Redemption & Resurrection

Redemption, resurrection, renewal, promise and freedom are themes of our current season. Over the ages, countless traditions have marked the springtime miracle of life bursting forth from seemingly cold, dead earth.

I’m thinking of three traditions in particular, two of which are probably obvious to those of us in the West, Passover and Easter. This year, the week of Passover overlaps Christian Holy Week, the period between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday. To add a hint of scandal, I’m also thinking of the ecstatic Dionysian Mysteries of ancient Greece. All three involve breaking free of physical and spiritual bondage of some sort and emerging as a more complete, connected and authentic individual, community member and earthling.

Passover celebrates the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, led by the divinely chosen but less-than-willing Moses. They are reborn as a nation and set on a path by the Lord to the Promised Land. The physical redemption of the Israelites is honored during the 7-day holiday and it is also a time of spiritual redemption. Along with house cleaning of the soul there is house cleaning of the house. The Israelites left Egypt in a hurry and, unable to wait for bread to rise, they took unleavened bread to sustain them on their journey. A big part of Passover tradition is to rid the home of all traces of leavened stuff and anything that might consider leavening if given the opportunity. Cupboards and pantries are cleansed of breads and pastries, pastas and most grains and, for good measure, the whole house is usually given a major spring cleaning.

the Sinai Peninsula, where the Israelites wandered for 40 years after leaving Egypt

the Sinai Peninsula, where the Israelites wandered for 40 years after leaving Egypt

the Sinai Peninsula, where the Israelites wandered for 40 years after leaving Egypt

the Sinai Peninsula, where the Israelites wandered for 40 years after leaving Egypt

the view of the Promised Land from Mt. Nebo Jordan, as seen by the Israelites after wandering in the desert for 40 years

the view of the Promised Land from Mt. Nebo Jordan, as seen by the Israelites after wandering in the desert for 40 years

Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, a sign of redemption and liberation from death. Through Jesus we are shown that death is not an end but a new beginning, a passage to another life. Easter symbols are all about fertility and new life – eggs, chicks, bunnies, Easter Lilies…

the Upper Room in Jerusalem, where Jesus shared his Last Supper with his disciples before being arrested

the Upper Room in Jerusalem, where Jesus shared his Last Supper with his disciples before being arrested

the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, where Jesus was arrested

the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, where Jesus was arrested

the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows or Way of the Cross), the route walked by Jesus to his crucifixion

the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows or Way of the Cross), the route walked by Jesus to his crucifixion

the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows or Way of the Cross), the route walked by Jesus to his crucifixion

the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows or Way of the Cross), the route walked by Jesus to his crucifixion

the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, where many believe Jesus was buried and resurrected

the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, where many believe Jesus was buried and resurrected

the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, where many believe Jesus was buried and resurrected

the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, where many believe Jesus was buried and resurrected

Dionysian rites were held in the spring across the Greek and Roman world. Dionysus was associated with the season of rebirth because he was a twice-born god. His mortal mother Semele died while pregnant with Dionysus when she insisted that Zeus, the father of her baby, appear before her in his full godliness. Semele was not equipped for such a sight and perished instantly. Zeus provided the fetal Dionysus a substitute womb inside his thigh, from which Dionysus was born again some time later.

There were also strong liberation themes in Dionysian rites, which were characterized by wild abandon. Dionysus was god of the vine and wine was used to break down restrictive social barriers and inhibitions. Celebrants drank and danced into tranced-out frenzy, transcending the mundane world to be spiritually unified with the god. Woohoo!

La Jeunesse de Bacchus by William Bouquereau, 1884

La Jeunesse de Bacchus by William Bouquereau, 1884

Merry Christmas from Bethlehem!

Bethlehem

Bethlehem

Bethlehem is located in the West Bank, about 6 miles south of Jerusalem in the Judean Mountains. It’s home to one of the largest Arab Christian communities, now about 40% of the population, but once around 85%. It’s a small city of about 25,000, with tourism as the main industry.

