Diversity & Inclusion: The Holy Covenant of Faithful Community

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Capernaum - Many Rooms

House Ruins in Capernaum, Israel – in the foreground is an example of a home with added rooms (Photo taken by the author in 2017)

 John 14:1-6 
‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

The Gospel of John came into its current form between 90 AD and 110 AD. The historical context of time and place in which this gospel emerged helped shape the discourses and themes contained within it. Understanding the socio-cultural environment can help translate the use of symbols and metaphors employed by the gospel’s author in order to communicate the intended messages and teachings. This holistic approach underscores that it is not possible to understand any one passage from John’s gospel without a consideration of the way everything contained within the gospel is interrelated, internally consistent, and intentionally dialogical in construct.

The author whom Christian tradition names as “John” (although there is evidence indicating several contributors over time) is intimately familiar with the scriptures and symbol system of the Jewish faith, culture, and history. John is also familiar with non-Jewish sources of Greek philosophers and Greco-Roman mystery cults. By weaving together themes that were influential among the diverse populations of the Mediterranean, John presents an interpretation of Jesus that communicates common themes that would have been comprehensible and attractive to a wide-range of cultures and belief systems extant in the author’s time and place.

John is writing for a diverse Christian community experiencing a significant shift in communal identity as related to but independent of Jewish community and identity. The symbols and imagery evoked in the gospel open up the early Christian worldview to thoughts and influences beyond the Hebrew lexicon of stories and symbols representing the Israelite understanding of the Messiah. For John, the Messiah invites spiritual union between Christ and the individual that is unmediated and free-of-charge. This spiritual union is contrasted to the communal covenant with God requiring the fee-based mediation of Jewish priests and interpretation by Jewish teachers who have the exclusive cultural authority to do so. Liberating one’s relationship with the Messiah from Jewish mediation and interpretation is why John contrasts Christian belief from Judaism as it was identified in Judah, even utilizing messianic concepts from the Samaritan Jewish tradition.

For John, the importance of the innovation of a personal relationship with Christ is why the passage of John 14:1-6 is significantly illuminated when it is viewed in light of John 2:1-11, the wedding at Cana. I believe that that the symbolic language employed in the depiction of the wedding at Cana is a storyline that is completed in the symbolic language of Christ going to prepare a place in his Father’s house for those he will bring to where he is going.

Firstly, in the marriage traditions of the ancient Israelites, the father of the groom often selected a bride (kallah) for his son, as did Abraham for his son Isaac (Genesis 24:1-4). The consent of the bride-to-be is important. For example, Rebecca was asked if she agreed to go back with Abraham’s servant to marry Abraham’s son, Isaac, and she went willingly (Genesis 24:57–59). Mutual agreement was required for a valid marriage contract.

John’s gospel uses the image of marriage at the wedding of Cana as the central image of the nature of the believer’s relationship with Christ – namely, a spiritual, intimate, and mutual union. Further, the illustration of water turned to wine at the wedding feast encodes the early Christian teaching coupled frequently in John’s gospel, linking baptism to the pascal feast – both are celebrations and occasions of our spiritual union with Christ. The symbol of wine employed in the joyful experience of a wedding is linked to the wine used in the Last Supper, specifically the cup of wine reserved for after the meal which is traditionally associated with the joyful expectation of the arrival of the Messiah.

The link between the waters of baptism and the wine representing Christ’s sacrifice can be found in the traditional preparation for the Jewish betrothal ceremony. Namely, the bride (kallah) and groom (chatan) are separately immersed in water in a ritual of mikvah, which is symbolic of spiritual cleansing. For John, Jesus has already been immersed (baptized) by John the Baptist in the waters of mikvah at the Jordan River, in preparation for Christ’s union with his Beloved, which is each of us. From John’s use of symbols, the community is to understand that baptism serves a similar purpose.

