“I am just going over Jordan.
I am just going over home.”
-- Wayfaring Stranger
By modern transportation, all of Israel isn’t that big, but on foot or even donkey, the area of the Jordan River where John did his baptizing was quite a hike from Jerusalem where most of his folks came from. It was even further for Cousin Jesus tramping down from Nazareth. Besides, how did they find him? No GPS. Not even a flashing sigh. It wouldn’t have been easy. You had to go looking for John the Baptist in a harsh land.
Holiness in Antiquity was not conveniently located for the spiritual shopper. It was something you had to go after and you had to be serious. It was the same with holy places in other religions too. They were remote and inaccessible.
The Jordan in the baptizing area is nothing to shout about. It isn’t big. It is narrow and muddy. When Elisha told Naaman of Aram to wash in the Jordan to heal his leprosy, Naaman thought he was a quack. Rivers in Aram were at least clean. This part of the Jordan is one of the lowest points on Earth, just north of the Dead Sea – a highly unlikely place for God to descend into our humanity. Our God is a God of surprises.
At the Jordan we renewed our Baptismal Vows today and received asperges from Brother Mark. Do I feel different? I’m not sure that’s the point – but to answer the question, well, yeah, I do. It will take me awhile to sort out just how. This place was closed off by the Israeli government for a while, but was reopened thanks to the diplomacy of Benedict XVI. You weren’t my favorite Pope, Ben, but thanks for making today possible.
From the Jordan, Jesus went into “the wilderness.” Today we drove up a mountain to overlook the area where Jesus went on his vision quest. It is vast and open like the American West. The hills roll like Idaho but are barren like Nevada – even more barren – no sagebrush, no scrub pine. Really barren. The wind blows. The loneliness is overpowering. How much loneliness must we face in order to meet God? And is meeting Satan on the way an inevitable part of the journey?
We saw the Jordan and the Wilderness of the Temptation this afternoon. We saw the Mountain of Temptation too – the one where Satan invited Jesus to jump -- but that struck me as pretty unlikely. It had a wall on top that would have been there in Jesus’ day. I think someone just picked that one at random. And we visited Jericho, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, the place where Jesus had dinner with the sinner, Zacchaeus, and healed blind Bartimaeus, author of the Jesus Prayer, which has carried me through my darkest hours, on his way out of town.
But our day began in the North at the Sea of Galilee. We visited two places in that region where Jesus did most of his teaching. First, we visited a church marking the supposed place where Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes. Second, we visited a church on the shore of Galilee commemorating the place where the Risen Lord appeared for the last time in the Gospel of John, the one where Jesus cooked the disciples a fish breakfast. More about that resurrection appearance in a moment. But first I want to note something about the altars in both those churches. At the Multiplication of Food church, the altar was built over a large stone that jutted up through the floor immediately under the altar. At the Fish Breakfast Church, an even larger stone came up through the floor in front of the altar. Assuming the stone was there first, it appears the altar was deliberately placed behind it, just as the altar had been quite intentionally built over the rock in the first church.
No one could explain those rocks to me. But from what I have been reading of the history of Jerusalem, a city built around an ancient sacred rock, I expect those rocks are significant. These two spots may have been where Israelites in the 8th Century were offering sacrifices, much to the distress of southern prophets like Jeremiah who insisted the only proper place for sacrifice was Jerusalem. The rock in the South was holier than the ones in the North. But I would imagine that the Jews were not the first to offer sacrifice on these stones. Their Canaanite predecessors had been offering sacrifice there for thousands of years before Abraham left Ur.
Does that corrupt the holy place? Or does it tie it into something older and deeper in the human story than we can find in a written record. In JMHP, Part 6, I said sacred geography is a matter of finding places to ground the events in our sacred story. But there is also an argument, perhaps a better argument, that we weave our sacred stories abound places that were holy and we experienced them as holy before the story was crafted. Perhaps some late Stone Age person sensed the divine at these stones.
