For over 50 years, Jesus’ baptismal site was a casualty of war.
Now, it is a casualty of the new coronavirus.
Last week in time for Easter, the UK-based demining specialist HALO Trust group exploded in chain reaction the final 500 landmines at Israel’s Qasr al-Yahud monastery complex.
“We got the churches together, all eight different denominations, and then we got the Israelis and the Palestinians,” HALO Trust CEO James Cowan told the BBC.
“So all three major faiths, and we looked at how we could do this.”
Located six miles east of Jericho on the Jordan River, “Bethany beyond the Jordan” in 1968 was placed by Israel under military jurisdiction following the Six Day War. Fearing terrorist infiltration across the shallow riverbed, the army laid over 6,000 landmines and booby-trapped the churches.
Israel declared peace with Jordan in 1995, but the area remained closed.
In 2011, it was partially reopened, allowing access along one narrow path between the Jordan River and the Greek Orthodox St. John the Baptist Monastery.
And in 2016, HALO Trust, which works in 27 nations around the world, announced…
Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.
But last week on the western bank of the Jordan River, landmines were cleared to allow visitors a first look at a faded fresco of the baptism in a crumbling Ethiopian monastery.
Trudging through mud while avoiding well-marked areas warning of live charges remaining from the Six-Day War, intrepid pilgrims once again received iconic witness of the beloved Son.
“Israel placed the mines between 1967 and 1971 because there was a war,” Marcel Aviv, head of the Israel National Mine Action of Authority, a branch of the Defense Ministry, told the Times of Israel, standing a few hundred yards from Jordan.
“But now it’s empty because it’s a border of peace.”
Israel partially reopened the Qasr al-Yahud baptismal site in 2011. But visitors…
Please click here to read the full story at Christianity Today.
The New York Times carried a very Christian op-ed recently, penned by a Turkish Muslim.
Mustafa Akyol is one of Turkey’s leading journalists, and argues that the crisis in the Muslim world today can be solved by turning to Jesus as example.
But first, a primer for those who don’t know the basics:
While Muslims respect and love Jesus — and his immaculate mother, Mary — because the Quran wholeheartedly praises them, most have never thought about the historical mission of Jesus, the essence of his teaching and how it may relate to their own reality.
Here is the historical comparison. The Jews of Jesus day, he said, were frustrated by their domination by Rome. Remembering well their former political golden era and ongoing religious claim of God’s favor, they found it very hard to adjust to their status as an oppressed client state in a global empire.
There were two primary reactions: the Zealots who resisted and the Herodians who collaborated. And these patterns mirror the current Muslim world:
The Islamic world has been in a crisis since the 19th century … because it was outperformed, defeated and even besieged by Western powers. Islam, a religion that has always been proud of its earthly success, was now “facing the West with her back to the wall,” causing stress, anger and turmoil among Muslims.
Modern-day Muslims, too … are haunted by the endless struggles between their own Herodians who imitate the West and their own Zealots who embody “archaism evoked by foreign pressure.” He pointed to modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, as an “arch-Herodian” and the “Central Arabian Wahhabis” as arch-Zealots.
Into the divide steps Jesus, he said, but also the Pharisees who are well represented in Islam today:
While being pressed by a foreign civilization, they are also troubled by their own fanatics who see the light only in imposing a rigid law, Shariah, and fighting for theocratic rule. Muslims need a creative third way, which will be true to their faith but also free from the burdens of the past tradition and the current political context.
And here, Jesus is necessary:
No Muslim religious leader has yet stressed the crucial gap between divine purposes and dry legalism as powerfully as Jesus did. Jesus showed that sacrificing the spirit of religion to literalism leads to horrors, like the stoning of innocent women by bigoted men — as it still happens in some Muslim countries today.
He also taught that obsession with outward expressions of piety can nurture a culture of hypocrisy — as is the case in some Muslim communities today. Jesus even defined humanism as a higher value than legalism, famously declaring, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
And Akyol’s closing plea:
Can we Muslims also reason, “The Shariah is made for man, not man for the Shariah”? Or, like Jesus, can we also suggest that the Kingdom of God — also called “the Caliphate” — will be established not within any earthly polity, but within our hearts and minds?