After the immersion in the mikvah, the betrothed couple enters the huppah (marriage canopy)—symbolic of a new household being planned, to establish a binding contract. Within the symbol of home, the groom would give the bride a valuable object such as a ring, and lastly a cup of wine was customarily shared to seal their covenant vows.

After the betrothal ceremony, the bride returned to her mother’s house, while the groom departed to his father’s house. This period of separation lasted about a year, providing time for the groom to add additional rooms to his patrilineal household in order for him to prepare for welcoming his bride into the household of his father. Although the bride knew to expect her groom after about a year, she did not know the exact day or hour. He could come earlier or later than was expected. For this reason, the bride kept her oil lamps ready at all times, just in case the groom came in the night (Matthew 25:1-13). It was the father of the groom who gave final approval for the time for him to return to collect his bride.

When the time came, the bridal procession was led by the sounding of the shofar to the home he had prepared for her. The final step of the wedding tradition is called nissuin (to take), a word that comes from naso, which means to lift up. At this time, the groom, with much noise, fanfare and romance, carried the bride onto the property of his father’s home. Once again, the bride and groom would enter a huppah, recite a blessing over the wine (a symbol of joy), and finalize their vows. Now in their home, the bride and groom lived out their covenant of marriage – the traditional Jewish version of “and they lived happily ever after.”

In her book, “Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas,” Elaine Pagels suggests that John’s gospel is a direct response to the emerging Christology of the community that gathered around Thomas, which is why John portrays Thomas as having a theologically challenged Christology. Now as then, different Christian communities have different
understandings of Jesus and can hold conflicting beliefs of how to interpret Jesus and the stories that are our collective legacy about him.

While both the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas value the individual’s relationship with Christ, The Gospel of John and its basic tenets seem to be in direct opposition to Thomas. John says that he writes “so that you may believe, and believing may have life in [Jesus’] name.” Thomas’s gospel, however, encourages us not so much to believe in Jesus, as John says, as to seek to know God through one’s own, divinely given capacity, since all are created in the image of God. The Gospel of John speaks from a multivalent symbol system in which there are “rooms” for each person to have a unique relationship with Christ but which are also an interconnected part of the common household of the Father. The Gospel of John, therefore, provides a foundation for a unified church, which the Gospel of Thomas, with its emphasis on each person’s search for God, did/does not.

For the author of the Gospel of John, the belief that Jesus is the Messiah is sufficient common ground for unity. Each believer is a bride to Jesus the groom, expressed and experienced through Baptism and communion. The house of Christ’s Father has many rooms, because Christ has prepared a place for each person that the Father has approved or “given to him.” When John reports Thomas asking, “How do we know where you are going?” the question represents the emphasis John perceives in the Thomasine community regarding the path of gnosis, which appears to focus on secret knowledge held by the few over belief that makes God readily accessible to all. The response given by Jesus, “I am the way and the truth and the life,” emphasizes John’s teaching on the primacy of belief. In the Gospel of John, a community of believers is bonded together through a shared belief that Jesus is the Messiah, while also making room for the validity of individual relationship with God through a shared and public belief.

For the author of the Gospel of John, the Christian community for whom the author is writing is diverse, informed by mystery traditions and covenant traditions, populated with peoples drawn from multiple faith traditions, histories, and cultures indicative of the Roman Empire. What they hold in common is a desire for liberation from tenants of the belief systems influential in their time (Jewish and Roman) that restrained them from practicing social and spiritual equality before God and with one another. Every individual in the community of the faithful has free and equal access to God, and the way to that access is by agreeing to enter a spiritual union with Christ that while mystical is not at all mysterious, and while binding is not legalistic in nature but rather a mutual commitment to love one another. Personal love for God is expressed in one’s commitment to live together in community, as represented by the many rooms in the Father’s unified house.

