Saturday, April 14, 2012

Sanctified Bermudas

Sign at the beach on the Sea of Galilee where it is said Jesus ate breakfast with the disciples after the resurrection.

When I visited Israel/Palestine last year as part of a seminary travel course on the ethics of peacemaking, I was one of the people in our group most informed and impassioned about the political situation, but also one of the least prepared for the pilgrimage element of the trip.

At first I had no appreciation of the supposed holiness of the sites we visited--the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, said to be built over Jesus’ tomb, comes particularly to mind. Not only does the very idea of the church seem to contradict the point of the angel’s message--“He is not here, he is risen!”--but control of the property has historically been a point of division and even violence among Christian factions. It seemed to me, any holiness that had been in that place was destroyed by centuries of pride and malice.

But I had a change of heart in the Church of the Nativity. At first, I had the same attitude as before--I felt nothing special--and I was disturbed by the people having their photo taken in “the Grotto” (supposedly the very place where Jesus was born)--so touristy and inappropriate.

But then we continued on, and our guide pointed to a staircase with a grate over the entrance and said “Down there is St. Jerome’s cell, where he composed the Vulgate.” And my jaw dropped to the floor.

“What??!? Jerome?!? Jerome was HERE?!??!? The Vulgate?! JEROME TRANSLATED THE VULGATE HERE?!?!?!!?

The guide was very amused by my reaction. I mean, seriously, I could barely stop myself from leaping up and down with excitement. I LOVE ST. JEROME! (He’s another of those impossible saints to find on a medal.) And from that moment, I understood what the whole pilgrimage thing was supposed to be about.

"St. Jerome, elder and doctor of the church, was here" in Latin.

On the last day of the trip, we visited the (so they said) beach where Jesus ate breakfast with some of the disciples after the resurrection. There is (thankfully) no huge cathedral there; only a small chapel. And no one really cared about the chapel, either. We all just wanted to stand on the rocky shore, to wade a little in the water, to look out on the sea. Someone said it “felt holy in a different way” from any of the other places we’d been. And it did.

We had laughed at the sign that said “HOLY PLACE / NO SHORTS,” even though by this time we were used to the Semitic expectations of modesty. It seems odd to prohibit wearing shorts at the beach. But more than that, the “different kind of holiness” that we were feeling was the holiness of Jesus that is so often talked about by pastors and theologians--the kind of holiness that, rather than needing to be kept pristine, to be protected from the stain of corruption, actually makes holy the profane, turns the unholy into the very dwelling place of God. It’s a kind of holiness that makes a simple breakfast of roasted fish into divine communion.

It is the meaning of the Incarnation and of the Resurrection: that God is not just “out there” and “beyond us”; that salvation is not entrance into a perfect heaven that exists apart from this world. No, indeed. God is here, in this very place, and God’s redemption is the redemption of this world.

It is quite a stunning thing to walk in the land where Jesus walked. It’s not just like some graffiti scratched on a wall saying, “God was here” (even though that would be pretty cool--like the words etched into the walls of Jerome’s cell!)--but moreover, God is here--words etched, as it were, in all those things that bear God’s glory. Even the people wearing shorts. (-;

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