If Jesus is “a prophet of Islam,” as we Muslims often proudly say, then we should think on these questions. Because Jesus addressed the very problems that haunt us today and established a prophetic wisdom perfectly fit for our times.
The wisdom of Jesus transcends Christianity. Gandhi is perhaps the best example of successful application outside of faith. There is no reason Muslims cannot also benefit.
But can wide transformation come through Jesus’ teaching alone, apart from his equally weighty assertions of his (and through him, man’s) unique relation to God? Can those who rightly see themselves as God’s slaves advance in Jesus’ mission of civilization and spirit, unless also seeing themselves as his sons?
All success to Akyol and other Muslims who walk this path. May they find Christians to be an encouragement along the way.
Jesus did not show up to defend ISIS—and the first to celebrate was a Muslim.
“The [ISIS] myth of their great battle in Dabiq is finished,” Ahmed Osman, a Free Syrian Army officer, told Reuters in October after coalition forces drove more than 1,000 extremists from the backwater Syrian city known as the Armageddon of Islamic eschatology. The jihadists had expected the Messiah to appear and bloody his lance on approaching Christian crusaders.
Muslim belief in the end-times return of Jesus may seem surprising, but according to recent polls, they expect him with greater anticipation than do many American Christians.
A Pew Research Center survey in 2012 found that more than half of Muslims in Iraq, Lebanon, and Tunisia—and just under 50 percent in Morocco and the Palestinian territories—believe in the “imminent return” of Jesus. Outside the Arab world, more than half of Muslims in Turkey, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Thailand say Jesus will return to Earth in their lifetime.
By contrast, a 2015 poll by the Brookings Institute found that only 12 percent of US evangelicals believe that Jesus will return in their lifetime.
Past polls communicate a greater expectancy. In 2010, Pew found that 27 percent of US Christians expected Jesus to definitely return within the next 40 years, while another 20 percent found it probable. Among white evangelicals, 34 percent said “definitely” while 24 percent said “probably.”
The Qur‘an alludes to the return of Jesus (accompanied by a figure called the Mehdi), who on the Day of Resurrection will be a witness against Christians who claim him as the Son of God. But Muslim eschatology is derived primarily from Islamic traditions that have varying degrees of canonicity.
The exact timing of events does not tend to be the concern of Muslim theologians. But the general narrative is that Jesus will descend to Earth, kill the pigs, break the crosses, perform the pilgrimage to Mecca, defeat the Christian armies of Rome, kill the Antichrist, and usher in a period of worldwide Islamic prosperity.
Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.
Easter, and the national celebration of Shem al-Naseem the following day, were both quiet in an otherwise quiet week. But even quiet palpitations within can be heard and affect the national scene. For good, God, only for good.
Because all events are subject to your evaluation, even if natural to those involved. For some used Easter to celebrate politics, while others used politics to denigrate Easter. Judge between them, God, but only in mercy.
For political candidates visited the papal cathedral to join in on Easter; one in particular received a rousing ovation. All candidates were Muslims, who believe neither in Jesus’ death nor resurrection. Their presence can be seen as a great gesture of solidarity, or, a great exploitation of an electorate.
What is the proper place of Easter in Egypt, God? Should it be made equal with other religious feasts and become a national holiday? Or should it be left an oddity for minority Christians, neither prevented nor acknowledged? Is anything in-between viable, or a capitulation?
For a political movement opposed to these candidates put the holiday’s name in quotation marks. Criticizing a supposed normalization between the Orthodox Church and Israel, it described pilgrims going to Jerusalem to celebrate “what is called ‘the feast of the resurrection’.” The pilgrims did go but the church did not sanction; the rumor reported served only to discredit – church and Easter alike.