Throughout the generations of the church, ideas of how to achieve unity amidst our Christian diversity has been often elusive. We identify instruments or statements with which we are expected to agree, but such relationships seem always to be conditional. Alternatively, in the Gospel of John, we are all of us brides in love with the same groom, and if we are truly in love with God, then our hearts ought not to be troubled – for truthfully, in our Father’s house, there are many rooms. Within an incarnational theology of the Body of Christ — the church — the rooms are ours to build for one another. For John, the concluding line, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” is not exclusionary. Rather, the symbols used throughout the gospel convey that everyone can have access to God, if they simply believe in the love that Christ has for them and live by the wide embrace of that covenant for all people.

Henry Goes to the Holy Land – Day 5

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January 17, 2015

Waking up on Manger Square in Bethlehem is such a surreal experience. Three different Christmases are celebrated here – the date for Western Christianity, the date for Orthodox Christianity and the date for the Armenian Church (which is actually on January 19th.

Today was all about Bethlehem and visiting the important work and ministries of the Christian communities here.

Bishops Greg and Barry in front of the college.

Bishops Greg and Barry in front of the college.

First, we traveled to Dar al Kalima, a college dedicated to fine arts and bringing this reality and creativity and identity to Palestine. We met with Dr Nuha Khoury,  She shared with us how the college is part of the wider work of Diyar – which is based in the International Center of Bethlehem. The programs here focus on cultivating the artistic growth and promotion of Palestinian arts and culture. Young adults can get undergraduate degrees in Dramatic Arts and Graphic Arts. They also have programs in the culinary arts, music and tour guiding.  They are planning the development of more programs, such as dance and restaurant management. All of this was the vision of Lutheran Pastor Mitri Raheb, whose books about Palestine are very powerful and recommended reading for those who want a better understanding of everything that is happening today in Palestine.

Dr. Khoury

Dr. Khoury

In the context of Israeli occupation and removal of Palestinians from their traditional homelands, Dr Khoury said at one point, “Art is the way for people to have identity without land. It is very important to have.”

A student painting

A student painting

After a wonderful time hearing from and speaking with Dr.Khoury, we toured the college and had the chance for a break in the student lounge.

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Next, we traveled a short distance to the Sisters of Charity Orphanage within the grounds of the Holy Family Hospital (often referred to here as the St Vincent Creche).  The sisters are contacted by Muslim women from all over the West Bank.  In most cases, the babies raised at the orphanage are birthed by young Muslim women who are often raped, sometimes by their own family members.  Young Muslim women can face death if found to be pregnant out of wedlock, and most of the births are induced six months into the pregnancy before the mother’s pregnancy begins to show.  So, most births are by intention premature. The sisters work closely with hospitals that can initially care for the preemies before they can come to the orphanage nursery.

Entrance to the orphanage

Entrance to the orphanage

The sister who spoke with us (in French, translated by Fr. Paul Kennington from Montreal who is helping to guide our group) and gave us a tour of the orphanage has been working there for 19 years. She is sincerely devoted to the children and spoke of how difficult it is that the children must leave the orphanage at the age of six years old.  The Muslim tradition does not believe in adoption, nor are the children (by law) allowed to be raised in the Christian faith while living at the orphanage. As a result, the children are not raised in any faith tradition, and they live in different facilities of care until they must go out on their own and try to make a life for themselves.

Sister and Paul

Sister and Paul

Sister told us a story of how she was trying to answer a child’s question, “What is Christmas?,” without using any religious language. She made it into a story about a young woman and her husband who couldn’t find a place for her to give birth because there was no room. One of the children to whom she was telling the story interrupted, “Why didn’t they come here to the orphanage?  We have plenty of room!” Sister continued her story to the children, explaining that the couple having their child were very poor.  Another child interrupted again, saying, “That baby’s not poor, Sister; the baby’s got two parents, and we haven’t got any.”

A classroom at the orphanage

A classroom at the orphanage

Needless to say, between the Sister’s sharing with us and the tour itself, all of our group were in tears at one point or another.

