Baptized into a New Year

Two weeks ago today, I celebrated my birthday in the land of of Israel - the Promised Land to a people that had lived long in exile...

Two weeks ago today, in the company of friends, I celebrated my birthday in a way I could never have imagined, even just a year ago, even though I was so filled and overwhelmed with the places visited, that I could not even dwell on the significance of the day for me.

We had hired a driver for the day to take us to various sites, and he also suggested some others that were nearby that we had not considered or did not know about.

Originally, we had hoped to take two day trips, but in the end there was enough to see and experience in Jerusalem - so much so - that I can envision returning there some day to do the city and environs more justice.

Though we had planned to go to Jericho and could not fit it in, we were able to survey the city from a kibbutz and it was especially memorable to situate the city and its terrain within the context of biblical references to the city.

After that, our driver suggested visiting a 4th century church dedicated to St. Hieronymus, whom I later discovered was actually St. Jerome, the scholar and saint responsible for translating scripture into the definitive and authorative Latin version that became known as the Vulgate. This official translation reigned for many centuries and was the one subsequent translations defaulted to.

The church itself, run by the Orthodox, is located - as most of the places visited on our trip that day - in the land-locked area known as the West Bank, under Palestinian control. It was a very quiet place - a gem really - with undisturbed mosaic work dating back to the 4th century. What I loved about this place was that it was far from the maddening crowd and the hustling that seemed to accompany many major Christian sites of interest. This church was simply off the beaten path, and the religious works of art simply exquisite.

Our next stop was to the Jordan River, technically in Jordan. We passed a check point that was more ceremonial and not subject to the usual levels of security.

The river itself is not very wide, but it was filled with pilgrims of many shades and denominations immersing themselves in the river, in baptismal re-commitment services and so forth. Our day was long and fully packed, so I instead chose to take my shoes off, and step into this river, imagining what it must have felt for Jesus and John the Baptist to have had their encounter here, feeling their presence carry forward to my present, through the winds of time...

Later in the day, when I wrote of my experience, a dear friend noted that "to be baptized again is the perfect beginning of your year!" I had not even thought of this symbolism until I read her words, but then - the impact of this experience saturated my soul, for this had not been planned or expected... Somehow, I was drawn here - on this day - for this experience to occur - perhaps in ways and for a reason I do not totally understand or can foresee right now...

We proceeded to the Qumran caves where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered in 1947. I have been fascinated with the scrolls since I was in graduate school, and had an opportunity to see an exhibition of mere fragments a couple of years ago in New York. On this trip, I was able to visit the Shrine of the Book, where a  treasure trove of these scrolls are kept and on display. I was moved to see a segment of the Manual of Discipline, a scroll I had studied and compared to monastic rules written much later, considering and examining aspects they had in common. It was most especially moving to see the first cave, which yielded the richest cache discovered.

Our next stop was Masada - an impressive fortress - piercing a severe landscape reminiscent of a moonscape - as one of my companions noted. It is hard to believe that anyone could have lived up there - much less survived and resisted the Roman army for such a long period of time. The views are breathtaking indeed, and the Dead Sea can be admired from there, which was our next stop.

We ended our day by floating on the Dead Sea which is nothing short of amazing. I never in a million years thought I would do this. Can't exactly say it was on my bucket list, but I am so glad we did it.

All of these experiences were so rich in and of themselves. Any of them could have been imbibed slowly, over time, like one of the many fine Israeli wines we had the pleasure of sampling. To have done all of these things on this day, was nothing short of miraculous to me - the birthday experience and gift of a lifetime - on the trip of a lifetime...

So, this morning, as I consider that my Jewish brothers and sisters will be lighting candles celebrating this first night of Hannukkah, which for the first time dovetails with Thanksgiving here, and that for Christians the commencement of the season of Advent is just a few days away, I am filled with gratitude and awe, and the sense of all that brings us together, more so, than all that divides us.

As I shared with a few dear friends, I was perhaps most moved by the Jewish places visited - the Western Wall, Vad Vashem - the Holocaust Museum, the Shrine of the Book, and so forth - more so than many of the Christian sites - save the Jordan River, and most especially the Garden of Gethsemane - because these felt more genuine, and unembellished. Yet all of these places felt like a part of me - part of distant roots - and encountering them all felt familiar and like a coming home of sorts...

On this grey, dreary morning, I think of all these things, and I give thanks, that I was able to experience it all... And it reminds me once again, of Meister Eckhart's well known words:

"If the only prayer you say is thank you,
that would be enough!"

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