Monthly Archives: February 2014

Today would be a good day to be in Caesarea

For the past year, my church has been teaching through the book of Acts. Yesterday our pastor, Dan, preached a powerful message on Acts 25. At this point in the narrative, Paul has been in Caesarea Maritima for two years as a prisoner, waiting for his trial to be heard. He is offered the opportunity to go back to Jerusalem and have his case heard there, but instead he appeals to Rome. His focus is on getting to the place where he can continue the kingdom ministry he has been called to as the apostle to the Gentiles.

What remains today of Herod Agrippa's palace, where Paul was held
What remains today of Herod Agrippa’s palace, where Paul was held

It made me remember how much I have loved visiting Caesarea, and how each time I’ve been there I’ve been struck by what it must have been like for Paul. To be in this Roman harbour city built by Herod to honour Caesar, at the main port for ships coming to and from Rome, likely kept in the basement of the palace which lies on a promontory overlooking the Mediterranean Sea … looking towards Rome.

What the palace would have looked like when Paul was there
What the palace would have looked like when Paul was there

From his letters and other travels, we know of Paul’s strong desire to go to Rome. The centre of the empire was a key place for the spreading of the good news throughout the world. I’m guessing he didn’t originally expect to get there via a prison ship, but when that’s the opportunity that arose, he jumped at it. Paul knew who he was, what he had been called to, and what was worth giving his life to.

Caesarea sign about Paul

So, what did I love about Caesarea?

Seeing its history, particularly the Roman history of the first century.

Timeline of Caesarea's history
A timeline of Caesarea’s history

The artificial harbour constructed by Herod the great.

Caesarea Harbour

The remains of the ancient Roman aqueduct that brought fresh water to the city.

Aqueduct

The 4000-seat Roman theatre, completed by Herod in 10BCE and restored to be used for performances today.

Caesarea theatre panorama

The remnants of Herod’s hippodrome.

Caesarea hippodrome

Caesarea hippodrome seats

Caesarea is also the place where the Pilate Stone was discovered in the 1960s, the first archaeological item found which mentions the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, under whom Jesus was crucified.

The inscription mentioning Pilate, in the Israel museum
The inscription mentioning Pilate, in the Israel Museum
What did I learn from Caesarea?

I find it intriguing that in a place built by a king known as “the Great” and built to honour the Emperor of the then known world, the person I remember most is a man who spent two years here as a prisoner. Paul’s legacy, due to his faith in Jesus and commitment to the gospel, has profoundly changed the world. I hold copies of his writings in my hand every day.

The palace where Paul was likely held and tried
The palace where Paul was likely held and tried

It makes me think about what really lasts. In the past few decades there have been wonderful restorations to preserve the city’s history, but the truth is that in the end all great building projects come to ruins.

A 2012 archaeological dig taking place at the western end of the palace ruins
A 2012 archaeological dig taking place at the western end of the palace ruins

Certainly, glimpses of faded beauty remain.

Mosaics at Caesarea
Mosaics at Caesarea

But watching the waves crash over Herod’s once great breakwater reminds me that so many of the seemingly great achievements in this life will not last; and Paul’s life challenges me once again to commit mine to the things that will.

Waves crashing over part of Herod's breakwater wall
Waves crashing over part of Herod’s breakwater wall

Museums, Memorials and lessons from remembering … or Today would be a good day to be in Berlin

I recently saw, and loved, the movie of my favourite book. One of the things I love about The Book Thief is that it caused me to imagine what it would have been like to grow up in 1930s Germany. I’m pretty sure when I was 10 years old I had not developed a capacity to critique my country or its government. What would it be like to grow up thinking Nazism was normal, and to then experience the realities and questions of that first hand?

The Berlin Wall
The Berlin Wall

While The Book Thief is set in Munich, a city which I have briefly visited, it was visiting Berlin that raised those same kinds of questions for me. I loved Berlin, and particularly the many layers of history. As I walked the streets of Berlin I often found myself wondering, what would it have been like to grow up here in the 1940s, or the 1980s, or even the 1700s?

The Brandenburg Gate
The Brandenburg Gate

Berlin is a good place to reflect on what it means to be human and to remember the ways that humans often treat (and mistreat) one another. I would love to return and spend more time in its museums and at its memorials.

The Neue Synagogue, one of the few to survive Kristallnacht
The Neue Synagogue, one of the few to survive Kristallnacht
What did I love about Berlin?

The Museums. Berlin has hundreds, so it was hard to choose which to visit. This list includes just some of my favourites.

The Art Gallery on Museum Island
The Art Gallery on Museum Island

Pergamon Museum. One of five museums on Museum Island, the ancient treasures here are amazing. In particular it was a thrill to see the huge altar from the Turkish city of Pergamum, and the Ishtar Gates from ancient Babylon, which the Israelites would have seen when taken into exile in the 6th century BCE.

The Ishtar Gates from ancient Babylon
The Ishtar Gates from ancient Babylon

Jewish Museum. At the start of the 20th century, Berlin had one of the largest populations of Jews in the world. This museum celebrates their history and contribution to German society. It also has the Holocaust Tower, a dark and empty silo which is incredibly moving in its sense of emptiness and loss.

