Helena and the Holy Land

The present clashes between Israeli and Palestinian are, as we know well, one more step on a tortuous journey marked by conflict - and the claim and counter-claim of possession.  It is very difficult for the objective bystander to understand the depth of feeling that can lead to such tragic circumstances, but the consequences rarely make things better and generally continue to undermine trust and condemn the vulnerable to further suffering.

The holy places of Jerusalem are such that the city needs to be shared.  The most obvious ones are the sites on what we know of as the Temple Mount, and they are Muslim - a very large and ancient mosque at one end of the artificially created almost level area, and the dome of the rock, which is not a mosque, but a shrine, visited by many pilgrims in the centre.  I have been in it.  The rock in question is that upon which Isaac was to have been sacrificed by his father Abraham, and also the place from which the prophet Mohammed is said to have ascended to heaven.  So, this whole area is understandably, very precious to Muslim people.  Part of the retaining wall of this huge open area that once was covered by the Temple and its environs - and hence the only part of the original Temple still existing - is just below the Mount and is the holiest place for Jews.  They gather in hundreds each day, and prayers are said constantly here.  Within a few minutes walk of both of these places is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - it is massive and one of the oldest churches in Christendom. It was built over the site of the crucifixion of Jesus, and over the part of the garden in which the tomb of our Lord lay.  

Why I mention these today, apart from the unrest that there is in the country at present, is that today, 21st May, we commemorate Helena, who, as the mother of the Emperor Constantine and a Christian, undertook to search the land of the Bible for the actual places where the events of Jesus’ life happened.  She was able to identify through physical evidence and the oral traditions of the local people where many of these places lay.  In Bethlehem and in Jerusalem large basilicas were built at the two most important sites, marking the birth and death of the Saviour.  This was in the fourth century, and these buildings remain.  It was to retake these places that the crusades were fought, and still the flash-points are sensitive in these highly politicised days, and the position is constantly in tension.  The current trouble has flared up due to Israel encroaching on East Jerusalem - a Palestinian area.  The need for international governance of this city, with all viewpoints represented, is the only true resolution, but it has never been achieved. 

John Mann