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The Bible and the land
By Gary M. Burge
Copyright © 2009
Gary M. Burge
All right reserved.
Chapter One Introduction
Life, Holy Land, Pilgrimage, and Deserts
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MY LIFE is a life lived alongside the wilderness. Perhaps there was a time (maybe in my early twenties) when I thought that most of life would be akin to a fine day at a southern California beach: low sixties in the morning with a cool, foggy marine layer, bright sun by 11:00 a.m. with good waves forming, palm trees along beachside cliffs, the smell of salt and sand, and no cares other than finding lunch. The perfect burrito no doubt joined to perfect health, outstanding waves, beach music on K-Earth 101, and no cares whatsoever.
To use a biblical metaphor, life was to be all Promised Land and no wilderness, always in Jerusalem without entering the Judean desert.
But it didn't take long for the fantasy to break down. A new picture eventually emerged (maybe in my late twenties), when I began to view life with a very different metaphor: it was Israel's sojourn from Egypt to the Promised Land, a trek out of captivity and through the desert. Even when we arrived at our destination of promise, there were still difficulties with Canaanites and drought and war. And the desert - just east of every city - always remained the same, reminding me of the original pilgrimage and the prospect of going there again.
It comes as no surprise to me that over the centuries Christians have used the juxtaposition of Promised Land and wilderness as the supreme metaphor for life. On occasion there are moments of genuine wonder, joy, and celebration. On other occasions, there are experiences in the desert wilderness - wildernesses formed through crises of various kinds - and life takes on a confusing, even disturbing, quality.
Ironically, it has been in the wilderness where I've learned most of what I know about God, myself, and the people with whom I live. It was a great discovery when I learned (maybe in my late thirties) that this was a truth held not only by characters throughout the Bible, but by thousands of Christian pilgrims, mystics, and monks who used the wilderness as a metaphor for their own lives - and, in some cases, chose to live in a wilderness (often in Middle Eastern deserts) in order to learn things more deeply.
The Land and Pilgrimage
From the beginning, Christians have believed that the land of the Bible held promise for their own spiritual growth, that simply going there and seeing the context of the biblical stories, perhaps recreating experiences known to David or Jesus, might in some way bring renewal or inspiration. This is still true today. Tour buses that cross the Jordan River south of Galilee almost always make the required stop to baptize travelers who wonder if these waters are different than other waters. They wonder if perhaps being baptized where Jesus was baptized might help them understand their Bible or even give them something they've missed their entire lives.
The first Christian of record to do this was the "Pilgrim of Bordeaux," who came to Jerusalem in about AD 333. His notes circulated widely and by the mid-300s, Christian visitors began arriving in the Holy Land regularly. Travel was dangerous and unforgiving, but the rewards outweighed all dangers. Besides, a Christian community was there and hospices would extend welcome. The Christian pilgrimage industry had begun. Today two million tourists make the same trip annually.
But this travel was not merely for the sake of curiosity. Fourth-century Christian theologians reflected on the theological meaning of the incarnation (the full entry of God into human life), and this led them to thoughts about the place of this incarnation. St. Cyril was bishop of Jerusalem from 349 to 384 and so had the privilege of presiding over the magnificent new church built above Christ's tomb by the Christian emperor Constantine. He preached a series of sermons just steps from the tomb and there declared the difference of being in the Holy Land. "Others only hear, but we both see and touch." For Cyril, the land itself was a living source of witness to our faith (Catechetical Lectures 14.23). For him, the land virtually had become a "fifth" gospel.
Jerome (345-420), living in Bethlehem, urged the same: "Here in Bethlehem he was wrapped in swaddling clothes; here he was seen by shepherds, here he was pointed out by the star, here he was adored by wise men." This is the beginning of a sacred geography. Jerome wrote a letter in 386 trying to compel a woman named Marcella to join his pilgrim community in the Holy Land. In it he describes, perhaps with some exaggeration, the pious flooding to Jerusalem:
Every person of note in Gaul hastens here. The Briton, "sundered from our world," no sooner makes progress in religion than he leaves the setting sun in quest of a spot of which he knows only through Scripture and common report. Need we recall the Armenians, the Persians, the peoples of India and Arabia? Or those of our neighbor, Egypt, so rich in monks; of Pontus and Cappadocia; of Syria and Mesopotamia and the teeming east? In fulfillment of the Savior's words, "Wherever the body is, there will the eagles be gathered together," they all assemble here and exhibit in this one city the most varied virtues. Differing in speech, they are one in religion, and almost every nation has a choir of its own. (Letters 46:10).
Notes about the early pilgrims are few. But we do have one account from the first-known woman pilgrim named Egeria. She lived in the late 300s and came from a town along the European Atlantic coast, perhaps France or Spain. Clearly Egeria was on a quest to understand her Christian faith. And as she moved closer to the Holy Land, her narrative filled with expansive descriptions and hopes for inspiration. She wanted to see holy sites - but more than this, she was eager to learn about the local church, its liturgies, and its history.
Excerpted from The Bible and the land by Gary M. Burge Copyright © 2009 by Gary M. Burge. Excerpted by permission.
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