All of which I somehow associate with an Apache Cross that hangs in my office. In the center of the cross, instead of a corpus, a stone is held by strong thread. Rock of Ages cleft for me.
It was wonderful to be at Galilee again this morning, to go down to the beach, to touch the water. It recalled for me the first sermon I gave in New York. It was at Holy Apostles, Chelsea – and it was on this text, the last resurrection appearance in John. I can’t begin to say how much I love this text. Here’s why:
It has been said that in John, “Jesus’ feet never quite touch the ground.” He is a very lofty sort of character, way more God than man. In the crucifixion, he is not tortured so much as elevated. He reigns from the cross. Then in the resurrection, he is just sublime each time he appears. He is on spiritual steroids. Then the Gospel of John ends. Fini. Complete. The End. The curtain comes down.
Then the curtain comes back up. And another thing: one more resurrection appearance. This time Jesus shows up as an old guy on the beach, a crusty old fisherman who knows the sea. He calls out “Children, (I love that) caught anything?” They don’t recognize him. He doesn’t look the same. He’s old and talks like a fisherman. “Nah,” they say. “Try the other side of the boat,” he calls back like he knows the tricks of fishing these waters. They do and catch 153 fish but the net doesn’t break. So they hurry to shore to meet Jesus but he doesn’t talk about “I and the father are one” or about being in the father and the disciples being in him so that the disciples are in the Father and then there’s the Spirit of Truth in there somewhere along with being born from above, etc. etc. He says, “Let’s cook up some of those fish,” and he does – he cooks the fish. Jesus finally comes to earth. Great text. It’s a whole theological trip to say why that finally happened in John. I argued lo those many years ago it had to do with the Johannine Community being put out of the synagogue and having to find their religions not so much in their heads as in their daily lives.
The day had one more thing that was just weird to me – and one thing that was quite good. The weird thing was Mount Tabor, the Mount of the Transfiguration. Let me say first off: the Transfiguration is big in my religion – aesthetic theology, God as Beauty, Beauty as the chief attribute of God (Jonathan Edwards, Gregory of Nyssa, David Bentley Hart). I am with the Eastern Tradition in seeing it as a High Holy Day theologically. I love the dharmadatu holy light in the Jesus story. Plus August 6 is the Feast of the Transfiguration, Hiroshima Day, the anniversary of my ordination, and my elder daughter’s wedding anniversary. Big day at our house.
The drive up Mt. Tabor was long and winding. Tabor is beautiful. The view from Tabor is beautiful – looking out over the Jezreel Valley to the mountains on the other side including Carmel up to the North. This was surely the place for a theophany.
But the turning point of the story is when oafish Peter says, “Let’s build three shrines – one to you (Jesus), one to Moses, and one to Elijah.” God shows up and says, “This is my beloved Son,” Moses and Elijah disappear, and there is no more talk of shrines. Well, you guessed it: they built a church on top of Mt. Tabor, with Jesus in the middle and chapels for Mosel and Elijah on each side. The church was as elegant as I’ve ever seen in its architecture and some of the religious art was exquisite but there was also a lot of art that was exactly what Thomas Merton decried in his essay on bad Catholic art. It included four mosaics of moments in the Jesus story revealing his divinity. Each mosaic had angels with their eyes rolling back in their heads as if they were having seizures. The Revelation one had a lamb lying on an open Bible. Now add this: the church and its art are from the 1920s funded by Italian fascists. It was all just creepy and left me with a real sense of the Church just not getting it. If the church is founded on the rock of Peter and Peter is the chief example of not getting it, then I suppose it’s to be expected.
On the up side, I had been wanting something more academic in the program, and we got that tonight – a very good lecture by a double doc on Abraham. He will be our guide tomorrow to the Oaks of Mamre, Hebron, etc. So geek that I am, I’ll get some of my nerd needs met.