The intersection of the underground tunnels in the Jewish Museum
The intersection of the underground tunnels in the Jewish Museum

Topography of Terror. Built on the site of the former SS headquarters, this place is brutal in its frankness and brave in its honesty.

Some of the outdoor Topography of Terror's exhibits in front of a section of the Berlin Wall
Some of the Topography of Terror’s outdoor exhibits in front of a section of the Berlin Wall

DDR Museum. This fascinating museum in the former East provides a glimpse of what life was like in the GDR. From state arranged holidays to collective potty training, these were the realities for people my age who grew up here in the 1980s.

One way to tell if you are in former East or West Berlin ...
One way to tell if you are in former East or West Berlin …

Berlin Wall Memorial and Documentation Centre. On Bernauer Straße is a preserved section of the Berlin wall including the border strip and watchtower. The Documentation Centre’s tower provides a good view of this, as well as exhibits about the wall’s history including those who died trying to cross it.

The Border Strip as it was from 1961-1989
The Border Strip as it was from 1961-1989

I also loved the many moving Memorials. Again, these are just a few that particularly struck me.

The Window of Remembrance, honouring 136 known victims of the Wall Regime
The Window of Remembrance, honouring 136 known victims of the Wall Regime

Memorial to the Murdered Jews. Opened in 2005, this has been somewhat controversial. There are exhibits underground, but above ground it consists of thousands of concrete slabs of varying sizes and heights, through which people wander and remember. I’m not sure any memorial could adequately convey what needs to be conveyed here, and so in some ways I like that it is minimalist and unconventional. But I didn’t find it as poignant as many of the other memorials.

Some of the 2,711 stelae
Some of the 2,711 stelae at the memorial

Book Burning Memorial. Set into the ground of the public square, Bebelplatz, this appears at first glance to be a simple glass window. Looking down into it, however, you see rows and rows of empty bookshelves – enough to hold the 20,000 books that were burned here in 1933.

"Where they burn books, they will also in the end burn people." Heinrich Heine
“Where they burn books, they will also in the end burn people.” Heinrich Heine

Neue Wache Memorial to the victims of tyranny. The sculpture “Mother with her dead son,” in a shaft of light from the circular opening in the dome above, stands inside a former guardhouse that now serves as a war memorial. The contrast between walking down the busy main street with the usual noise of life and crowds, to stepping inside here where you could here a pin drop, was very affecting.

Käthe Kollwitz's heart-rending sculpture
Käthe Kollwitz’s heart-rending sculpture

Gleis 17. Berlin-Grunewald station today is a normal, everyday, suburban train station. But from 1941 to 1945, train after train left here packed full with people bound for concentration camps from which they would never return. Platform 17, no longer used, is a memorial to those who left from here, with dates, numbers of people, and destinations engraved along the length of the track. It is profoundly moving.

The hauntingly beautiful Platform 17
The hauntingly beautiful Platform 17
Just one date and one group of the 50,000 people deported from here
2/3/43 – 1758 Jews to Auschwitz – just one group on one date, out of so many
What did I learn from Berlin?
Leftover fabric stars in the Jewish museum
Leftover fabric stars in the Jewish museum

I think it is easy to grow up in a country that was on the “winning” side of the World Wars and simplistically imagine that we are so very different from “them,” or that it couldn’t happen here. Berlin reminded me of our common humanity, and particularly the challenges the church faces to respond to our all too common inhumanity.

The Berlin Cathedral
The Berlin Cathedral

Berliners have done a remarkable job of acknowledging their past history, including its mistakes and trials. I think we can all, whether as individuals or as nations, learn from that. It is a powerful thing to simply say sorry. No excuses, no justifications, no mitigations. Moving forward and embracing forgiveness are predicated on this. I love that the rebuilt dome of the Reichstag is made of glass, to symbolise openness and transparency.

The Reichstag
The Reichstag

I also appreciated the acknowledgement that some things don’t deserve remembrance. The site of Hitler’s bunker is an unadorned patch of car park and grass. Nothing to see there, and I think that too is a powerful message to send.

The former site of Hitler's Bunker
The former site of Hitler’s Bunker

At the Holocaust Memorial I was struck by children playing, and even a couple kissing, in the shadows between the blocks. A great reminder that life goes on, that “joy comes in the morning,” and that acknowledging the past doesn’t mean self-flagellation for the future, but living to the full today.

A young boy playing at the holocaust Memorial
A young boy playing at the holocaust Memorial

And finally, in Berlin I saw and experienced hope. On Bernauer Straße since the 1890s stood a church building, ironically called the Church of Reconciliation. When the Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961, the church found its building stranded in the no-man’s land between the two parts of the city, inaccessible to everyone but the border guards, and it was eventually destroyed. After the Wall fell, the church wanted to find a way to both commemorate its past and look to its future. In 2000, the Chapel of Reconciliation was completed, just across the road from the Berlin Wall Memorial. It stands there today as an amazing symbol of perseverance and faithfulness. As the parish said in a 1985 speech when the old building was destroyed, “We can do something … we know that symbols have a silent power which can make the ‘impossible’ possible.”

The Reconciliation Chapel
The Reconciliation Chapel