The grittiness of Christian faith

If the Son of God came into the world, not to fetch us out of our humanity but to redeem and glorify us in it, then the places most closely associated with the redemption should reflect the grubby diversity of the human condition

Narrow street in Jewish Quarter Jerusalem ( | AnastasiiaUsoltceva)

church of the holy sepulchre with crusader graffiti ( | levt)  JERUSALEM. Walking through the narrow, winding streets of Jerusalem’s Old City on my first visit here in fifteen years, I was powerfully struck once again by the grittiness of Christianity, the palpable connection between the faith and the quotidian realities of life. For here, as in no other place, the believer, the skeptic, and the “searcher” are confronted with a fact: Christianity began, not with a pious story or “narrative,” but with the reality of transformed lives. Real things happened to real people at real places in real time – and the transformation wrought in those real people by those “real things” transformed the world.

The most transformative of those “real things” was the encounter with the Risen Lord Jesus, the one those real people had first known in this real place as the young rabbi Jesus from Nazareth. That encounter, and the radical transformation of lives to which it led, remains, today, the greatest “proof” of the Resurrection. For how else would a ragtag bunch of men and women from the bleachers of civilization have found the commitment and courage to go out and change the world, had not something utterly unprecedented happened to them: something that shattered the boundaries of their expectations of the possible; something that demanded to be shared?

All that happened, just as the pre-Passion ministry of Jesus happened, amidst the daily give-and-take of life in the bazaar that the Middle East was, is, and probably always will be. There’s nothing ethereal-Gothic about Jerusalem’s Old City or its Christian focal point, the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher: it’s all grit all the way down, as you walk past stall after stall of souvenir and curio stalls, their sameness broken by the occasional spice shop with its distinctive aromas of cinnamon and cloves, en route to the places where, according to ancient tradition, the events that changed the world and the cosmos took place – Calvary and the Empty Tomb. And the basilica itself is the very embodiment of grittiness, for there is no aesthetically pleasing symmetry here, but rather a hodgepodge of architectural and decorative styles, ranging from classic Byzantine to delirious-modern-Italian.

Yet none of that matters, really. For if the Son of God came into the world, not to fetch us out of our humanity but to redeem and glorify us in it, then the places most closely associated with the redemption should reflect the grubby diversity of the human condition. And so it is here, as pilgrims from all over the world hustle, bustle, and jostle their way toward the Twelfth Station, the site of the crucifixion, and the Aedicule that surrounds the Empty Tomb. The distractions don’t distract, though; the Twelfth Station remains the easiest place in the world to pray, in Brother Lawrence’s sense of prayer as “practicing the presence.”

Today, when the basic institutions of civilization are being deconstructed in the name of personal willfulness and “autonomy,” the Old City of Jerusalem is a powerful reminder that there are Things As They Are, and that the road to human happiness (which the Gospels call “beatitude”) lies through, not around, those givens in the human condition. At a parallel moment in history, when the newly-recognized Christian Church was threatened by a Gnostic heresy that denied the goodness of creation and imagined the spiritual life to be an escape from grittiness, the Dowager Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, came here to find the True Cross – the hard, tangible fact of the redemption; the emblem of Christianity’s utter groundedness in reality.

What you find in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in 2015 has little to do with what Helena found here, in the sense that what you see here hasn’t much to do with what she saw here; it takes an extraordinary act of imagination to conjure up Golgotha and the rocky tomb in today’s ramshackle church. But the basilica is here because she came here and became a special witness to the fact that Christianity begins – and continues – with lives transformed by an encounter with the Risen One, who makes all things new.

And that makes all the difference.

Narrow street in Jewish Quarter Jerusalem ( | AnastasiiaUsoltceva)


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About George Weigel 500 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).