My Holy Sights
Seen and Hurd in the Holy Land
A few weeks ago, I stood in the sacred spot where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. The Baptism site is in Jordan and I was in-country for a week to staff a high-level delegation of my organization that was looking at the Iraqi refugee crisis in Jordan and Syria. (Millions of Iraqis have fled violence in Iraq and have either sought safety as refugees in the region, mostly in Jordan and Syria, or are trapped inside Iraq; many others who have been unable to flee are also in need.
Though my reason for traveling to this part of the world was work-related, my trip occured only six years since I too was baptized and ended a lifetime of saying “No” to God or “I don’t know” about God. While my work is not religiously affiliated, I can’t help but see a connection between my involvement with aid organizations and my own faith life; so, in a sense, my trip had an aspect that felt like a pilgrimage as well.
The reflection that follows is an attempt to convey how the ancient sites I visited helped my own faith come alive even more. It is an experience not unlike the Holy Week we’ve just entered where we recall events that happened in this small corner of the earth thousands of years ago that continue to impact countless Christians around the globe today.
On the day after I arrived in Amman, the capital of Jordan, I went to what I thought was going to be an English language Sunday Mass. Instead, it was in Arabic and I was thrilled. I had never celebrated Mass in a language of the Middle East—the birthplace of Christ and Christianity—with Christians who had always lived in the region. My Arabic vocabulary is 10 words and so I only understood salaam—Arabic for peace and part of the standard Muslim greeting Asalaam Aleikum, “Peace be upon you”, that I had exchanged for years with Muslim friends and colleagues—during the sign of peace, the names of Jesus and Mary and whatever was said in Latin. Yet, because the Mass and the sacrament of communion are the same everywhere in the world, I understood the Mass and was at home and in communion with my fellow worshipers. The Church is truly universal.
Before I returned to the United States, I had a free day and a choice: Go to Petra, an ancient city carved out of and into rock, one of the most important, famous archaeological sites in the world. Or, travel to holy sites. To tweak a line from Yoda, “Do or do not. There is no both.” I became a Christian in 2002 and was received into the Catholic Church in 2005. It’s Lent. I’m sponsoring an adult through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) who will receive the Sacrament of Baptism at the Easter Vigil. Petra, I love you, but you’ll have to wait.
My first holy site was Mount Nebo, where the last chapter of Deuteronomy shows God pointing to the Promised Land and saying to Moses, “This is the land which I swore to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that I would give to their descendants. I have let you feast your eyes upon it, but you shall not cross over.” Moses soon died in the area. Another older man, Pope John Paul II, had been to Mount Nebo in 2000 as part of his Millennium trip to the Holy Land, and so I was following the pastor who had been my shepherd when I was a newborn in the Church.
I walked to the western part of the Mount, where a horizontal sign pointed to an all-star list of Biblical cities: Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jericho, Herodium and Qumran.
Because of the clouds, I could not see Jerusalem, even though it was only 20-30 miles away. However, after I prayed over the passage from Deuteronomy, I could see Moses, listening to the Lord. Moses was wrinkled and weary, strong and straight, still sturdy, after over a century of living and many years of leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and toward the Promised Land. He began to cry when God told him that he would never reach that Land. Soon his tears rolled down a smile though, as he remembered that God would keep His covenant, that the people of Moses would reach the Promised Land. Moses was grateful that he had been able to serve God by bringing the people this far and making it possible for them to reach their future home. The smile of Moses became a laugh when God said “…and they serve great milk and honey.”
I also heard another prophetic voice of God. The night before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King told a crowd at a church in Memphis that he had received more death threats and that like Moses
I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!
Like Moses, Martin Luther King had seen the vision of God. Like Moses, he died before he lived the vision. Like Moses he died content that God had shared it and confident that it would become real.