Friday, April 18, 2008

The Holy Land

A letter arrived a week ago from the Holy Land. A friend of mine was there for two weeks, her first visit there, and she wrote to me from Jerusalem. She wrote with such joy and gratitude, being in the same place where Jesus was. She wrote in ecstasy and I had the impression that she could not find words adequate enough to convey the sense of awe and reverence that overwhelmed her during her stay.

I have known Jean for more than thirty years. We have shared many good times over the years and I have especially fond memories of dinners at her home, with her husband Carl and their daughter and four sons. I was assigned to their parish in 1976 and they welcomed me into their lives. Jean loves candles. Whenever I came to their house for dinner, she would arrange candles on the table and I remember watching them burn their beauty as we chatted about so many things, over shared food and wine. The lights from those candles have long moved somewhere else, for I know that light travels and, somehow, it never really goes out, even though the wicks die and the wax burns away. But the light is born, and moves on and on, carrying with it words and memories, as far as the most distant star.

I believe in such things, even though I do not think about them all the time. But every now and then I read something that inspires me to wonder about this mystery of life, with all its wonders, and how close something is to each of us that is extraordinary and within our grasp to hold. Life – all of life – is a gift from God, kind of like an eternal candle that he sent from far away, and when we share love and memories, food and wine with each other, there are eternal dimensions to it. A day may seem done, as we turn out the lights above us or on our tables, but something has happened with each sunset. Something new has been born and has begun its travel, its growth, into and through the cosmos that is all about us and within us.

Easter is still a fresh memory. As I write this, I think about the readings that have taken place in our church the last few weeks. Many of the Biblical readings have to do with the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. They are astonishing in their import. He appears many times, and at first is unrecognized by those who knew him. He eats with his disciples, speaks with them, walks with them, stays with them. He then allows them to see what he is and who he is – and they realize that he is everywhere – in the breaking of bread, in the gathering of those who love and those who are looking for love.

Religious memory is an odd thing, when you think about it. We use words and images to remember Jesus and mark off days on our calendars to appropriately celebrate how he is with us. We look to the past to illumine the present. Yet the past speaks only of his presence in the “now.” Religious festivals serve to heighten an awareness of the divine in our lives. And that is all well and good.

The Holy Land has definite parameters. There are borders and streets, Faith is a light given to many, in various manifestations. It is refracted through the patterns of different beliefs and is evidenced as such in the many diverse places of worship that make the Holy Land a site of pilgrimage for millions of seekers of the light that is God. It is sad that we have enshrined the light we believe to be God, in a holy city, but are at a loss as to how to enflame that same light as it exists in each of us. Some day, I believe that the most cherished hope of all believers will come true – that we will learn to worship, in love, side by side and not be threatened by different articulations of belief.

Jean flew home, filled with memories of all that she had seen and heard in the Holy Land. She experienced the wonders of that place we call holy because Jesus walked there, dined there, loved there, suffered, died and rose there. And these things we rightfully enshrine and hold sacred.

I am sure that she had friends over for dinner since returning home. I would bet that she lit candles and placed them on her dining room table, and shared with her friends and family her time and joys in the Holy Land. And she, like men and women of long ago, will once again talk of the wondrous presence of God that she experienced in a far off place. Perhaps she will hope someday to go back. Until that hope comes to pass, she will abide in the love of her family and friends, lighting candles along the way, talking of life, sharing her food and wine, and, all the while, the One she seeks will be with her. The One who came from afar and who truly is every meal, every word and gesture of love, every Light that makes of this entire earth a Holy Land.

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