What Is This?: Two Easter Stories

Jerusalem: What is this? 

Over a million pilgrims visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem every year. The traditional site of Jesus’ tomb is located in the Rotunda, surrounded by a shrine. Depending on the time of year, waiting in line for just a few moments in the shrine can take hours.

Some Christians save money their entire lives for the journey to our holiest site. Hearing the story of Life tearing through the veil of death is our sustenance. But, if we have the privilege of doing so, placing one foot in front of the other toward the place where it happened can reinvigorate our faith and belief.

In 2022, my friend Jason and I visited the site. We had spent the week in Israel with other pilgrims, following the footsteps of Jesus from one village to the other. Having missed the day when this stop was on the itinerary, we made the excursion apart from the group.

We were there late in the evening after the crowds had begun to dissipate. We felt the gravity of it all as we neared the entrance, the last people in line.

Before long, a young couple wandered into the space, saw the line, and walked in behind us. We started small talk. The girl was from Italy, and the guy lived in Israel. They met online. 

This was her first time in the country. They spent a few weeks traveling around the tourist sites that he had never seen or visited.

Quickly after we made acquaintance, the guy, pointing to the marble structure covering the tomb we were in line to see, asked perhaps the most shocking question I have ever been asked: “What is this?”

We assumed he was very aware of the general site he was visiting, just a little lost and confused about which element of the church he was about to see. The cathedral contains not just the traditional burial site but also the traditional site of the crucifixion and other holy artifacts. So one of us replied, “Oh, it’s the tomb.”

I can’t remember if he voiced his reply or if it was written boldly on his face. Either way, it spoke loudly: “What tomb?”

“You know, the tomb of Jesus, the site where many Christians believe his resurrection occurred.” He shrugged his shoulder and decided that whatever it was, it would be worth their time to go in.

Tartu, Estonia: What is this? 

As you might expect, ethnic Russians living in east and north European nations faced high levels of distrust in their communities after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Our modern tendency to associate people with the actions of their government has been the source of endless conflict. Combine that with our ancient distrust of “the other,” and you have a recipe for strife.

The Estonian government has taken steps in recent years to reduce the animosity between Russians and Estonians, but suspicions remain. Many younger Russian Estonians lament that they are too Estonian for their Russian friends and too Russian for their Estonian friends. It can be lonely.

After Vladimir Putin invaded their country in 2022, millions of Ukrainian refugees flooded European nations. Roughly 50,000 ended up in Estonia. One of them, an elderly widow, was taken in by the Salem Baptist Church in Tartu, a university town in the country’s southern region.

Salem is known for their hospitality. When I visit Tartu, I stay in one of the guest rooms in their building, one floor above where the Ukrainian widow lives. 

As we go about our lives, we pass each other in the kitchen or hallway. We smile and do that stuttered bow people do when they want to communicate a greeting but are frustrated by language barriers.

On the outside, many Estonians are growing weary of refugees, proving that anti-immigrant sentiment is not exclusive to Americans. On the inside, this widow has found shelter.

Salem is an Estonian congregation, but they allow a local Russian church to use their building. It is a cordial relationship tethered by a common faith, if not a common culture. 

Life for Russians in Estonia has been made even more difficult by the actions of Vladimir Putin, the leader of a country many of them have never even visited, but with which they are inextricably identified.

I was once in the church basement, where the kitchen and fellowship hall are located, eating dinner and reading. One of the Russian church members told me they were about to have a service, but I could stick around as long as I wanted.

I lingered for a bit as they began to gather. Shortly before they started, the Ukrainian widow walked in.

Before I could pull up Google Translate on my phone to try to communicate to her that the Russians were about to meet, she sat down among them. As young people passed her, some placed a hand on her shoulder as they leaned down, stared into her eyes, and greeted her.

Later, I asked my friend Toivo, the pastor of Salem, about this. He told me the Russian congregation had taken her in and cared for her. They help her with food and clothes and make sure she knows she is loved.

Jerusalem: What is This?

As I reflected on what Toivo shared with me, I couldn’t help but think of the disciples on the guy wandering into the line at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, seemingly oblivious to where he was or what had happened there. I wish I could find him now and tell him the story of the Ukrainian widow refugee and those Russian and Estonian Christians–about how we can see Life defeating death everywhere, even today, if we just look for it.

What is this? A song we sing at my church answers the question much better than I could:

now life and death
and resurrection
are painted over
all creation
the colors swirling into one
as if every moment is now
twice begun
so mourn your losses
sing your songs
but build your houses
with fingers crossed
there is a hope now graven
in the dawn
and every ending to that
burning edge belongs.”

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