12 May 2015

Day Twelve - Searching for Context

Day Twelve – Searching for Context

The day begins overcast, but glory (as my sisters would call it when they were kids) is seeping through. The time here at TIberias has been quite nice and I now understand why Israeli families like to come up here – mild weather, beautiful scenery, and water. We will leave this, however to go inland – to Nazareth and Cana.

Our first stop is at “Mary’s Well”, or as the guide called it on my first tour here, “an ancient water source.” That it most certainly was, and we can speculate on whether or not Mary would have used it. The well sits deep within the Greek Orthodox Church, where we literally walk into the Divine Liturgy just to go down to the well. I guess that this happens all the time and I guess that they don’t mind (at least I hope so.)  One goes down a flight of stars into a hallway that leads to the ancient water source, I mean, well. Lining the walls are some beautiful Byzantine tiles. I looked forward to seeing them again.

I think that many pilgrims (or should I say, many tour guides) miss the layered context of the sites that they want to see. The true place is often set in the architecture of faith. It’s like the incisions of crosses in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, or the footsteps worn into the steps at Canterbury, or these beautiful cedars, dating from the Byzantine period, here at the Church of the Annunciation. One of the collateral moments of beauty comes when we leave the lower levels of the well, and climb back into the light of the Greek Orthodox church. I am reminded of the reminiscences of Basil Spence Pennington when he visits Mt. Athos. He tells how the monks would twist up the chandeliers of the church and at the Sanctus in the Divine Liturgy let them go, so that their spinning granted a sort of other-worldly vision. Or, as the Lutheran Liturgy says, “give us a foretaste of the feast to come.”

Next we visit the Anglican church in Nazareth, Christ Church. We are not the only tour group there. The former Bishop of Oxford is leading one group and there is another group from Sarnia, Ontario, Canada. A good half of the congregation is English-speaking Anglicans, and the other half is Arabic-speaking Anglicans. It makes for a veritable Pentecost – and we are all speaking in tongues. After the Eucharist we are treated to tea and cakes and a great deal of hospitality. We meet a man who lives in Nazareth and in Arlington Virginia, he is an epidemiologist, and a pleasant host. The Anglican Communion has retained some the better parts of its imperial past – namely the familiarity and interest that all of its constituent parts seem to have in one another. Arthur leaves all his Jordanian Dinar in the offering plate. “It’s in their diocese,” he explains.

The big story in town is the interpretation of the Annunciation at the Church of the Annunciation built and managed (like all Holy Land sites) by the Franciscans. Like the Church at Kefer-Nahum, this church is also built over a ruin – namely the house/place where the annunciation is said to have happened.  It is preserved in the lower level of the church.

Again the tour ignores the context of faith that is built around the site – beautiful Byzantine mosaic floors, and remaining walls painted in faith. You have to look, and you can find this stuff. It’s humbling. The church above is a bit overdone, with Madonnae contributed from many nations. (The one from the US is absolutely hideous.) The Stations of the Cross are very interesting, porcelain somewhat in the style of Paterino. All in all, it’s just too much stuff.

One interesting place that survives my “taste test” is the plaza that surrounds the Baptistery, and is elevated over the remains of the ancient town. It is pure seventies modernism, but reads very well – elegant and inviting. It surrounds the pilgrims with the story and invites them to walk into it.

We go across the street to a little church that is the “house of Joseph” Here is preserved an ancient mikveh, which was later used by Christians as a Baptistery. I guess that Joseph needs his due as well. What is interesting to me is that it is not so much the “house of Joseph, as it is an ancient site of faith used in the Christian context.

Our last stop is in Cana, and yes, there is a church, and yes, there is a water jar, and yes there are the surrounding shops filled with olive wood, icons, thuribles with bells (I want one), and wine – naturally. We go back to TIberias with as much context as we can handle, and the Spirit comes to visit as we put our heads down for a nap.

Post Scriptum

I forgot a very important moment. While in the Church at Cana, and at all the significant places at which we stopped, there was a reading from the Scriptures and a prayer. Here at Cana, Andrew Nunn asked that Arthur and I read the account of the Wedding at Cana.

It was a very moving moment.

10 May 2015

Day Eleven - On Our Journey and Pilgrimage to Galilee

Day Eleven – The Soil

In his book, Beginning to Pray, Archbishop Anthony Bloom wrote this about the earth:

“Humility is the situation of the earth. The earth is always there, always taken for granted, never remembered, always trodden on by everyone, somewhere we cast and pour out all the refuse, all we don’t need. It’s there, silent and accepting everything and in a miraculous way making out of all the refuse new richness in spite of corruption, transforming corruption itself into a power of life and a new possibility of creativeness, open to the sunshine, open to the rain, ready to receive any seed we sow and capable of bringing thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold out of every seed.”

My mother was born in Alma, Kansas, a small market town located in the eastern hills of Kansas just before the break into the wide expanse of the prairie some 24 miles to the west. We used to go there when I was a kid, and as we approached the town, driving through the rich soil of the farmlands that surrounded Alma, one thought always came to mind. It was this – this was the soil that birthed my mother, and in a sense, me as well. It was from this soil and others like it that I came into being.

That same thought came to me as we began our pilgrimage to the northern tier at the top of the Sea of Galilee.  We drove north from TIberias through Magdala (I had hoped we would stop their at least honor the Apostle Mary – but we did not), and then past Tabgha to Kefer-Nahum, or Capernaum.

