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On those “Jesus Sites”

May 15, 2009


Friday, 10:54 am local time

We’re sitting outside the New Jericho Hospital. Ronell’s reacted badly to the sun, or the mosquitoes, or something – anyway, the skin on her arms has broken out so badly that she needs to get a topical ointment before we leave the city. Ever cheerful, Ronell apologized for making us wait, and she, Gordon, and Jawdat our driver are in there right now. She’ll be fine.

This gives me the opportunity to write a little about yesterday, though. We took a quick tour through the Galilee, up the Jordan River from Jericho and back. We stopped first at a riverside location run by a kibbutz, commemorating the witness of John the Baptist at the Jordan. On the surface, it looks cool; donations from out the world have paid for paintings on tiles of the verse from Mark 1: “At that time, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee…” Urdu, Bulgarian, Hebrew, Hawaii Pigdin (!) – something like over 40 languages represented.

Unfortunately, the whole thing felt a little Disney-fied to me. Usually, that’s not a bad thing – children’s minister, remember – but for a moment this holy…I took issue with the maze that led us to a numbered mini-amphitheater in which we could wade in the water. Gordon allowed some of us to remember our baptisms by pouring some of the river water over our heads; Semaj chose to be fully immersed. To remember my baptism on the bank of the Jordan River was unutterably cool, except: as we left the little amphitheater, the staff pulled aside to a video screen. Apparently, they had been recording our small ceremony, and had set it to church-y background music; it looked and felt for all the world like the pictures you see at Six Flags or Disneyworld when you get off the bigger rollercoasters. The commodification of baptism, my friends. It left me wanting.

Pope Benedict on his visit to the Holy Land brought with him an unusually high number pilgrims, all of whom we seemed to meet at the next few sites. Emma and Matt led us in a worship service on the Mount of the Beatitudes; in our exploration time after, I got to stand in the site’s church and watch part of a communion service with a congregation from Gabon. A Polish group toured the area outside; some Russians chanted in the distance. At the site of the Primacy of Peter – which commemorates the place where Jesus commanded Simon Peter, “Tend my lambs, feed my sheep” – we encountered a British group and what might have been a congregation from the American South.

It wasn’t until after lunch, when we visited Tzippori, that we got away from the crowds and back to the comfort of archaeology. Tzippori is the “ornament of the Galilee,” as we heard more than a few times while we were there, and it is called that not just because of its supposed beauty, but because from it sits atop a hill from which you can see the entire valley. He who sits in Tzippori controls the Galilee. The history of the city is fascinating, actually. It wasn’t destroyed during the Bar Kochba revolt like the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD; the Jewish council of the city signed a treaty with the Roman occupiers protecting them from death. Whether that makes them patriots or collaborators with the enemy is hard to judge, but it’s result in the preservation of some of the most beautiful mosaics in the country.

Ronell’s back now, with a hydrocortizone shot and a smile, so we’re off to Jerusalem.

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