Show Egypt the level of value to give Easter, God, independent of belief. It cannot be easily shared, but can it be communally honored? Jesus unites Egyptians even as he divides. Help society to emphasis the former, with all appropriate allowance for the latter. Guard this balance, God, even as you guard the disputed truth.
But show also the believers in Easter the proper relation of their faith to society. At times they are honored; at others, marginalized. Give them wisdom in both situations.
Is the cathedral a place of political judgment, God? Or does your sovereignty demand the voice of faith in politics as in all else? As Muslims debate this issue, let Christians do the same. Lead each individual to the candidate of choice, and if a community coalesces, discern between them. For good, God, and with mercy.
Allow all holidays in Egypt to pass quietly, and their palpitations to be joyous. May all celebrations, national or otherwise, enrich the national scene.
There is much that Egyptian Muslims and Christians agree upon, much which unites the two and allows them to pray similarly. But at one point the religions are rather irreconcilable: Jesus was not crucified, and therefore was not resurrected. There is no Easter, celebrated by Copts this coming Sunday.
Fair enough. There are plenty of common troubles in Egypt these days. But Easter risks becoming another one, a further point of division in a polarized nation.
God, may it not be so.
The Egyptian status quo of good neighborliness has Muslims and Christians exchange greetings on all their holidays. The Muslim purist status quo of Islamic fidelity forbids congratulating religious error. Both have been around for some time.
The purists have generally been confined to Salafis, but now the Muslim Brotherhood is caught in the middle. Their mufti has given allowance to greet on Christmas, but Easter should be avoided.
The middle ground makes some sense, as Muslims accept Jesus as a prophet born miraculously from the Virgin Mary. But in Muslim eyes Christians are in religious error to hold the prophet born as the Son of God; why should neighborliness cover one and not the other?
God, bless the purists and give them wisdom and discernment. Honor them for fidelity to unpopular conviction, especially as many behave as good neighbors every day of the year. Give them love for these neighbors even as they seek to guide them to the right path. May it be for the sake of truth, and involve no division or discrimination.
God, bless the Copts as they interpret this refusal as a public insult. Honor them for fidelity to minority religion, especially as many esteem Muslims for their faith every day of the year. Give them patience and grace for those who find offense in them. May it result in greater love between all and honest discussion in that which divides.
But for all who play with the issue, God, issue your divine condemnation. Some purists seek to isolate the Copts and those who stand with them. Some non-Islamists seek to demonize their opponents as agents of social disintegration. Where accusations are true may you muffle their voice and end their influence.
The Easter issue does not warrant such rhetoric, God; calm things down. If you gave your son to be crucified your followers can take an insult. If you alone rescued your prophet from violent rejection your followers can allow you to continue this battle.
God, you know best the truths of religion, but you know also the needs of Egypt. Help the people to mind the balance, finding both in love and unity.
Today Egypt witnessed a historic referendum over a highly disputed constitution. Two days earlier, Christians placed their nation in the hands of God.
Many did so hoping for a miracle. Egypt’s churches earlier withdrew from the committee writing the constitution, finding their voice sidelined amidst an Islamist super-majority. Noteworthy, however, was that not one speaker prayed against the constitution. Instead, they asked God to be with Egypt, give her peace and stability, and bless Islamists in particular.
I will save more description for a few articles I hope to write in the coming days, but here is the essential fact: About 10,000 Christians from all Egyptian denominations interceded with God for their nation. Slightly less than half of these spent the whole night in prayer.
Here are the pictures, with links to video interspersed:
Please click here for a medley of Arabic praise songs from the meeting. It includes the crowd’s favorite – chanting Yesuu’ (Jesus) over and over again.
Please click here for a variation on the above link. One of the speaking priests urged the audience to add the word ‘Masr’ (Egypt) to their ‘Jesus’ chant. Boisterously, they went back and forth.
Here are a few pictures showing the size of the crowd:
Please click here to watch this choir perform and the crowd chant along.
Only God knows what is best for Egypt in terms of this current constitution. But may he honor the prayers of this community, of Muslims, and of Islamists, who pray for the peace of Egypt.