If there was a soil from which Christianity had sprung it was most certainly the soil of this place. As we glanced around the countryside we could see that it was well watered and lush – the perfect image. Somewhere I have a photograph of me at the age of 30 standing in this same synagogue marveling at its beauty. It was the soil of thought for so much of my subsequent ministry. The synagogue is not from the time of Jesus, but much later, and it is not the main attraction but rather the house of Peter that rests under buildings and churches that were built on top of it. The current structure, Franciscan, literally hangs over the site, with a huge hole in the floor so that pilgrims can peer down into the house. If Bishop Spong is correct, it was the soil of Peter that nurtured the Easter message of hope. So we do him honor here, with readings and prayers. There is, however, more, and here I need to make a comment. Many of the sites that we have visited and will visit have a specious quality about them. They trouble me, for I think they hide the mystery. A fellow pilgrim gives me food for thought. "Think of them as you do the stations of the cross," she says. She is right - we are not honoring exactitude or even reality, but rather the significance and essence of the holy places.

The next two sites are “The Primacy of Peter” and “Mensa Christi”. While standing on the shore of Galilee, I notice someone casting nets – how perfect. For it is in such a work-a-day place that Peter has the revelation about the true nature of Jesus, and it is on the rock at the base of the altar in the church next door, that Christ prepares a breakfast for his followers, and reveals himself to them. I need to be reminded of the ordinariness of it all.

At Tabgha we visit the stunning Benedictine monastery with its wonderful mosaics. You can just glimpse the bread and fishes at the foot of the altar in the picture below. The other mosaics portray wildlife and the struggle to live, birds and centipedes, all strive bring life out of the soil of the earth.

At the lakeside on the monastery grounds we celebrate a concelebrated mass, and I am privileged to lead it. The gracious Benedictines provide proper vessels and elements for our Eucharist.

Lunch is at the convent located by the Mount of the Beatitudes Church, a product of Mussolini’s megalomania – but none-the-less handsome in its own way. It reminds me of the church that he had built on the grounds of the EUR in Rome, the Church of Saints Peter and Paul. It’s a post-modern building before there even was such a thing or concept. Take a Palladian chapel and strip it of all ornamentation, preserving the mass of the building and you have a sense of these churches. I remember being here forty years ago when we had a prayer service in the church accompanied by the song of the birds.

One of the readings during our pilgrimage, from Ezekiel, talks of streams of water coming out of the temple, and forming a river that flows out to the nations. Perhaps that is what the artist had in mind when he or she did the floors of The Church of the Beatitudes.

We go on to Ein Gev and grab a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee. In the midst, the skipper shuts down the engines, and we drift in silence – a silence that invites us to sleep in the stern of the boat as Jesus did. Earlier, Arthur commented on the absence of motor noise. Now the silence is deafening and welcome.

09 May 2015

Day Ten - Our pilgrimage to Northern Israel (by way of Palestine)

Day Ten – At a remove

We leave Jerusalem after Morning Prayer and Breakfast, and take the opposite pilgrim’s route traveling from the Holy City to Jericho. There are some stops along the way, such as an overview of the Monastery of Saint George in the Judean Desert. There is no electricity, no cable car, no roadway (that I can see) – these monks are truly at a remove. I wonder why it sounds so attractive? They have survived Persians, Ottomans, and now Israeli’s – more power to them.

We stop at the Jordan River for renewal of Baptismal Vows. The Country of Jordan is just feet away, and on the other side of the river soldiers sit guard over their place for baptismal renewal. The Jordanian government has given land to various ecclesial groups to build churches there, and one can see them just beyond the greenery that lines a very muddy Jordan River.

Perhaps it is commerce that will bring warring peoples together, or, more likely, that is what is keeping them apart. There are lots of tourists on the Jordan side, some wearing white robes, preparing to be baptized. On the Israeli side, actually on the Palestinian side, one can buy a cold drink, an olive wood cross, a Bible, a bikini, and a white baptismal robe all at the same store. As I sit and drink something cold, white doves come to see if I am going to drop a tidbit or two. I look at them, and I try to look through them to the symbol that they are.

Jericho is a poor city, but lush with agriculture, especially dates and citrus. We stop for lunch at a restaurant in the shadow of a mosque, and so we are treated to the sermon from the mosque via loudspeaker. I wonder what is being preached. I ask around, “Has anyone ever read or listened to a Muslim sermon?” “No,” is the answer. Perhaps we should.

We move on to visit the Sycamore Tree (Zachaeus). Such futile grasping at a specious reality but missing the point and the mystery frustrate me. It doesn't stop here, however. The next stop is to gaze at the Mount of Temptation – same emotions. What I would really like to have seen again is the tell at Jericho, the site of Katherine Kenyon’s trailblazing work, but we drive by. At least the guide mentions it, but we cannot see it.

This is the danger of a “pilgrimage”. Everything must be ostensibly “holy”. Things that are indeed holy to me because they are the context of the mystery of faith and human existence are apparently outside of the box.

The trip up is interesting. The West Bank is under Palestinian Control (although the road that we are traveling on is not!) There is an effort to expand agriculture in these areas. Forty years ago when I was here there was nothing here but mud brick refugee camps. Perhaps a level of progress is being made.

The change at the border is startling, however. At the checkpoint, two “officials” (or were they soldiers) enter, one just checking us out, and the other holding an Uzi. It is very effective. The Israeli side is remarkably different: shopping centers, community centers, good roads, even more agriculture (dates, bananas, mangos, and avocados). Last here, I went up to Kibbutz Lavi, above Tiberius. Those people had made the desert bloom – it was outstanding. That tradition seems to continue in Israel. It is quite lush. Now if they can just share that talent with their Palestinian neighbors.

Again, entering Tiberius, we could have had the opportunity to stop by a first century synagogue with a marvelous mosaic floor with the signs of the zodiac. That however, is a different kind of holiness.