Besides being the traditional birthplace of Jesus, Bethlehem is the birthplace of King David and the site of the tomb of Rachel. Rachel’s tomb, on the edge of town, attracts Jewish and Muslim pilgrims, but Bethlehem’s star attraction, by far, is the Church of Nativity in Manger Square, in the center of town.

The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

The original church was built upon orders from the Roman Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena around the year 327. The emperor Justinian rebuilt the church a couple hundred years later, and that church still stands, the oldest church still in use in the Holy Land. Beneath the church is a cave believed to be the actual spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus. The earliest written accounts of Jesus being born in a cave date from the 2nd century, but the oral tradition is likely much older. Many houses in the area are built up against caves, which were used for storage and animal shelter.

The very spot upon which Jesus was born, according to tradition. This is in a cave under the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem.

The very spot upon which Jesus was born, according to tradition. This is in a cave under the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem.

Was Jesus really born in Bethlehem? Most scholars think not. Two of the four Gospels, Matthew and Luke, place the nativity in Bethlehem, although the details differ. The other two Gospels, Mark and John, don’t address Jesus’ birth at all. According to Jewish tradition, the Messiah would be descended from King David, and David was born and raised in Bethlehem. Accordingly, the prophet Micah foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. It could be that the writers of Matthew and Luke symbolically placed Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem in reference to that prophecy. Journalistic accuracy was not intended or expected.

Personally, I don’t think it matters where exactly Jesus was born, but I do find it interesting to think about the context in which the Gospels were written and their intended audiences. Although they carry an eternal message, the form that message takes tells us a lot about the world of the first Christians. Matthew cites the genealogy of Jesus back through David and ultimately to Abraham. That would have been meaningful to a Jewish audience. Luke’s genealogy goes right back to Adam to encompass all of humanity and he exults the newborn Jesus as savior of the whole world, not only of the Jews. Luke was writing for a Greek, gentile audience.

Getting to Bethlehem is easy, just a short drive from Jerusalem. Tourists pass through an Israeli check-point from Israel to the West Bank Palestinian Territories. Israelis are not allowed to enter, so if you’re on a guided tour, a Palestinian guide will meet you on the other side.

Christmas Eve Midnight Mass is held on December 24-25 at the Roman Catholic St. Catherine’s, next door to the Church of Nativity. Tickets (no charge) are required to attend the service. Christmas is celebrated in Bethlehem on January 6-7 for the Greek, Coptic and Syrian Othodox Churches and on January 18-19 for the Armenian Orthodox Church.

Deborah

Deborah by Charles Landelle, 1901

Deborah was a heroine of the Jewish people during the time of Judges, around 1,100 BCE, 100 or so years after the Israelites entered the promised land of Canaan. We don’t know much about Deborah, least of all how she came to be a leader in a time when women generally had very little power. The Bible tells that she would sit beneath a palm tree to advise her people.

While Deborah was growing up, the people of Israel were dominated and harassed by the Canaanites all along their borders. Filling in the blanks a bit, we can imagine how an intelligent, determined and unusually assertive girl might be shaped to take action, if given the power. According to the story, she was given the power and she did take action. She ordered her general, Barak, to assemble an army. For some reason, Barak did not want to go into battle unless Deborah went too, so she did.

Mt. Tabor in the Lower Galilee, where Deborah initially led her army.

Mt. Tabor in the Lower Galilee, where Deborah initially led her army.

Although outnumbered, Deborah, Barak and their troops prevailed, thanks in part to heavy rains that bogged down the Canaanite chariots in mud and swamped them with flash floods. The Canaanite general Sisera was the only survivor of the battle. He took off on foot.

The Yizael Valley, where Deborah's army wiped out the Canaanite army. It lies between Mt. Tabor in the east and Mt. Carmel in the west. Deborah used the strengths of her enemies (heavy armor and chariots) against them by drawing them into the swampy muck of the Kishon River plain, which cuts through the valley.

