Wednesday, December 12, 2007

This Year in Jerusalem

December 13, 2007
Greetings as we continue to move through Advent, preparing to celebrate the coming of Jesus in his first visit and awaiting his second coming. I have made plans to visit Jerusalem and Palestine during the winter break here at the seminary. I have made contact with ELCA Lutherans there and intend to view first hand the monuments of the past but also to learn of the present struggles for justice and peace, for Christians, Palestinians and Jews in this troubled land where Jesus once walked.

The first picture is of an icon in the Episcopal Church in Maadi, a suburb of Cairo, where I worship and have assisted the priest, the Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler as preacher and celebrant when he was on a book tour. I mentioned earlier that his new book: "Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road, Exploring a New Path between Two Faiths", has been released. In return, he came to present his insights at our "Scholar's Seminar" and to meet with the graduate students class to dialogue about Muslim-Christian relations.

Icons, like this one of the baptism of Jesus, are present in many churches in this region, and developed as early Christian art sought to connect the divine reality with the human, to have heavenly presence touch earthly items and events. As you can observe, there is less concern to produce accurate human forms and landscapes. The gold background and the angel invite the viewer to come in contact with something holy and sacred in what is historical and worldly. In preparation for my trip to Jerusalem and Palestine, I have been reading a recent work by Andrew S. Jacobs, a southern Californian, entitled "The Holy Land and Christian Empire in Late Antiguity". He points out how the Christians converted the historic space of the Jews into sacred place of the followers of Christ. They replaced, erased and appropriated, what had been cherished by the Hebrews in "their promised land". From Constantine, the first "Christian" emperor, and from his mother Helena, the city of Jerusalem, developed more and more into a pilgrimage destination for pious Christians, a place to honor and preserve the events and spaces of the life, death and resurrection of Christ. The "true cross" was found, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher constructed on the spot by tradition where Jesus had been buried.

When the Muslims conquered the city of Jerusalem, they too replaced, erased and appropriated the space of others for their sacred place, constructing the Dome of the Rock to honor the place where the prophet Mohammad had been transported to heaven in a vision and to honor the place where by tradition God had demanded the sacrifice of Abraham's son Issac. Hans Kung, in his book "Islam, Past, Present and Future", comments that this appropiation was to show that "Islam has the primacy, because it has renewed the original religion of Abraham, contrary to Jewish and Christian falsifications (p. 206)". This, just a brief note on the history of this space as sacred place for three of the world's major religions, brings us up the the present and the talks between Palestinians and Israelis, complicated in many ways by the status of Jerusalem. More on this later, but for now, pray for the just peace of Jerusalem.

My second picture brings us back to Cairo. It is of the entrance to the newly renovated church for the Armenian Patriarch, one of the several Orthodox expressions in Egypt. Here too symbols of the divine are merged with the human to suggest that this space set aside for worship is a holy place, where God comes to meet us in his love and grace. That too is the message of Christmas, the incarnation "coming in the flesh" of the divine. May God bless us as we continue to make way for Christ to enter our lives.

(One more note about our class discussions on the theme of Jewish, Christian and Muslim relations, and "Zionism", the movement from the 19th century for Jews to "reclaim" their homeland. I used two sources to help in our discussions. One is available from the ELCA: "Churchwide Strategy for Engagement in Israel and Palestine." The other is by a former colleague, Dr. Peter Pettit, who is now the director for the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding at Muhlenberg College. It is entitled: "Christian Zionism from a Perspective of Jewish-Christian Relations." You may be interesting in reviewing these as part of the total picture of the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations now going on.
Blessings and peace to all, Roger

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Refugee Work at St. Andrews

Monday, December 3, 2007
Greetings from Egypt. I hope that all is well. I want to take this opporunity to say a few words about the refugee ministry which the ELCA supports here in Cairo. The picture I am sending is of some students in the school at St. Andrews who came from the Sudan in the several years. They sang some Christian songs for us at Friday worship. There are less refugees coming now, in part because some areas of the Sudan are not at war. However, the situation is such that the Sudanese here in Egypt will need to remain. So the refugee program has shifted to providing the services these people need for the long term. A workshop at the church encourages artists among them to produce goods to be sold. Language classes in English and in Arabic help the families to get along here. A cirriculum has been devised which prepares students for formal education in Egyptian schools of higher education. Often classes include students of various age levels because the many could not have a regular schedule before in their troubled home land. There are over 100 students at the primary school level and over 50 in the secondary grades. Three ELCA personel assist in this program, a couple who has previously done refugees work in Palestine and a young woman who directs the adult education program. Write me if you are interested in more information and I will put you in touch with these people.
Dr. Hans Kung spoke in Egypt at the America University in Cairo on Sunday, December 2. His book "Islam, Past, Present, & Future" has recently been translated into English. He had already written works on Judaism and Christianity. His hope is that the world will move away from being "a clash of civilizations" (Islam and the West), and reach back to the foundations of the three religions to see what we share in common. He expresses this hope (maybe it could be an Advent prayer for us all)
No peace among nations without peace among the religions
No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions
No dialogue between the religions without global ethical standards
No survival of our globe without a global ethic, a world ethic, supported by
both the religious and the non-religious.
Now retired after a long and often controversial career as a Catholic theologian, he heads an institute in Germany called the Global Ethic Foundation. His is one of the voices dedicated to lasting peace in a world so fractured by hatred and violence. He writes that we need to change from a self-righetous arrogance to a critical awareness of the perplexing interdependece of present-day society. Though well aware of the present situations, he encouraged us not to lose hope.
May hope come with this season when we await the coming of the Christ child. Roger