A Holy Land of My Aspirations
(Note: NCC Director of Communications and Development Rev. Steven D. Martin is participating in an ecumenical study tour of Jordan’s holy sites. Photos, plus a few words, will be shared in this space.)
From atop Umm Qais, the biblical town of Gadarenes, an amazing landscape unfolds. I had seen all of these places from a different angle when I took my first visit to Galilee, Tiberias, and the Golan Heights in 1998. Then, they were up close, underfoot. This time, I was viewing all these places at once from across the border in Jordan from a different vantage point. Given the importance of the place where I stood to the narratives of Jesus’s Galilean ministry, I wondered why I had never stood there before.
Travel is the best way I know for shaking up one’s perspectives. I remember my first overseas trip, traveling to Spain, Portugal, and Morocco just before my senior year of high school. It was a particularly uncomfortable experience. Several members of our group were bumped from our flight and were diverted to Algeria, of all places, a nation with which we had no diplomatic relations. After landing in Madrid, I remember watching the entire contents of the 747’s luggage bay circulate through baggage claim, my own luggage not among the other suitcases.
But it was a visit to the Toledo Cathedral, shortly after arriving, that awakened something in me. A few months later I would hear my call to ministry, and I’m certain that place led me there. It wasn’t the Holy Land per se, but it became part of my spiritual heritage.
A pilgrimage to the Holy Land provides its own set of changed perspectives. For me, just understanding the geography better was a game-changer. Seeing civilization manifest itself through Roman ruins amidst modern surroundings provided a context for scripture I’m not sure I could have found any other way. It sounds cliche to say that seeing with your own eyes the places where Jesus walked changes the way you read the Bible forever, but it’s true.
This particular trip, a nine-day tour of Jordan’s holy places, has provided me with another set of questions about perspective. After touring the northern parts of this country, at a place located about a 30-minute drive from the Syrian border, I encountered one of the most peaceful and tranquil landscapes I’ve encountered in the whole region. You’re probably familiar with the story: in this place, Jesus cast demons out of two men he encountered. When the demons left them, at once they entered the herd of swine nearby and ran down a steep hill into the water below (Matthew 8:28-34). After this miracle occurred, Jesus and his followers were asked to leave the town, as it seems that then, as today, no good deed goes unpunished.
But why was this place empty of pilgrims? Why were there no knick-knack shops set up at the gates? Why were there no camel rides, no tour buses, no crowds with matching t-shirts or caps? It would seem that this place where Jesus performed a miracle (a holy site, yes?) somehow did not appear on anyone’s tour maps.
It’s not difficult to become a little cynical after visiting the Holy Land. Over on the other side of the Jordan River, the tranquility of the holy places mixes with parking lots, fumes from diesel buses, and the shops. OH, THE SHOPS. As many times as I’ve been there, there’s still something jarring about coming away from the beautiful chapel at the Mount of Beatitudes to encounter the gift shop. Yes, one can purchase anointing oil from the Holy Land there, as one can buy wine from Cana (I wonder if it was ever just water), but I don’t know… it seems… well, commercialized.
So why was Gadarenes devoid of pilgrims? I have my suspicions. Christian Zionism has succeeded in having us believe the only place important to Christians in the region is Israel. Mix that with a little Islamophobia and fear, add a lack of understanding of Bible geography, and one might find a reasonable explanation.
And yet, finding a holy place without knick-knack shops was pretty nice. In fact, it was the Holy Land of my aspirations, a place that felt, to me, untouched by commerce or politics. With it, I found a new perspective.