I would honestly say that if I could choose a religion, I would choose Christianity and its ideal of universal acceptance, love, and forgiveness. It is all so beautiful. It is just so unfortunate that the history of Christianity has nothing to do with these ideas.
Eyad Sarraj, head of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program and of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens’ Rights
This quote comes from a book I have been reading, entitled ‘The Body and the Blood’, which I referenced once before in this post, concerning Palestinian refugees and the ‘right of return’. The book is a journalistic account of the exodus of Christians from the Middle East, focusing on Palestine. When I finish I hope to write a short book review, but for now, I will only highly recommend it.
One of the author’s themes highlights that the Middle East has witnessed violence upon violence, in the form of Israeli occupation, Muslim resistance, and terrorism. Yet while Christians have also at times joined in the violence, their religion’s focus on nonviolence could potentially equip this minority to assume a role of peace, either in highlighting the injustice of occupation, or in rebuking the assault upon it through stones, suicide bombers, and rocket fire. Yet the Christian exodus from the area not only removes this voice from the equation, it also allows for popular Western definition of the struggle as between Muslims and Jews, in which both get dismissed as the problem then appears both foreign and intractable.
The above quote means to put the issue of nonviolence before the Western Christian audience. Not for Palestine per se, but for world history and current Christian attitudes. Eyad Sarraj is introduced as a secular Muslim from a deeply religious family. Conversion is not an issue as the entrenched religious lines of Palestine do not allow for movement between faiths, certainly not toward Christianity, and in any case as a secular individual he might not see religion as an important personal matter. The issue is his perception. Within his Islamic heritage and Palestinian politics he speaks boldly about the beauty of the Christian message. Unfortunately, he does not see its historic reality.
May the question be asked: What would have to change in order to change his perception?
Without pretending that Western governments represent Christian values, should Christians better pressure their governments according to nonviolent principles? What might this do to world affairs? What might it do for the Christian message? What kind of nonviolence is intended? What are its limits? Does nonviolence as a principle apply to groups as opposed to individuals? Does it apply to nations?
The author highlights that Jesus’ principle of ‘turn the other cheek’ is often misunderstood. Rather than passive acceptance of violence, it is an assertion of equality. To strike the right cheek, as the gospel emphasizes, requires a backhand slap from the aggressor’s right hand. In the culture of the time, this was a great insult. It was punishable by law if administered to an equal, but legally permissible if targeting an inferior. Jesus’ teaching says to turn to him the left cheek, in order to receive a proper blow. The invitation is to be struck as an equal, yet all the while not returning the violence.
If this interpretation is correct, it forces reevaluation of Jesus’ teaching of nonviolence, but also removes the popular notion that is it ethereal and hopelessly pious. It may yet be foolish, but it becomes foolishness with a purpose. It is a foolishness from utter strength, no matter how much it forsakes the worldly use of strength.
Yet what does this interpretation say to the one who possesses strength in the worldly sense? This is the position of most Western nations, and many Western Christians. Perhaps it is only to note that Jesus does not address these, at least in this passage. His interests lie elsewhere. They lie with the suffering and oppressed. Interestingly, his message is not to rebel, but it is to resist the status quo of their position. It is to stand strong.
Certainly Jesus would care for all, the strong and the mighty among them. Yet may the contemplation of these questions, regardless of where the answers lie, help Christians evaluate with whom they stand. Where Christians exist among the strong, may they exercise this strength on behalf of those not yet standing.
As we mix and mingle with Orthodox Christians in Egypt, it is not irregular to discover items in the faith that do not square exactly with what we were taught in Protestant circles in America. This week, while at an end of year conference for the Coptic Bible Institute I have been attending, I learned that Jesus baptized the twelve disciples.
This probably isn’t a make-or-break point of theology, but John 4:1-2 appears to say the opposite:
The Pharisees heard that Jesus was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John, although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples.
The point came up in a discussion of John 13, where Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. When Peter protests, Jesus states he must do this for Peter to have a share with him. Peter then swings to the opposite pendulum:
Then, Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!