The nursary. This baby is three days old.

The nursary. This baby is three days old.

The main hallway of classrooms.

The main hallway of classrooms.

After our tour of the orphange school and nursery, we returned to the chapel for Eucharist.  Bishop Kirk Smith of Arizona presided, with Bishop Barry Beisner of Northern California preaching.  As part of our service, we sang several Christmas carols all heralding and celebrating the birth of the infant Christ. Sung in this setting, these all took on especial significance. The fact that all of Bethlehem and the orphanage are still decorated for their Christmas season was like celebrating Christmas all over again, and Rachel and me were very moved by the whole experience.

This little boy is blind and was found abandoned in a card board box. None of the children are permitted to have Christian names.

This little boy is blind and was found abandoned in a card board box. None of the children are permitted to have Christian names.

As with each of our special stops like this one, the bishops gifted Sister and the orphanage with funds from each of the diocese sponsoring this trip. We were able to give the orphanage about a thousand dollars, but they need year-round donors to maintain the important work they do.

We had a Eucharistic service in the orphanage chapel, led by Bishop Kirk Smth.

We had a Eucharistic service in the orphanage chapel, led by Bishop Kirk Smth.

At our lunch time that followed, our table groups continued to talk about our experiences at the orphanage as we ate in a traditional Palestinian setting. After dessert, it just so happened that our table was the one gifted with the opportunity to partake of a hookah, a traditional extension of hospitality to visitors.  The tobacco in this particular hookah was “watermelon mint,” which while it may sound dubious was deemed quite good by those who partook of it (it’s considered rude towards the hosts to not do so).

Sarah Monroe partakes of the local hospitality. :)

Sarah Monroe partakes of the local hospitality. 🙂

So that we would have a better understanding of how life was in first century Palestine, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, we visited a small church set within a first century cave home called The Shepherds’ Field.  Ghassan explained how people lived in these types of homes, with sections of the cave divided into separate living areas and rooms by hanging hides. The part of the cave closest to the entrance was usually a common area like a living room and food preparation area, while the sleeping areas were towards the middle and back of the cave.  Stored goods and animals were housed at the farthest back of the cave, and this is the area of a such a home where Mary gave birth to her child – the most private part of the cave home, which is why traditional lore about the Nativity story places animals and a feeding bin (manger) in the scene of Jesus’ birth.

Altar in the Shepherd's Field cave home church.

Altar in the Shepherd’s Field cave home church.

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The back section of the Shepherd’s Field cave has a Nativity in it for the Christmas season.

A Byzantine mosaic in the floor of the church - the star seen by the shepherds.

A Byzantine mosaic in the floor of the cave church – the star seen by the shepherds.

Church above ground at Shepherds Field

Church above ground at Shepherds Field

Church of Shepherds Field - above ground sanctuary

Church of Shepherds Field – above ground sanctuary

This was very good preparation before our visit to the Church of the Nativity, the entrance for which is just steps away from our current pilgrim hotel, the Casa Nova.

Entrance to the Church of the Nativity.

Entrance to the Church of the Nativity.

Church of the Nativity

Church of the Nativity

A couple years ago, the Church of the Nativity experienced a fire, so much of the large Byzantine and Crusader sections of the church are being restored.  Scafolding is everywhere and much of the historic art is covered over.  In spite of this, we entered just when the Greek Orthodox priests were holding their prayer service.  The expectation of the monks is that visitors will stay silent at all times, but we could hear Ghassan’s explanations about the church through our electronic listening divices linked to a microphone he was wearing.

Sanctuary, Church of the Nativity - behind this altar are the steps down to the first century cave of the Nativity.

Sanctuary, Church of the Nativity – behind this altar are the steps down to the first century cave of the Nativity.

