The Hole That Held the Cross


Israel is forever at war. The evidence of this lamentable fact is everywhere.
This bunker system in northern Israel overlooks the southern Beqaa Valley in Lebanon.

I had the privilege of spending some time in Israel several years ago, along with one of my teenage kids. It was one of the coolest things I have ever done. Here in the United States, something old has maybe a couple hundred years on it. Over there, what might be an antique to us is like IKEA furniture to them. Their old stuff is 10 times as old. The sense of historical gravitas is palpable.

That experience gave me a sense of scale. For instance, the Dead Sea is really big, while the Sea of Galilee is quite small. It is also a really beautiful place. I can see why folks might be inclined to fight over it.

The Jews, the Romans, the Muslims, and the Crusaders have all laid claim to this extraordinary land at one time or another. The stigmata of that relentless struggle are literally everywhere. Roman aqueducts, ancient Jewish ruins, derelict half-century-old war machines, and Information Age shopping malls all share space on this same hallowed terrain.

This was painted on the side of a building in Palestinian-held Bethlehem.
Note that the dove of peace is wearing body armor.

Holy Ground

Most of the historically significant sites thereabouts have had churches built atop them — Greek Orthodox mostly. That means they are awash in bangles and quite old. Each generation has tried to commemorate the place in its own way. I found that bit somewhat distracting.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as an example, covers the site of the crucifixion, the slab upon which Christ’s body was prepared, and what was most likely the tomb where his body was placed. The day we were there, it was crowded with believers from all over the world. There was a weird truth to be found amidst that polyglot mob.

This nobody carpenter preached for three years. He drew people to himself by means of compelling oratory, uniquely authoritative teaching, and some admittedly extraordinary miracles. He was ultimately murdered in relative anonymity by the occupying Romans, just like countless others. He nonetheless left such a profoundly powerful impression on the world.

Regardless of your particular faith, or even lack thereof, the argument could be made that Jesus Christ was the single most influential individual who ever lived. Pretty much all of humanity zeroes their calendars on his birth. Christianity remains the most popular religion in human history. Today, 31.1% of the world’s population identifies as Christian. Muslims rank number two at 24.9%. The fact that I could hear Czech, Spanish, Chinese, French, Portuguese, Arabic, and Swahili, all spoken in that single space, testified to the exceptional nature of the man and his capacity to draw followers even today.

I snapped this picture of an Israeli Merkava tank on the side of the road.
The Israelis take their national defense quite seriously.

A Curious Place to Die

The old hymn describes the site of the crucifixion thusly, “On a hill far away, stood an old rugged cross …”

The implication is that this was some grassy pastoral place. That wasn’t it at all. Christ took that final agonizing breath in a rock quarry. There were also undoubtedly hundreds, if not thousands, of others who perished horribly in the same place by the same means both before and after.

The actual rocky spot juts up out of the floor of the church. They constructed the whole building around it. There is this fairly garish altar thing built over the particular place. When our turn came, we queued up to walk by and marvel in the moment. Few people spoke.

I was personally quite moved by the experience. This was, in all probability, the only time I would ever visit this hallowed spot. Additionally, aside from my child and a few others, nobody in this building knew me from Adam’s housecat. I honestly just couldn’t help myself.

This is a crucifixion nail excavated in Romania. This would have been an indescribably horrible way to die.

Becoming That Guy ...

I discreetly made my way out of the line and slipped over to the altar before anyone could stop me. I knelt before this holiest of places and reached carefully underneath. I then slipped my right hand into the hole that held the cross of Jesus Christ.

I was only there for a moment, but I recall it being about 4 by 4 inches and hewn directly into the underlying rock. I could imagine some nameless Roman slave chipping that thing out more than two millennia ago. I could see in my mind’s eye the Roman legionaries nailing the condemned in place and then viciously dropping the shaft of the cross into the hole. The poor unfortunate would then slowly suffocate in indescribable misery. Once that was done, the Roman troops swapped out crosses and started the process anew.

Amidst a sea of extraordinary experiences, that one was particularly powerful. I can’t say that I never washed my right hand again, but I do oft ponder where it has been. My child was naturally scandalized, and a bunch of strangers I will never see again likely had their stereotypes of obnoxious Americans cemented for all of time. However, I’m the only guy I know who can say he has stuck his hand in the hole that held the cross. With the crystalline clarity of hindsight, I’d say it was worth it.

Subscribe To American Handgunner