Monday, August 24, 2020

It's been awhile, and I'm back because...

Periodically I get to musing about things that deserve a little more space and reflection than I want to squeeze onto a Facebook post, where most online interaction takes place these days, at least for me. Today's blog post is just such an occasion!

Background: I've been helping Ken put together the brochure for this year's Jerusalem Mite campaign for our Order of Knights Templar. In his role as Grand Aumonier--overseer of charitable giving--he is responsible for creating the brochure and sending the mailing to all our members to solicit support for organizations in the Holy Land that serve Christians at risk there. There is a standard group of organizations that receive support, though one or two might be added, or disappear, from one year to the next. Standard recipients are the Christian Patriarchs of Jerusalem. Other organizations are schools and groups that minister to and support marginalized populations. Additionally there is a foundation created to provide scholarships for students in Christian secondary schools, and for college students in particular disciplines that will help them find employment, and therefore remain resident, in the Holy Land. These tend to be in health care, information technology, and the hospitality industry. The foundation operates separately from the work in which Ken is engaged, but I mention it to indicate the scope of philanthropy undertaken by the Order. (Pictured at left, a meal being plated by culinary students at the Episcopal Technical and Vocational Training Center, or ETVTC, in Ramallah, Palestine, which receives both scholarship and other financial support from the Templars.)

Back to the brochure, part one (still part of the backstory). The coronavirus pandemic has hit tourism in the Holy Land particularly hard. Without tourists hotels and restaurants are close to empty, tour group leaders and bus companies have no work, and there are no pilgrims to visit the holy sites or spend money in shops in the various communities visited by them. To help grasp the scope of this impact, tourism is Israel's fourth largest source of revenue. 

The brochure, part two (backstory). Among the organizations that receive regular financial support from the Templars is the Custodia Terrae Sanctae (CTS). This is the arm of the Franciscan Order that maintains and develops (think archaeological) the holy sites visited by pilgrims. Among those sites is the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth that commemorates the occasion when Mary received the news via the angel Gabriel that she would conceive and bear the son of God. There are fifty-five sanctuaries in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan under the care of the CTS. That's a lot of maintenance. The Franciscan communities at these sites also support the needs of the local worshiping communities through prayer and acts of charity. Because of the impact of the pandemic on these holy sites, this year's Jerusalem Mite campaign is featuring the work of the CTS.

Presenting a check to the Custos, the head of the CTS, December 2018
L-R Grand Prior Clay Kemmerer, the Custos, Grand Chaplain Jay Magness, Grand Aumonier Ken Fraley

The brochure, part three (nearing the end of the backstory) I began to do a little research on these sites in order to determine if there were photographs of my own that could be used in the brochure. (It's been so long since I wrote an entry on this blog that a trip to the Holy Land in December, 2018, has gone unreported! But I digress.) One of the sites on which work has been interrupted because of the pandemic is located at a section of the Jordan River where it is believed that Jesus was baptized. There are two points of access to this site, one in Israel, and one in Jordan. When we were on pilgrimage we visited the Jordanian site, which is not maintained by the CTS. 

The Jordan River baptismal site, looking across the river from Jordan
toward the site maintained by the CTS in Israel.

I began reading the entry on the CTS web site about the site at the Jordan River, which brings me to the whole reason I am writing this blog post. From the web site: 

The river valley, 10 to 25 kilometers wide, is the deepest groove carved into the Earth’s crust, among those not completely filled with water. In the Ice Age (100,000 years ago) the entire depression constituted a basin that connected with the Mediterranean to Bet Shean. Today two lakes remain of that basin: that of Gennesaret (212 meters below sea level) and the Dead Sea (at -426 meters). In any case, the Jordan pit is only a segment of a much larger fracture in the Earth's crust, which begins in the Oronte valley in Syria and extends to Africa via the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea.

What caught my attention was the description of the Jordan River Valley as "the deepest groove carved into the Earth's crust," part of a still larger fracture. So the place of Jesus' baptism, an event tied theologically to the forgiveness of sins and the redemption of the world, is situated geologically in the deepest groove carved into the earth's crust. Does that strike anyone else as profound? It hit me like a ton of bricks, and is so completely in character for the way that God uses paradox to reveal the significance of holy action. Kind of like the way The Book of Common Prayer describes the sacrament of baptism as being led with Christ "through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life." (p. 306) 

I'm going to go on faith that John the Baptist didn't choose the Jordan River as the place to cleanse people from sin because he knew this little tidbit. There are definitely places in the Christian story, woven through scripture, that highlight the juxtaposition of opposites to underscore the underlying theme or point of the narrative: humble stable/cave birth for the savior of the world, for instance. And yet, in this particular case there's no denying that the location of Jesus' baptism points to a greater theological truth: the deepest groove in the crust of the earth yields the elevation of humanity, through baptism, to restoration with God. Boy, howdy!

It's curious to me how I trip over these things, and it does cause me to wonder how it is that I haven't been aware that others may have made the same observation. I'm sure it's a matter of awareness, and that I'm simply not paying attention, that contributes to these later-in-life aha moments. Still, I thought I owed it to anyone who might stumble on this blog post and find this illuminating to offer up my rumination.

And just like that, I found my way back. Thank you, Jesus.  

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