Jerusalem Syndrome…er, the Messiah Complex

photo thanks to Slate magazine

photo thanks to Slate magazine

What? Don’t know the phrase Jerusalem syndrome? It’s the name given to visitors who so identify with the various religious places of Jerusalem that they believe themselves to be an historical religious figure. For instance, a woman leaves the milk grotto in Bethlehem believing she is the virgin Mary; or, after a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where (tradition says) Jesus rose from the dead, a visitor wraps a sheet around himself declaring that he is the risen Messiah.

According to Dr. Yair Bar-El, an expert on this at Herzog Hospital these are the symptoms of Jerusalem Syndrome:

  • anxiety
  • the urge to leave the group and go about Jerusalem by himself or herself
  • an obsession with cleansing — baths, showers, grooming
  • donning a white gown made of a bed sheet
  • singing or shouting verses from the Bible or religious songs
  • marching to a holy place
  • delivering a sermon in said holy place, urging people to a better life

“By the time people get to the bed sheet phase, they are largely gone,” he noted.

Of course our little band of travelers had a field day with this phenomena of Jerusalem Syndrome. When a gust of wind descended on our late-night dinner by the Sea of Galilee, a man immediately jumped up to calm it; and, at our final stop at Tabgha (the place of the feeding of the 5,000) facing the responsibility to tip our guides and driver, another whispered to me they would “multiply” the offerings.

The first intervention had no effect, the second was well-welcomed. But both got me thinking about the way place affects us and the things we call sacred. Throughout the centuries people of faith – all faiths – have revered locations where people met God. The Old Testament is filled with such places – there are 4 of them listed in Genesis alone (Genesis 12:7; Genesis 13:18; Genesis 26:25; Genesis 35:1). Joshua 4 tells the people to bring their stones and build a place to remember the work of God. “When people see these stones…you will tell them what the Lord did.”

On this trip, I saw the stones earlier people erected. But I also met those living stones Peter talks about in his epistle, And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple” I Peter 2:5.

I have to say, I am far more impressed with the living stones than the dead ones. They were far more sacred, far more glorious and brought me closer to Jesus than any ruin, any church or any tomb.

These faces  – Palestinian and Israeli; Jewish, Muslim and Christian (in all persuasions); settlers and residents; occupiers and the occupied; People! These are the stones precious to God. In fact to see them was to see what Jacob saw when he reunited with his brother Esau in Genesis 33 “truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God”.

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I wasn’t affected by old stones that produced Jerusalem syndrome. But I am deeply affected by the living stones we met. I want them to do for me what Joshua asked those stones to do for the Israelites in Joshua 4. I want these living stones to remind me of the things the Lord has done and is doing.  I want them to produce in me a greater desire to follow God in the land of the land of the living.

And I want to suggest this too: that we all have living stones in front of us. They aren’t only clustered in some place of worship, they are right now in front of us. You want to meet God? Then let me suggest you meet the Almighty in the way Jacob did – in the faces of his people.

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