Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Rev. Know-it-all’s Guide to the Holy Land, part 4

Caesarea Marittima is of incalculable importance in the history of the world and of Christianity. Herod who professed to be a Jew, built a city dedicated to Greek gods and to the divine Emperor, Augustus. It was the major port of an area that had no ports to speak of. The Jewish world looked east to Babylon, but Herod used that most amazing invention of the Romans, concrete that hardened underwater, to build one of the most impressive ports in the Mediterranean world. It was like a nail that held the Holy Land to the west. To get to Aramaic-speaking Babylon with its large Jewish community one had to travel for months across a dangerous semi-desert landscape. To get to Rome and Greece one got on a nice ship at Caesarea and if the winds were right, in a few pleasant weeks one was in Athens or Rome. 

Caesarea aimed the message of Christ to a cosmopolitan world where it flourished. Peter and Paul went west. The Gospels were written in Greek, the common language of the west. Herod thought he was pleasing the Roman upstart generalissimo. He was creating a springboard for the Gospel of Christ. We read in the Acts of the Apostles that Philip the Deacon brought Christianity to Caesarea. St Paul enjoyed the hospitality of Philip the Deacon’s home.  St. Peter came to Caesarea from the smaller southern port of Joppa down the coast after having had a vision to baptize Cornelius the Centurion and his household. It was in Caesarea that the first non-Jewish Christians were baptized. Remember that Cornelius was part of the Roman government and that he and his slaves were Greek-speakers. When the new convert Paul about was about to be killed in Jerusalem, the leaders of the Church brought him to Caesarea, sent him home to Tarsus, waved him off at the dock which is still there. I’m sure they shouted “Bon voyage! Don’t call us. We’ll call you!”

Paul's first missionary journey left from Caesarea and he visited Caesarea numerous times between missionary journeys. He was a prisoner there for two years before being shipped off to Rome to be tried before the emperor. St. Paul is buried in Rome as is St. Peter, but they got there by way of Caesarea. I imagine that Caesarea was their last glimpse of the Holy Land where they had met Christ and had seen Him risen from the dead.

Early Christian traditions hold that the first Bishop of Caesarea was Zacchaeus the Tax collector, and that at one point Cornelius the Centurion was a bishop of Caesarea. It could be true. They both worked for the Roman government and the Roman government was headquartered in Caesarea, not Jerusalem. Great Christian scholars like Origen and Pamphilus made Caesarea their home. The theological school of Caesarea was home to largest Christian library of the time, having 30,000 manuscripts: Gregory Nazianzus, Basil the Great and Jerome all studied in Caesarea. It is even possible that the first drafts of the Nicene Creed were written in Caesarea! (At least the great bishop historian Eusebius of Caesarea seemed to think that).

When you see Caesarea, you are seeing the springboard of Christianity. Caesarea flourished as the capital of a Byzantine Christian Holy Land for another 600 years. Invaders from the east conquered and devastated it in 614, and again in 640 when it was captured by the troops of Muawiyah I. The harbor was allowed to silt up and it was unusable by the around the year 800. The crusaders took the city in 1101. It was revived as fortress and harbor. Saladin captured the city in 1187; the Crusaders took it back in 1191. The Mamelukes finally captured it in 1265. They destroyed it completely so that it could never be used as a port again. They did the same to all Crusader coastal cities and harbors. Once again, the Holy Land turned east and its towns withered into underpopulated ruins on the edge of the desert. Around the year 1500, Jerusalem herself had shrunk to the size of a large village of around 5,000 inhabitants. It remained a shabby backwater off the beaten path until more modern times.

Rev. Know-it-all

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Rev. Know-it-all’s Guide to the Holy Land, part 3

Let’s set the way back machine for, say, 175 AD.  We are on a Roman ship like the one we saw in the “Domine Ivivmus” graffito. As we approach the eastern shore of the Mediterranean we see a city rising on the coast, magnificent with Greek style temples, amphitheaters, theaters, baths and fountains fed by a Roman style aqueduct, a race track and what a harbor! The harbor seizes your attention. What a harbor! It rivals the harbor of Egyptian Alexandria in size. It juts out into the sea from a flat and harborless coast, a wonder of the latest Roman engineering and technology.

It started out as a Phoenician naval station, but there was no deep-water harbor to speak of on that part of the coast until Herod the Great got his mitts on the place in around 30 BC and built a city which he dedicated to his new best friend, Caesar Octavianus Augustus who had just the year before clobbered Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium. 

At this point we must do an excursion into history.  If you are going to understand the Holy Land, you must understand Herod the Great and the whole Herod family. They were bloodthirsty, sex-crazed psychopaths for the most part, but they loved to build things. They were thoroughly Hellenized (Greek-ifed). When most people think of the Holy Land they think of the Bible pageants of their childhood, long flowing beards and Charlton Heston and people wearing towels on their head. This was not the Holy Land at the time of Christ. The Holy Land is where two worlds met and clashed. Asia met the Mediterranean and they met in the town of Caesarea. You are going to see amazing ruins and to understand them you must understand Herod the Great and his brood. It helps to think of “Herod” as a last name, not a first.

