In May, I was privileged to visit the Holy Land, including the building at the summit of the Mount of Olives, the so-called Imbomen (from the Greek en bouno, “on the hillock”). In the days of Egeria in the fourth century, it was not so much a chapel as a circular colonnade, for Egeria writes in her famous travelogue that it was a place where one could sit down. Later a lady named Poemenia, a member of the Imperial family, enlarged it into an actual church. The church endured the same fate that befell much else in the Holy Land, being destroyed by the Persians in 614 AD and then, after being rebuilt in the seventh century, destroyed later by the Muslims. The present structure stands in the midst of the ruins of that church. Here I would like focus attention upon one significant change made to the original shrine—they roofed it over. The original shrine, measuring about three meters by three meters, like the original Imbomen of Egeria’s day, was open to the sky.
The present Imbomen structure is not very impressive, especially when compared to the area’s well-adorned churches, or even to the mosques in Jerusalem. But it does mark the authentic place where Christians have commemorated the Ascension of Christ since the fourth century. (It does not, however, mark the site of the actual Ascension itself. In Luke 24:50, we read that Christ led His disciples out “as far as Bethany” and ascended from there—in other words, over the summit of the Mount of Olives and down the other side towards Bethany. But it is hard to built a chapel on a hillside, and we can scarcely blame the Byzantines for building their chapel on the more obvious spot, on the hillock’s summit.)
The roofing over of the Imbomen is not of merely architectural significance. The Christians who worshipped in that original roofless shrine could look up into the sky, in their imaginations following Christ as He ascended from earth to heaven. There is always something inspiring and uplifting about looking up. The sky is one of the many miracles surrounding us, whether we see it filled with clouds or with stars. Sorrow makes our heads hang down and look towards the earth, while joy lifts up our heads. At every Divine Liturgy, the priest bids the faithful “Lift up your hearts!” and the instinctive response is to lift the heads as well. Joy makes us look up to heaven, to God, the Giver of all good gifts. I have no doubt that the ancient worshippers at the roofless Imbomen often looked up while they worshipped there. Our destiny as Christians is to eventually share Christ’s heavenly glory (Romans 8:29-30) and to join Him in His heavenly Kingdom. Little wonder then if we often look up to heaven, our destination and home.
It is just here that the roofing over of the Imbomen becomes significant, for those who bricked it up did not believe that men could share the glory of the heavenly God. Better then to look not up, but toward Jerusalem or Mecca. But in fact we can share the glory of our heavenly Lord, and His Ascension to glory is a promise and prophecy of the glory that by grace awaits all His disciples. I enjoyed my visit to the Imbomen. I enjoyed even more stepping outside the chapel, and looking up into heaven, following the path blazed by our ascended Lord, and knowing that we would all one day follow Him home.