In amongst the chaos on my study’s desk I find myself wondering about ‘holy places‘. Maybe it’s the Christmas cards; this year I’m using Paul Gauguin’s Christmas Night to adorn the Seasonal Greetings- a representation of the Bethlehem stable- and its image is stacked around me in a number of globally destined piles.
Or maybe it’s the tweet from Ekklesia’s deputy director, which exhorts me to sign the petition against Israel’s plans to establish a military base on the Mount of Olives because it is a holy place to at least three religions.
Two questions occur to me: do holy places exist? and: can they be geographically defined? The answers are contingent upon each other. If they don’t exist as a concept then, clearly, they cannot exist as a location. If they do exist, then how are they defined?
Wikipedia’s definition of holy places is that it generally refers to the sites that a religion considers to be of special religious significance. They are usually places visited by pilgrims. For Christianity, it is suggested, they are the places of birth, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus and include Jerusalem and particular places within and outside that city, Bethlehem and Nazareth.
If by ‘holy’ we mean something that has been sanctified by the touch of God then these are indeed holy places.
But so, then, must the whole earth be holy, and all that is in it…
Because isn’t it illogical to hold a belief that acknowledges God as Creator and Jesus as the Son of God, and therefore recognise holiness as an attribute of all that was touched by God or Jesus, but reserve that attribution for just a few locations out of the whole?
Let me consider the opposite of a holy place: an evil place. It’s a term used freely to describe places where man’s inhumanity to man left historical scars; places such as concentration camps and killing fields, slave plantations and torture chambers.
These places were not of themselves evil; they were neutral locations. It is our unbearable awareness of what human beings perpetrated there that made us displace the taint of evil into their very fabric and soil, so that now, when we visit them, we say the place feels evil. And so we can place the focus of revulsion outside ourselves….
All of which goes to say that what we now call either holy or evil places says more about how we perceive them rather than what they essentially are.
And if someone shows he does not share our appreciation of the holiness of a particular place, we experience that as a slap in the face; a slight on our own sincerely held beliefs or feelings.
And we call it ‘sacrilege‘ though what has actually been insulted is our own sensibility.
So no, I didn’t sign the petition against Israel’s plans for the Mount of Olives.
Because no amount of petitions, for whatever cause, will ever be effective to stop perceived wrongs; that will only happen when we start being less convinced of the incontrovertible and incontestable rightness of our own beliefs.