The Yizael Valley, where Deborah’s army wiped out the Canaanite army. It lies between Mt. Tabor in the east and Mt. Carmel in the west. Deborah used the strengths of her enemies (heavy armor and chariots) against them by drawing them into the swampy muck of the Kishon River plain, which cuts through the valley.

When Sisera came to a Bedouin camp, he asked a woman there, Yael, for some water. She gave him milk instead, which, on top of a terrible day of combat and fleeing for his life, made him drowsy. When he lay down for a nap, Yael nailed his head to the ground with a tent spike, in one temple and out the other. That was the end of Sisera and, apparently, the Canaanite threat as well.

After the victory, the people of Israel enjoyed 40 years of peace under Deborah.

Read about Deborah in Judges 4 & 5.

The capital of Canaan during the time of Deborah was Hazor in the Upper Galilee. Today, that site is known as Tel Hazor. It's a national park, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Israel's largest archaeological sites.

The capital of Canaan during the time of Deborah was Hazor in the Upper Galilee. Today, that site is known as Tel Hazor. It’s a national park, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Israel’s largest archaeological sites.

 

Mount of Olives, Jerusalem

The Mount of Olives looks out on Jerusalem’s Old City from the east. In purely geographical terms, it shelters Jerusalem from the Judean Desert and catches and directs precious water toward the city. It was once covered in olive trees, but not so much any more.

For 3,000 years the Mount of Olives has been Judaism’s most sacred burial ground. Some 150,000 Jews are buried there, including biblical prophets and revered rabbis. The Kabbalistic Zohar text tells that when the Messiah comes, the Mount of Olives will be his first stop and on that day, the righteous will rise from the dead.

Looking out at Jerusalem's Old City from the Mount of Olives, with the ancient Jewish cemetery in the foreground.

Looking out at Jerusalem’s Old City from the Mount of Olives, with the ancient Jewish cemetery in the foreground.

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The Jesus Boat

one of replicas of the ancient

one of replicas of the ancient “Jesus Boat” carrying a Ya’lla group on the Sea of Galilee

One of the most popular experiences included in our Christian tours of Israel is the boat ride on the Sea of Galilee.

The Sea of Galilee is actually a large freshwater lake, 13 miles long and 8 miles across, better known in Israel as Kinneret, Gennesaret or Lake Tiberias. The lake feeds the Dead Sea, via the Jordan River, and, at roughly 700 feet below sea level, it’s the 2nd lowest lake on the planet, after the Dead Sea. It’s located in the Galilee region in northern Israel.

During a period of severe drought in 1986, the lake receded significantly, revealing the remains of an ancient boat buried in the sediment. The boat was excavated and dated to the 1st century, the time of Jesus. The boat is now housed in a small museum at Kibbutz Ginosar on the western shore of the lake. Close replicas of the boat take passengers on the lake past Christian sites, such as Tabgha (site of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes) and Capernaum (the headquarters of Jesus’ ministry), and stop to visit the remains of the ancient boat.

remains of a 1st-century Galilean fishing boat known as the Jesus Boat or the Ginosar Boat

remains of a 1st-century Galilean fishing boat known as the Jesus Boat or the Ginosar Boat

For Christians, the lake and its surroundings are significant as the area where much of Jesus’ ministry and many of his miracles took place. Four of Jesus’ disciples were fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, the brothers Simon Peter and Andrew and the brothers James and John.

One day, after hours of pulling up empty nets, the four fishermen had just pulled into shore. (Andrew was already a disciple of Jesus, the first, but he hadn’t yet convinced the others.) Jesus approached and asked Peter to take him out on the lake a little way so that he could better address the crowd that had gathered to hear his teaching. Later, after the crowd had dispersed, Jesus asked Peter to move into deep water and cast out his nets. Peter thought this would be a waste of time, based on his experience earlier in the day, but out of respect, he did as Jesus asked. When the nets were pulled in, they were so heavy with fish the boat couldn’t hold them all. James and John came to help and their boat was also filled to the brim with fish. Jesus gained three more disciples that day.

