August is the month we get to welcome new full-time voices to the post calvin! Please welcome Laura Sheppard, who is taking over Tony Ditta’s spot. Laura graduated from Calvin in 2015 with a degree in art and writing. She currently lives in Madison, WI, sharing a house with two other Calvin grads. She works as a software support analyst for the State of Wisconsin court system and enjoys painting, rock climbing, biking downtown, and walking her dog.
When you go to Israel, it can change your life. You walk in the places Jesus walked, visit the ruins of Capernaum, cross a checkpoint into Palestine to see Christ’s traditional birthplace in Bethlehem. You tour a replica village in Nazareth, taste fish caught from the Sea of Galilee, cross the marble streets of Caesarea. You hope for holy experiences in the Holy Land. You bring a pocket-sized Bible in your backpack.
You can be baptized, like Jesus, in the Jordan River, at a number of possible baptismal stations. The South station, called Bethany Beyond the Jordan, is more likely the true place where Jesus went, but the North has clearer water for the photos. You are required to buy a white robe to wear in order to be baptized, but the cashiers accept American money. Afterward, you can take home a DVD of your group’s baptisms, with “Down in the River to Pray” quaintly looping as a soundtrack. You marvel at the churning crowds of pilgrims, at the spacious gift shop, at the size of the baptism industrial complex. But a woman from your group walks up beside you and points to the array of nationalities represented, Christians in robes and headscarves and jeans and saris, baptizing by immersion and sprinkling and the shaking of hyssop, and she says, “Isn’t it the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?”
You follow the Via Dolorosa—the path Jesus likely took on his way of suffering through Jerusalem as he carried his cross. You place your hand on Station 5, where Jesus is said to have fallen and left a holy handprint on the wall. An eleventh century Crusader wall, your tour guide mentions wryly, but as you continue on you see an old Arab-Christian man tenderly touching the stone, and he doesn’t seem to mind.
You visit the likely site of Jesus’ burial—there are two, actually, so pick the one you are most comfortable with according to your tradition. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is 1600 years old, teeming with wrought gold altars, icons, and the fog of incense burned by the dozen-plus sects of Christians who lay claim to the building. You could line up to touch the stony ground of maybe-Golgotha, encased in glass beneath the Greek Orthodox altar. Or kiss the maybe-slab where Christ’s body was placed, or stand at the maybe-prison where he was held, or view his maybe-tomb, inside the tiny Aedicule chapel, inside the huge, bustling rotunda of the church. Visitors take pictures almost anywhere, but if you try to snap a photo inside the Aedicule with your phone, a stony-faced Armenian priest might snatch it out of your hand and make you go to the back of the line.
As a Protestant seeking a calmer experience, you later visit the Garden Tomb, the also-possible-though-less-likely site of Christ’s burial. An outdoor complex beyond Old Jerusalem’s walls, it has trees and birds and tour guides with Texas accents explaining that we can’t know for sure where Jesus was buried, but coming to the garden is about the person of Christ, the good news.
You sit on benches, take communion, sing hymns. You quiet your heart. You wonder if this might be the place to have a God moment. You remember your camp friend who had a deeply spiritual conversion experience in Israel, though it happened to him at the big crowded church. You’ve always been jealous, having seen the change in him when he returned. You hoped for a miracle like that when you signed up for your church’s Holy Land tour. Maybe God will meet you here in this contemplative garden, at this (maybe) holy place.
You wait in line, then duck your head to step inside the Garden Tomb. You see where the stone might have been rolled to seal the tomb, the rough-hewn bench where Christ’s body might have lain. You wait to feel something, see a vision, hear a heavenly voice. But it’s quiet. The tomb is empty.
When you return home, you give gifts of glass and olive oil to your family. You share photos and tell stories. Your dog chews the tiny olivewood cup you brought back to commemorate the Garden Tomb communion. Home feels like the ends of the earth compared to where you’ve just been.
You don’t feel that different for having gone. But your spirit is a little bit nourished, your American Gospel having met its birthplace. And you bring back the memory of standing in that empty tomb.
He is not here. And you try to remember that’s the good news.
Laura graduated from Calvin in 2015 with a degree in art and writing. She lives in Toronto, Ontario, with her husband Josh and dog Rainy. She works as an IT support analyst and enjoys painting, rock climbing, and exploring the city.