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Reflection for Holy Week (1): The street where you live

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   Jesus takes size 6½ shoes. I know this, because a colleague of mine has visited the scene of the Ascension. Presumably the site is sponsored by Clarks shoes, but there at the top of a hill outside Jerusalem is a stone with an imprint of Jesus' feet. Size 6½.  We are getting ahead of ourselves, but at the beginning of the Christian Holy Week let me tell you right now I have no intention of visiting Jerusalem. Many pilgrims will go there this week of course; perhaps you have gone, or want to go. Me, it's off the radar, partly because the England cricket team do not play Israel, which is a pity because they might actually win, but mainly because the Jerusalem today is not the Jerusalem of Jesus' day. There is no time machine, no going back to follow in Jesus' footsteps, size 6½ or otherwise.

 What is it with our fascination of standing in the same place as others have done and walking famous streets? There are lots of sad people who will visit Coronation Street in Manchester and be disappointed when they discover some of the houses are just cardboard fronts built by Granada for the filming. And who could resist, if it was a bit nearer here, visiting the street that MGM wisely preserved after filming where Gene Kelly sang and danced his way through "Singing In the Rain"?  This week in Jerusalem thousands will enter the city in an attempt to walk where Christians believe Jesus walked, and on Friday trudge up the Via Dolorosa, the route we believe that Jesus took carrying his cross before being crucified. On a certain famous travel website I found the following entry when I googled Via Dolorosa:

"Type: Historic Sites, Landmarks/ Points of Interest, Antique Shops

Cost: Free" (which is an interesting theological comment).

 The antique shops are owned largely by Muslims as the street is in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem: a reminder that a spiritual journey in Jerusalem itself can take different forms. The street where Jesus carried his cross to Calvary is punctuated by brightly decorated chapels, put there by Constantine's mother 300 years after Jesus passed by. And what would happen if you took away the antique shops and the chapels? You still would not be standing on the same spot that Jesus stood on. Two thousand years of human life has raised the ground level by a metre. It reminds me of a visit I made to the new Wembley just after it opened, to pick up an award with some college students. We were not allowed to walk on the grass; a pity because I wanted to stand on the goal-line to see if there was a faint dent in the pitch where the ball crossed the line for that Geoff Hurst goal in the 1966 World Cup Final. But then of course the Wembley pitch has since been relayed many times; different grass, different goal-lines. It's all an illusion; the past, as recent as 1966, remains tantalisingly beyond us. Even the ghosts have a hard time of it, it seems: in York there is a street where the ghosts of the lost 9th Legion are said to march along at night; when they have been seen, it is only their heads and torsos that are visible. Apparently that is because the road is now higher than the one they walked in life. Their ghostly feet, invisible to us, trudge along a vanished road we cannot see.

 So what then is Holy Week for, if dates, events and the very streets we remember are beyond us this week? Artists like Stanley Spencer offer us an important clue; for Spencer, the action of Holy Week took place in Cookham, his English village; fluttering net curtains become angels' wings, the Via Dolorosa is a row of terraced houses and behind Jesus it two workmen carry their ladders. This is a Christ whose Passion is set out for us, and when there is resurrection it will happen not in a place and for a people that remain strange to us, but here in our town and for our neighbours. Holy Week is not about history, it is about past events working for us, it is about what some theologians call the vicarious suffering of Christ: the clock on Jesus' passion may have started ticking on a different Palm Sunday in a very different Jerusalem two millennia ago but the suffering that will follow and the resurrection that we will soon celebrate is truly a cosmic occurrence, something shared by all humanity, past, present and to come. Past experience and past stories matter: not the locations, not the props, but the meaning that goes beyond a certain time and place. Does it matter that we do not have the postcode for the upper room where Jesus shared one last meal with his disciples? No, for what purpose would be served by visiting it? It is empty! The most important words in the Christian gospel echo around us not just this week, not just on Easter Day but every day: "He is not here - he is risen!"

 This week the town of Port Talbot will be taken over by Michael Sheen's interpretation of the Passion. There will be 1,000 volunteers, from a male voice choir to the stonemason making Jesus' grave. A stunning image publicising the production shows the crucifixion silhouetted against the town's industries. The Last Supper will take place inside the rugby club, in a bar more used to housing comedians than saviours; the crucifixion will take place on a grassy roundabout. As Michael Sheen says, "By doing this story here in this town and, specifically, talking to the people who are doing the most overlooked of work, you start to find what it is that's worth living for, really. It's not about saying, ‘Look how awful everything is'; it's saying, ‘Look at the miraculous change that can take place.' "

 What is Holy Week for? It is for Port Talbot, it is for your town, your street. It is for us now, it is for the world.

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