To get to the first century occupation level of the church requires going down a steep and narrow set of stone stairs down into what was the back of a large cave system in which people had lived during the first century. Today, the spot at the back of the cave associated with Jesus’ birth is “encrusted” or decorated with marble, brass and velvet hangings.  It doesn’t look ANYTHING like it would have then, which is why the earlier visit to Shepherds’ Field was important.

Icons near the stairway  down to the cave

Icons and prayer candles near the stairway down to the cave

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Pilgrims can kneel beneath a marble shelf to crawl a little ways into what looks a bit like a fireplace opening.  A large brass star in inset into the floor in this nook, and at it’s center is an eight inch opening through which a pilgrim can reach down to touch the smoothed floor of the cave occupation level where the manger is said to have been.  The exact spot is something of a guess, but the different levels of churches placed here going back to the forth century make this the location and cave dwelling that the early church very much believed Jesus was born.

Pilgrims can kneel down to reach into the shrine

Pilgrims can kneel down to reach into the shrine

Pilgrims can then reach down through the center of the brass star inset in the floor of the shrine in order to touch the floor of the first century occupation level.

Pilgrims can then reach down through the center of the brass star inset in the floor of the shrine in order to touch the floor of the first century occupation level.

Praying in the cave shrine area.

Praying in the cave shrine area.

The back of the cave, now a shrine, has been separated from the rest of the cave system by a Byzantine wall.  But pilgrims can still explore the rest of the cave by exiting the shrine and going into another section of the church – a much newer nave that you may have seen on television if you ever watch Christmas Eve being celebrated in Bethlehem. The folks who run this church are much less grumpy, but you still have to be quiet.

Area of the cave where St. Jerome worked in editing the canon of the  Christian Scriptures.

Area of the cave where St. Jerome worked in editing the canon of the Christian Scriptures.

Walking through the cave house system

Walking through the cave house system

Descending the staircase here gives you access to the rest of the cave and some more of a system of tiny pocket caves which are now varous side altars and chapels.  It is believed that St. Jerome and his assistant, Eusebius, used one of these smaller caves as the place where they worked on the research, editing and selection of the Scripture that we have inherited as the canon of the New Testament. St. Jerome was buried in yet another one of the small caves after his death, but his body was moved to Rome at some point in history.

Ghussan and  in front of the entrance to our hotel,  Casa Nova just outside the entrance of the Church of the Nativity.

Ghassan and Sarah in front of the entrance to our hotel, Casa Nova just outside the entrance of the Church of the Nativity.

After an amazing day of learning and reflection, our group had the chance to explore the Bethlehem suk and shops around the central square. We had the chance to visit the shop associated with the college we visited earlier in the day and to support the art students by buying the crafts they have made and the books written by their faculty and others.

Tree in Manger Square

Tree in Manger Square

We also visited the Bethlehem Peace Center shop, where Rachel picked up a small but powerful olive wood nativity.

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Shopping in the suk requires being comfortable with bargaining respectfully for a good price, otherwise the unwary pilgrim will be utterly fleeced like a sheep. Whatever one spends here, though, goes to supporting a beleaguered economy and people cut off from the easy market place of the rest of the world. It’s hard to begrudge people who are simply struggling to make ends meet.

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Mother of pearl speciality shop in business since 1929

One shop Rachel and me wandered into has been around since 1929 and specializes in items made from mother of pearl – an old art form in Bethlehem. Rachel was sorry to learn that the $35 dollars she spent there was the first sale the owner had had all day, and it was 6:30pm. He was a very kind Catholic man, and we talked for a while about what life is like for the people of Bethlehem, behind the separation wall that cuts across what was once a vital market street – demolishing all that was once there.

After dinner with our group back at the Casa Nova, we met with Dominic and Paul to talk about what Lightline tour company (allied with Shepherd Tours) can offer to clergy who may be untested to bring a group on tour.  Rachel is certainly interested to bring a group from Trinity, so she is thinking to plan a trip for 2017.

Off to bed for tired and full good doggies.

Here’s to barking at squirrels!

Henry