Friday, July 02, 2004

Alive: the Reflection Paper, part II

As the historical record took on flesh, I found that another thing alive and well was the cloud of witnesses. Those who have gone before us in faith, and those who are alongside us in a different path of faith, were everywhere we looked. Since returning, I haven’t been able to open the Bible without exclaiming (usually aloud, even in church—much to the dismay of my fellow pew-dwellers) “I’ve been there!” or “I’ve seen that!” As we traveled in Damascus, Hama, Aram, Edom, Sinai, to Mt. Carmel, to Mt. Nebo, to the Sea of Galilee and Jerusalem, the communion of saints was practically palpable. We walked where Paul walked. We explored a city Isaiah prophesied against. We stood where Moses stood and looked into the Promised Land. We explored the city John the Baptist may have known. We climbed the mountain of Moses and we looked down on the valley from the place where Elijah beat the prophets. We saw Peter’s house and a city and synagogue Jesus would have known, we worshipped on the Mount of Beatitudes. We looked at the spring Mary drew water from, we visited Herod the Great’s cities, we saw the birthplace and the tomb of Jesus. Whether or not any of these traditional sites is indeed the historical place almost doesn’t matter—what matters is that for thousands of years (or at least a thousand and a half) people have thought it was the place. For thousands of years people have come to pray and to worship, to see the place and take back an experience of the living God. For me, the important thing wasn’t touching the hole where the cross may have stood, but praying in a place where millions of people have prayed. It wasn’t about whether Jesus was buried in the cave in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher or the Garden Tomb, it was about the thick cloud of witnesses in the place (no, that wasn’t just incense!).
In some cases, it was also about experiencing something that probably hasn’t changed much through the centuries. The high place at Petra forced me to understand how important sacrificing in a high place was—it was nearly 800 steps up, and had a view of the whole city and was clearly the best place for worship involving sacrifices—it’s high and unobstructed so the smoke could rise to the heavens. When they say “the high place” they mean literally high! Important sacrifices required a lot of effort, it wasn’t just a casual undertaking. Those 800 steps probably weren’t there at first, and carrying a live animal up there would have been hard work—I wasn’t sure I could even carry myself up there. The climb up Mt. Sinai was hard, even given that we rode camels halfway up (which, by the way, was one of my favorite things!). No wonder Moses was so irritated that he had to go up again and again. The wilderness of Sinai looks like the kind of place one could get lost in. The Promised Land does look awfully good after that wilderness, too! The Sea of Galilee could easily have a quick storm that would swamp one of those little boats, and it takes a deceptively long time to cross. Not much of the experience of some of these places has changed—often just some stairs, or a new town in the valley, or a boat with a roof on the back make it clear that we are in the 21st, not the 1st, century.

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