When we visited Israel two years ago, I looked forward to seeing the place where Jesus was crucified, to give physical description to what I have only read about in Scripture. To see the place would not have changed my faith or what I believe, but it would have fed my imagination. In my mind's eye, I envisioned a hill, perhaps uneven with tufts of weedy grass and lots of rocks. I considered that Golgotha's hill might have been fenced in to keep tourists from trampling the ground or stealing all of the rocks. And I half expected to see three crosses there, set up as a remembrance. Golgotha is not only fenced in as I expected, but it is almost completely cut off from tourists. While we did get to visit the supposed Garden Tomb where the possible hill was pointed out to us, we could not get close enough to touch it, to feel the dust beneath our feet. No kneeling at a replicated cross. Just the view of the side of Skull Hill from a distance. (See the rock face of the hill in the picture? It sort of looks like a skull.)
The supposed Garden Tomb is open for public display, and The Church of the Holy Sepulcher enshrines a piece of the rock where the cross once stood. Beneath the church is where they think the real tomb resides, but tourists aren't allowed to go there.
Our guide told us the history of this church and other shrines in Israel, (there are many) and how people in centuries past wanted to preserve the places where it is believed Jesus was born, was crucified, and was buried. So they erected churches over these spots apparently so they would not be forgotten. I wish they would have put up a simple marker, especially on the hill of Golgotha. I would have liked to walk close enough to feel the place.
What is it about human nature that seeks to enshrine things we deem important? In reading Matthew 17 last week, I came upon the time when Jesus took Peter, James, and John up on a high mountain and there was transfigured - his appearance changed and they saw him in his glory. Then Moses and Elijah appeared and talked with Jesus. I wonder what I would have done in that situation. Tried to get closer to listen? Crouched in a corner, terrified? Been dumbstruck?
The Bible doesn't tell us what James and John did, but Peter decided this would be a great place to build a shrine. He called them tents. It probably seemed like a great idea to him until God spoke from the cloud and told them who Jesus was and that they should listen to him. The voice terrified them and sent all three of them face down on the ground. Peter lost all thought of shrines after that.
There was a time in the Old Testament when God told the Israelites to set up pillars as a sort of shrine to remind them of something great - like when they crossed the Jordan River on dry ground to enter Canaan. But He didn't do that very often, and I wonder if part of the reason was because the people would have ended up worshiping the shrine instead of Him.
Some of the people who visit The Church of the Holy Sepulcher and some of the other sites in Israel seem to do the same thing. They fall on their faces and kiss the stone in the entryway, and they seem to revere the place more than the God whom they try to enshrine there.
God is not a man nor does He need a building with which to house him. When Solomon finished the temple he had built for God's name, he said, "But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!" 1 Kings 8:27 ESV
Though the shrines we build are not meant to contain God, sometimes I think they take the focus off of Him and put it in the wrong place. Perhaps that is part of the message of the transfiguration story in Matthew. Peter wanted to capture the moment and hold it in a tent, to remember Jesus in his glory along with Moses and Elijah. But then God spoke and put everything in perspective when he said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him."
We don't need a shrine to do that...