part of the celebrations we were treated to a morning out doing precisely what I had been doing on my sabbatical, going to two places that are not visited by many people and it meant going through two doors that are usually locked!

The first gate

There is a great deal of archeology going on in the Holy Land at all times and visitors will often see digs happening. Some of these are highly controversial, such as the ones around the old City of David that lies under the Palestinian village of Silwan. Not far from there, continuing up the road that skirts the walls of the city, and opposite the catholic cemetery where Oscar Schindler is buried, is one of these archaeological sites.

An unprepossessing temporary gate set in a concrete wall was opened and we went through into an archaeological site. This is where a gate that no longer exists used to be. The line of the present walls of Jerusalem which pilgrims see is not what it was at the time of Jesus. What is being discovered here is what is known as the Essene Gate. We were shown the line of the Bronze Age wall and then the later walls built upon it, the line of the Roman road that came through the gate and then the level of the Byzantine gate and houses. There was so much to see. This gate, looking towards the Valley of Hinnom or Gehenna, would have been known by Jesus and it is named after the sect, the Essenes, of which John the Baptist might have been a member, the group that lived at Qumran. It was a privilege to see.

The remains of the wall and gate

From there we walked to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was a beautiful day, crisp, cold but with a wonderful clear blue sky. The courtyard was full of pilgrim groups and the church was as packed as it always seems to be nowadays. But we turned right on entering and headed down to the Armenian Chapel. There we were met by Fr Samuel, one of the Armenian clergy who look after the chapel.

I had always known that chapel as being dedicated to St Helena, who discovered the True Cross on the site and whose son Constantine had the first basilica on the site built. But he told us that for the Armenians it is the chapel of St Gregory, the founder of the Armenian Church back in the very early 4th century. Then he took us to a black wrought iron door. One of our group was allowed to open it and we all went through.

Spot the door!

A number of years ago, about forty in fact, the Armenians decided to discover what lay behind their walls. What they found, when they removed all the dirt that was there, were the retaining walls built by Hadrian to create a platform on which his pagan temple could be built. This was destroyed by Constantine to build the basilica which, in a complex set of buildings, enshrined Calvary as well as the tomb of Jesus. But in addition to this the Armenians also discovered the bed rock and the lowest level of the quarry that occupied this site, the quarry above which the crucifixion occurred and the quarry alongside which Jesus was buried. We were deep below the level of the chapel and it was good to be there.

Behind the door

One other thing they had discovered was a stone on which had been inscribed a picture of a boat. A pilgrim, presumably had done this in the very early days of Christians coming to this place. And beneath the boat the words were written ‘O Lord, we have arrived.’ It is moving to see such evidence of the pilgrims who have trodden the path before you, who made the often perilous journey, by land and sea, to be here.

‘O Lord, we have arrived.’

We went back out and the door was locked. I was reminded of that lovely Epiphany anthem that we hear sung at this time. The music is by Herbert Howells, the words by Frances Chesterton

Here is the little door, 
lift up the latch, oh lift! 
We need not wander more, 
but enter with our gift;
Our gift of finest gold. 
Gold that was never bought or sold;
Myrrh to be strewn about his bed;
Incense in clouds about His head;
All for the child that stirs not in His sleep,
But holy slumber hold with ass and sheep.

‘We need not wander more’, O Lord, we have arrived. The door is opened and we enter in and what treasures we find.

Lord, may we be door openers to others, that they too may find your treasures. Amen.

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