Later in his ministry, Jesus had spent a long day preaching to a large crowd near the lake and needed to rest. While he and his disciples sailed to a quiet spot on the opposite shore, Jesus took a nap. When they reached the middle of the lake, a nasty squall rose up, bad enough to terrify the experienced fishermen on board. Jesus slept peacefully through the waves crashing on the deck and the pitching and rolling of the boat, until the disciples woke him, certain they were about to die. He told the storm to simmer down, which it promptly did, expressed his disappointment in his disciples’ lack of faith, and resumed his nap.

the Sea of Galilee

the Sea of Galilee

I could go on and on about Jesus and the Sea of Galilee, but I’ll save some stories for future posts.

The city of Tiberias on the western shore of the lake makes a good hub for visiting the area. For privately escorted Christian tours that include a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee and a visit to the ancient boat at Ginosar look here and here.

 

Thousands fed at Tabgha with 5 loaves & 2 Fishes

This mosaic floor from a 3rd-century church at Tabgha was incorporated into the newer Church of the Multiplication, which stands on the site.

This mosaic floor from a 3rd-century church at Tabgha was incorporated into the newer Church of the Multiplication, which stands on the site.

Tabgha is the site on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee traditionally believed to be where Jesus miraculously multiplied two fish and five loaves of bread to feed 5,000 men plus uncounted women and children.

After a long day of walking from village to village and teaching, Jesus and his disciples were tired and hungry. They went to a secluded place to rest, but were met by a huge crowd of people who came from all around to hear from this man, whose reputation as an enlightened teacher preceded him. There beside the sea, with the breeze in the palms and the waves lapping the shore, a multitude of faces looked to Jesus with hushed anticipation.

Jesus knew that many of the people were missing their dinner to be there, so he told the disciples to feed them. “With what?” they asked. “We have exactly 2 fish and five loaves of bread, barely enough to feed ourselves.” He told them not to worry and sent them out to organize the crowd into smaller groups. Then he prayed over the food. When the disciples returned, Jesus began handing them bread and fish to distribute to the people. The food kept coming until everyone was fed. There were even leftovers, enough to fill 12 baskets.

Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha

Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha

Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha, the loaves and fishes mosaic is immediately in front of the alter

Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha

Later than night, after the people had all gone home, Jesus went off by himself to pray. Just before dawn, when he saw the disciples out on the lake, struggling to row against the wind, he walked out to them. They thought he was a ghost and were pretty alarmed. Jesus assured them he was not a ghost but Peter wanted proof. Ghost or not, it had to be a shocking thing to see. So, Jesus told Peter to get out of the boat and join him, standing on the water. Peter got out of the boat and took a few steps, no problem, but when he took his eyes of Jesus, he began to sink. Jesus grabbed him and hauled him safely into the boat.

Tabgha is usually included in Christian itineraries of Israel. The city of Tiberias makes a good hub for touring the Galilee region. For itineraries that include visits to Tabgha click here and here.

Read about the “Jesus Boat” discovered in the Sea of Galilee here.

Blessed Are Those

view of the Sea of Galilee from the Church of the Beatitudes, Israel, photo by Itamar Grinberg, courtesy of Israel Ministry of Tourism

view of the Sea of Galilee from the Church of the Beatitudes, Israel, photo by Itamar Grinberg, courtesy of Israel Ministry of Tourism

The Church of the Beatitudes sits on a gentle rise overlooking the Sea of Galilee on the spot traditionally believed to be where Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount, which opens with the eight Beatitudes. This was one of the earliest sermons of Jesus and is generally believed to present the core values of Christian faith. According to the Gospel of Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount happened just after Jesus began his ministry, traveling around the Galilee region preaching and healing. He was developing a reputation as a wise teacher and miracle worker and people began to seek him out.

Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down.
His disciples came to Him, 2and He began to teach them, saying:

3Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness,
for they will be filled.

7Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.

8Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

9Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God.

10Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:1-12