Let’s start with Herod the Great. He is the only one of them who was just “Herod.” He was born in 73 BC in Idumea, just south of Judah and Jerusalem. His father was Antipater the Idumaean. His mother was Cypress, from Nabataea another little country just next door. Herod was not ethnically Jewish at all. The Idumeans were forcibly converted to Judaism the century before Christ. Herod the Great was raised as a Jew, but was really whatever religion happened to be politically useful at the time. His father, Antipater the Idumaean, served the Maccabee rulers of the Holy Land and was thus able to place his sons in good government jobs, but Herod wanted more. He got to know people like Mark Antony of Rome and Cleopatra of Egypt and was their loyal servant until he got into a quarrel with Queen Cleopatra over some revenues from Jericho. An interesting aside. Cleopatra was the last of the Ptolemy monarch of Egypt and was 100% Macedonia Greek, not a drop of Egyptian blood in her.) Herod may have had issue with Cleopatra, but he fell out with Mark Antony. 

In 41 BC, Herod was appointed tetrarch (that means ruler of a district in the Holy Land something like an Illinois county board president, by Mark Antony. His job was to support the Maccabee kings of the Holy Land whom he promptly killed after marrying their beautiful sister Mariamne. We all know what happened to Mark Antony and Cleopatra (as played by Richard Burton and the whiny Liz Taylor in the famous film.) When Antony was dead and Octavian Augustus, the new Roman victor, was camped on the island of Cyprus, Herod got the fastest ship with the fastest rowers and made a bee line for Cyprus.  Here I will quote Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian.  If you take the time to read it you will understand the man who built a lot of what you are going to see in the Holy Land

“O Caesar, as I was made king of the Jews by Antony, so …. I have used my royal authority… entirely for his advantage… I sent him as many auxiliaries as I was able …I did not desert my benefactor (even after you defeated him at the battle of Actium) ...I gave him the best advice I was able, when I was no longer able to assist him in the war; and I told him that there was but one way of recovering his affairs, and that was to kill Cleopatra; and I promised him that, if she were once dead, I would send him money and walls for his security, with an army and myself to assist him in his war against you: but his affections for Cleopatra stopped his ears…. I have laid aside my crown and have come here to you and I ask that you consider how faithful a friend, and not whose friend, I have been."

This is the classical chutzpa. He is saying I was loyal to Antony. I will be as loyal to you. Octavian Augustus was delighted! He confirmed Herod as King of the Jews (When Pontius Pilate wrote that Jesus was “King of the Jews” this was sarcasm. Herod was dead and his children had only little bits and pieces of his kingdom. Pilate was poking his thumb in the eyes of people he loathed and used the sacrifice of the Son of God to do so!)

Herod went on to consolidate his power by killing his in laws, his wife, and a couple of his sons. And by building, I mean buildings like few people have ever built before or since. (Don’t worry. He had about eight wives and lots of children, so he had plenty to spare). This is certainly not the Bible pageant stuff of our childhood. Jesus was born into a world of sex, violence and political intrigue and all without cable TV.

More next week

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Rev Know-it-all’s guide to the Holy Land, part 2

 Pilgrimage?  What’s with pilgrimage? If God is everywhere why go to a war zone to pray? First, it is safer than most people think. The south side of Chicago? Now that’s dangerous. The Holy Land? Pretty safe. They pay attention there and pilgrims are everybody’s bread and butter, so it’s a lot safer than a major American city. Still why Pilgrimage? Well. We’ve been doing it for a very long time. Such early teachers as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus Julius Africanus and Origen talk about the sacred sites, those places associated with the life of Jesus.

Origen, Julius and Justin were all residents of the Holy Land within the first centuries of the life of Jesus. The Holy Shrines were well known and well visited even in the first centuries after Christ. Were they different from us? People were visiting Civil War battlefields before the Civil War in the United States was even over. People just like us wrote journals about their travels. We have the Bordeaux Pilgrim and his itinerary, the oldest known Christian pilgrimage journal which recounts a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 333 AD. It sounds a lot like some modern itineraries, “It’s Tuesday. We’re in Venice.”, but still it is an account of the urge to go on pilgrimage. 

Then there is Egeria, a devout woman, who left us a detailed account of her pilgrimage to the Holy Land around 380 AD.The most amazing pilgrimage evidence for me is the Domine Ivimus graffito (Lord we have come.) It is an ancient graffito of a typical Roman ship carved into the rock of an ancient Roman wall that had been built over the site of Calvary. It seems to paraphrase the 122nd Psalm “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’”. It may well come from the first century after Christ. Some scholars would put it later, but I suspect that it was there before a church was built over the site of Calvary and the tomb of Christ in 325 AD.

People have doing this since the beginning. Pilgrimage is commanded in the Old Testament. People were to go up to Jerusalem three times a year if they were able. So, we’ve been doing it for a long time. That’s still not much of a reason. There is a great distinction between religious pilgrimage and religious tourism. A pilgrimage is motivated by a desire to draw nearer to the Lord by drawing near to the places where the Lord appeared among us. God is everywhere, it is true, but to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land is to “read” what Fr. Bargil Pixner described as the Fifth Gospel the Gospel of the Land.

When one sees the places, the fields, the flowers and the towns in which the Word of God walked and spoke, there is a sense that these things did not happen “… long ago, in a place far, far away,” but in a place about nine hours away by jet in a land that is as venal, commercial and crowded as it was when the Savior walked there and spoke the words that change our lives.

One can draw close to the Lord in pilgrimage in a way that is different from all others. It is not very mystical. It is wonderfully ordinary and chaotic, but if one pauses and looks and listens, it is possible to sense that this is the place, these are the people, we are the people with all our ordinariness that the Lord loves. There is an old wooden bench in front of the tomb of Christ where I can sit for hours just watching the world go by and remembering that God so loved the world, a crazy imperfect world of which I am most certainly a part.