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