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God • World • Human Family • Church

The Unchanging Land of Christ

Reflections on the land chosen by God for his Son.

“No one can forget that when God, as man, wished to choose for Himself a country, a tongue and a family in this world, He chose them in the East.” (Pope Paul VI, January, 1964)…

The greatest story in the history of mankind could have taken place in what we now know as China, America, England or France. But it did not.

Instead, Christ was born, died and rose from the dead in Judaea. In fact, He lived His whole life in a relatively small area of the globe known as Western Palestine, a province of the Roman Empire.

If for no other reason – and there are countless others – this land is precious to all Christians. Of all the many areas which make up our world, this one alone is the Holy Land.

As if predicting the diversity of the Christian Church to come, God sent His son into a land which was and still is a study in contrasts. From the air, it most surely would look like a patchwork quilt – the snowy peaks of Mount Hermon melting into the lush green farmland of Galilee, the naked, stony hills of Bethlehem rolling gently into the goldenly-parched desert of Judaea. In this land, the clamor of a Jerusalem marketplace fades into the absolute silence of the Garden of Gethsemane. And while Holy Land days are warmed by a fiercely burning sun, its nights are bitterly cold. Traditional and modern, rich and poor, young and old, hill and valley, water and sand, all coexist rather peacefully in this war-torn area.

St. Jerome once wrote that one must see this land in order to truly understand the Bible.

On the surface, though, the land of Christ may be hard to “see.” The Temple in Jerusalem where He preached has been gone for nineteen centuries, and across the Kedron Valley, the Mount of Olives now shares the horizon with skyscrapers. The streets where He walked are jammed with Mercedes Benz taxis, and crowded with shops selling items which commemorate the very events which refuse to “come alive” for the pilgrim. And even the ruins – the Roman columns and Byzantine chapels – stand as mute skeletons from a long-gone period.

And yet, in spite of the ravages of war and time, and in spite of the commercialism of the tourist trade, the Holy Land has, in many ways, remained “untouched” since the day He died. As the eternal after-glow to the Light itself, His presence remains everywhere…

At sunset, if you stand at a certain point on the Mount of Olives and look across at Old Jerusalem, you can almost see Christ in his sad hour, can almost hear him weeping over the fate of the magnificent walled city He so loved. In a strange way, we, knowing now what He knew then, share this sad burden of history with Christ, as the people of His own time never could.

Close by, a writer once felt Christ’s presence in a curious way, and captured that moment in these words: “Below me the olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane reflected His agony in their gnarled and twisted forms.” (Melville Bell Grosvenor, Editor-In-Chief, National Geographic, 10/67)

On the road to Gaza, you glimpse the leathery face of a local shepherd – a face so unlike your own that it makes you start. You realize, then, that the face belongs as much to another time as to your own; that it tells you more about the face of Christ than any Michelangelo fresco ever could.

If you close your eyes and listen to the noise around you – to the guttural sounds, to the clanging of pots in a marketplace, to the bargaining of merchants or the grunting of camels – the centuries crumble into dust. These surely, are the very sounds that He heard.

And the Sea of Galilee has changed so little since He walked its shores, calling the Apostles to follow him. The Lake of Rhegma, (upon which Cleopatra once sailed into Tarsus to meet Mark Anthony), and countless other bodies of water which existed in Biblical times have become marshes, because of human neglect or natural disasters. But Galilee is eternal, forever holding the Lord’s image in its peaceful waters. And on its banks, the foundations of Peter’s house at Capharnaum stand just as firmly on that ground as the Saint himself did in life.

How often we wish that we could climb into a time machine, go back through the years, and for just one day, walk with Christ. Perhaps we’d choose to sit on a hillside and listen to the Sermon on the Mount; perhaps we’d rather see Him as a boy, roaming among the hills of Nazareth.

We want so much to know what He looked like, how He spoke, how He lived. How much easier it would be for us to believe, if only we could “see” Him. How could we ever again utter an unkind remark, be jealous or selfish, we think, if we had been standing at the foot of His cross, and had seen His young face contorted with pain.

Christianity, of course, is a progressive religion, and we can’t go back in time. He must have foreseen our very human failing, though. After all, He had seen it in Thomas such a short time after the Crucifixion; in Thomas, who had actually seen the living Christ.

And so, is it so improbable that He left us some clues, besides the Scriptures and traditions, to tell us what was closest to His heart…the air He breathed the land He walked, the sheep and shepherds He plucked from the surrounding hills and sprinkled in His parables, the Sea He sailed, the sounds He heard…

Is it so foolish to believe that His presence remains in every inch of His homeland? After all, He told us He’d be with us all days.

The Holy Land – the area “remembers” Christ, just as surely as He remembers His homeland.

A.V. Crawford is a freelance writer who has traveled in the Middle East.

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