A couple of years ago I went on a tour of Jordan and Israel. It was fascinating but also a real eye opener. It is difficult not to be swept away in the places when you are over there. I confess that at the beginning of my tour it was easy to simply be a tourist. After all, this was such a unique opportunity that I needed to take photos. So I rushed in, camera ready. It wasn’t until about half way through that I managed to quieten my camera-trigger happy finger and first ask ‘God, what would you say to me here?’
Both countries form the environment of the Biblical story. You can go to the places where passages in the Bible happened. And always there is a church. These churches tend to be run by either Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Armenian churches. What I found confronting was the ornateness of the churches. Below is a photo of the altar in The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and light streaming through the windows of a church in Nazareth.
For a protestant Christian such extravagant use of gold and images is really confronting. We tend to have a fairly negative view of such things. They seem to smell too much of mere religiosity than actual spirituality. I understand this. Some of us may have been brought up thinking that these things lead to worshipping idols. I certainly
relate to this when I first heard that some people pray to saints. The notion is foreign to me and I simply didn’t get it. I still don’t. But I will not criticise.
Henri Nouwen helpfully reminds us that it is important for us as Christians to set time aside to spend seeking God. As we do this we gain a heightened realisation of the presence of God in our daily life. What a privilege we have to seek him. Equally Nouwen also understands that this can be difficult at times and suggests to set aside a particular spot. He even says that it’s ok to decorate it with icons, candles or nature. For a Catholic scholar such as Nowuen this advice makes sense but I still cringe somewhat. I find the very idea of seeing someone praying before an icon, or kissing the stone on which Jesus was prepared for burial, difficult.
Maybe I need to take a step back. It’s too easy for me to see this as idolatry but maybe I need to remind myself that I see things through my perspective. The purpose of a religious symbol, whether it be candles, icons or in this case a stone, is to help people connect with God. They’re supposed to remind people of what God has done, and because of this, direct them to seeking God. In other words the icon is just a means to bringing them to God. It doesn’t mean they are worshipping it. So, when I see a woman bending down and kissing a stone I don’t want to be too quick to judge. Could it not be that that this woman is in fact so overwhelmed with the sacrifice of Jesus that she couldn’t help but throw herself down before a piece of rock? Who was it that really connected with God on that day?