I thought about entitling this blog entry, “How I wasted an hour of my life in some dingy Catholic ‘church’ on the Mount of Olives”, but I figured that might be a little harsh. Instead, I’ll try make this brief, and let you get on to far more important things.
So, a Catholic Franciscan order of some kind has purchased / has the rights to pretty much every major “holy site” in Israel. Their modus operandi (Latin — you know, their “M.O.”) is to raise money (ostensibly from Bingo tournaments), purchase the land where something of Biblical significance (like where Jesus stubbed His toe one day in Nazareth), build a church there to commemorate the event (such as “The Most Holy Church of the Stubbed Toe”), and finally set up shop to sell superstitious trinkets to tourists at ridiculous prices (“Replicas of Jesus’ stubbed toe – 3 for $10”). In this case, they had purchased a small plot of land next to the Garden of Gethsemane and built a church called the “Church of Agony”, because Jesus had agonized in the garden over His decision to be obedient to God in going to the cross (as recorded in Matthew 26).
It is also called the “Church of All Nations” because churches from around the world – mostly Catholic, I think – contributed financial to its construction.
Don’t get my wrong, I’m happy that an order like this has taken the time and invested the money to preserve holy sites in Israel. Good for them! It’s more than I’ve done. But what I don’t like is that it feels like, in the process of “preserving” these sites, they’ve in some sense ended up destroying them. Let me explain…
The churches they setup are fine, I guess, but they’re more like museums. The body of Christ doesn’t meet there. There is no Biblical community. The hungry aren’t fed, the naked aren’t clothed, and the gospel isn’t preached. I’m sorry, but churches aren’t buildings. Churches are local communities of the followers of Jesus Christ. Churches are the hope of the world. Churches != monuments. I’d rather have them toss up a statue and be done with it, if they really feel like they have to spend money, time, and energy to create a something-or-other of remembrance. And when it really goes off the rails is when they tack the tourist-trap-gift-shop wing onto the church. Now, instead of just sucking up funds needlessly to propagate the false message that “if you have a building with the right (read: symbolic) number of walls, then somehow you have a church that honors God in some way”, now you have a full-on way to blasphemously idolize / trivialize the thing that happened there in the first place. So, when we visited the Jordan River, for example, they were selling little bottles of “holy water from the Jordan” … right next to the $3 cans of soda, the $2 Snickers bars, and the $5 cans of Pringles. Total rip off. I’d rather they just put up a fence and a guard, and let us come and reflect on Jesus in peace. But maybe that’s just me.
Okay, end of rant.
Anyway, as part of the tour, we were given the option to visit the Church of Agony. Because I’m a spineless yes-man, I decided to take it in – along with about half of the rest of the group. The courtyard around the church was absolutely beautiful, containing 800 year-old olive trees. I was impressed. Now there’s Franciscan cash well spent, in my opinion.
But upon entering the fenced in area surrounding the church, I knew the effort probably wouldn’t be worth it. There were hordes of people mashed up against each other pushing and shoving to get both in and out of the church. It took us a solid 15 minutes to get in, and when we did it was just a dark little room with three mosaics on the walls – one of Jesus’ agonizing in the garden, one of the soldiers seizing Jesus, and a third one I can’t remember. They were okay I guess, but for me they were overshadowed by the rude, shoving hordes and the lack of any real meaning in the place itself. I think a place like that is great for the “if I just sprinkle holy water on my key chain then it’ll become holy and I’ll have a blessed life” person, because it fits into their superstitious / ritualistic / formula-driven view of God. Personally, I found contemplative time in the garden overlooking the city to be much more spiritually beneficial.