But Jesus rebutted:
A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean…
The key point to the story is what does the ‘bath’ connote? According to Orthodox theology, it is baptism, by immersion, which makes one pure before God.
Protestants, by comparison, tend to believe that baptism is only a pictorial representation of one’s new identity as a Christian. As one descends into the water, he mirrors Jesus’ death, and when he comes out, he mirrors his resurrection. It is not the water that makes one pure, it is the faith expressed in Jesus which leads one to obey his command to be baptized.
This is not the site to build systematic theology, but it should be noted that Protestant explanation, though justifiable logically and Biblically, does not fit well with Jesus’ simile of a ‘bath’. Nor does it account well for this verse, from Acts 22:16, where the just-converted Paul is told:
Now, what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away.
Before one leans toward Orthodox opinion, however, we must return to the washing of Peter’s feet. The ‘bath’, for them, is baptism, and through it Peter became clean. But when? The gospels give no indication of Jesus ever baptizing. Many of his disciples were baptized first by John, but both Orthodox and Protestants agree this was a baptism of repentance from sin, in preparation for Jesus’ ministry, of whom John said would baptize with the Holy Spirit.
I am certainly not acquainted well with the details of Orthodox baptismal theology, but I learned that the traditions of the church state that Jesus did indeed baptize the twelve disciples. Jesus instructed his disciples to baptize, initiating them in a rite which they were to pass on to others. Logically then, Jesus must have baptized them, inaugurating the movement. Besides, it is baptism that makes one clean, and the disciples needed to be clean in order eventually to multiply the church.
Perhaps the verse quoted above, in which Jesus did not baptize, does not read absolutely. It could be that the Pharisees believed Jesus baptized this great number of followers, but that they were wrong about the multitude, even if right about the twelve. I don’t think it reads naturally that way, but it is possible.
The larger issue seems that Jesus himself defines what made the disciples clean only a short while later. In John 15:3 he states:
You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.
Again, perhaps there is a puzzle in determining what this ‘word’ is, but it does not seem to be the baptismal ‘bath’. If anything, it would seem to align better with Protestant thought that it is faith in the word of Jesus that grants an individual salvation, making him clean before God.
Granted, this is only a very superficial treatment of a deep and often debated theological point. There are other sections of the Bible that can be marshaled in defense of baptismal purification, but on my first look, it does not seem to ground well in the story of Peter and the washing of feet, nor in the discipleship experience of the twelve.
Protestants tend to dismiss tradition too easily. Yet without second level study, I wonder if the tradition of Jesus baptizing the twelve was necessary to backtrack a developed theology of baptismal purification into the ministry of Jesus. Then again, just because a story isn’t told in the Bible does not mean it did not happen. John makes this clear at the end of his gospel:
Jesus did many other things as well. If everyone one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.
Besides, who would know better about these non-recorded acts than ‘tradition’, preserved and passed down through the community of the church?
Those who have studied well on either side of the issue are invited to state their case in the comments of this post. For the rest, and perhaps especially for them, we do well to take care our developed views do not dictate understandings upon the written text. It is there to speak to us, not for us to speak through it.
For those outside the traditions of the Bible, the point is much the same. We cannot live life without adopting overarching explanations for our experiences. These explanations may well be right; we should take confidence in our best efforts to understand. We should teach what we learn, so the other may benefit. Yet humility must triumph, lest knowledge become cemented, along with the ‘other’, defined in opposition.
Humility is a chief point of the story. Jesus, the one who had the greatest claim on overarching explanations, stooped to serve those who knew less. Yet it takes humility also to be served; this is a trait Peter had in short supply. Eager to prove he had the situation figured out, he nearly rejected the one who could teach him the most, oddly enough, in deference to him.
Yet it was this interplay which gave us the story in the first place. As we live our messy lives one with the other, as long as we hold on to our togetherness, we will learn. So doing, we will teach others.
Along the way, may we all become clean, even as we disagree as to how this happens.