Saturday, February 27, 2010

Marking Time and Space

Shabbat Shalom! We received--and accepted!--two gracious invitations to Shabbat meals this weekend. We visited with two of Karla's friends and their family/loved ones. Preparing to go to their house we learned a few things, for example: (1) we were planning to rent a car, scheduled to pick up at 1 p.m., but most rental places close by noon, even though the website didn’t indicate that right; (2) there are Shabbat elevators that run on their own throughout the day; (3) folks who observe Shabbat will not answer phones, so you need to be sure to have all your communications worked out ahead of time, especially if you're inviting someone over!
(4) observing Shabbat with small children can be quite fun--one of the families who invited us has four children under 5--kids can turn lights out on you that you need on for the rest of Shabbat!

It was interesting to see the way that people make arrangements to be able to keep the traditions of not working on the Sabbath. Participating in both of these family meals and celebrations made me realize that much of the “protections” about not working on the Sabbath are really more a response to an increasingly encroaching mechanical/electronic life style, than any antiquated, legalistic system. How do we protect our time off from computers, electronics that let things run 24/7, demanding communication, availability expectations, etc. Preparation for a day of rest mean some hectic planning, I am sure, the day before, but then once you begin the Sabbath, there is really only the focus of family and being together. I am sure it is not just ideal and there are all kinds of challenges to overcome, but I these two wonderful experiences have given me a renewed appreciation for a tradition that is so deeply rooted—and that can offer so much to our hectic, driven world.

Marking time has been a significant part of this week, but also how we mark "space." On Thursday I was able to travel with the group here from Tantur, a group of folks on a six week continuing ed program, to go to Jericho. We stopped in the Judean desert on the way out and had a few minutes to walk around. It was really beautiful in a strange/austere way. The intent of the brief stop was just to listen to the silence of the desert—the area where John the Baptist, Jesus, and many early Christians as well as others sought escape, renewal, etc. The abundance of stones in the desert made the temptation of Jesus to turn stones into bread make total sense!!

The place we stopped overlooked Nabi Musa, a shrine that marks the place Muslims believe to be the place of Moses’ death and burial. Moses is viewed in Islam as one of the prophets, and this site was identified in tradition as Moses’ burial place based on a dream/vision Salah Eddin had. More significant than the actual location of Moses’ burial site (which in the biblical text is said to be unknown Deut 34), is the fact that the place marks his life and death for many faithful people. In general, Sister Bridget—the vice-director here at Tantur and the person who was leading our group that day—shared what she called her own “theology of place.” That while it is impossible to verify the claims of most of the places one may visit in the Holy Land, what is significant is to be present in the places that have been associated with important events in the stories that are core to the faith of millions around the world and throughout centuries. Being able to take a picture of the very sycamore tree that Zacchaeus climbed, however, on a category all its own!!

We then traveled to Jericho. It is an incredibly green area—given its context surrounded by desert landscape. Jericho owes its lush greenery and abundant agricultural production to springs throughout the area. It is believed to be the oldest city in the world, with excavations dating back to 8,000 BCE (so 10,000 years ago).

Above the city is Monastery of Temptation or St. George's Monastery built on the mount of temptation—the place where Jesus was tempted by the devil. The monastery also has a small chapel in a cave that commemorates the place where prophet Elijah’s stopped and was fed by ravens as he ran from King Ahab and Jezebel. There’s a cable car that takes you up most of the way to the monastery (alternatively, you can walk up the zig-zag path which would take just under an hour). The place is literally built into the rock on the face of the mount. It is incredible. The views from above are breath taking. In each of the monasteries we visited, there is usually only one, two, or a few monks or nuns. From what I could tell, there was only one there at the monastery, which is a Greek Orthodox monastery.

We spent about an hour in Jericho proper, walking around the markets and shops and grabbing lunch. We then went out to two more stops. One was an incredible palace from the early years of Islam. Hisham’s Palace was a retreat for one of the early Caliphs. A huge bath area in the complex has incredible, extensive mosaics, one of them—referred to in the guide book as “one of the most beautiful and elaborately decorated mosaic floor in the world”--depicts the “Tree of Life.”

Finally, we stopped at this beautiful monastery just outside Jericho. St. Gerassimos Monastery has a history that dates back to the fourth century and the colorful story of its founder (which includes a tamed lion that is very prominent in the iconography of the saint). The site of the monastery, among other things, is believed to mark one of the stops the Holy Family made during their flight to Egypt. There are birds and other animals everywhere in the monastery and surrounding areas, and it too like Jericho is an oasis because of a natural spring beneath it. They have many preserved mosaics and are currently renovating and making new ones. The monastery grounds include what amount to beautiful pic-nic areas open to the public. One of my favorite images—of the many beautiful painting on walls and frames throughout—was a set of angels in the ceiling of one of the small chapels.

This week has been marked by the idea of marking both time (Shabbat) and space (sacred sites that mark important events in the life of the faithful). In a world marked by demands of both time and space, these practices becomes both more peculiar and more significant. As the psalmist says, “teach us to count our days,” and I would say also claim/mark our sacred space, “that we may grow a wise heart” (Psalm 90:12).