Saturday, April 14, 2007

Jordan: Redemption

If you're surprised I didn't spend Easter in Jerusalem, so am I. However, job interviews persuaded me I absolutely had to hit the Gulf more at some point, and it made sense to do that during Passover Break here in Israel. The fact that both the western and eastern dates for Easter coincided this year, and the fact that date happened to fall during Passover, was just an unfortunate circumstance, though since I'll definitely be back here next year, I didn't care that much.

So instead, while, waiting for the Israeli border to open again after it was closed for the holiday, I chilled for a few days in Madaba, Jordan, a city I first visited almost six years ago. Modern Madaba, a small city of about 60,00 people, was settled in the late 19th century by a group of Christian families from the south, but the site was also a city during the Byzanite period, and the modern inhabitants are quick to claim that heritage. Madaba is called the "City of Mosaics" because of all the mosaics preserved amidst the remains of its Byzantine churches. The most famous, found in St. George Church, is a religious-themed mosaic map of the region from the 6th century, which is actually used by scholars studying Jerusalem's Byzantine topography. Many establishments in the city, such as the hotel I stayed at and a coffeehouse I went to a couple of times, are named after a Queen Ayola who came from Madaba. I've unsuccessfully tried to dig up information on her using google, but she almost has to be the same as Aelia Ariadne, the wife of Emperor Zeno who after his death married and thus elevated to the throne Anastasius I, who during his 27-year reign unsuccessfully tried to steer a moderate course in the empire's theological conflicts.

Jordan actually has a fairly old Christian heritage. During the 3rd century, Arabs from this region played a significant role in spreading Christianity within the Roman Empire. They themselves were usually converted as tribes by holy men who went into the desert to live as hermits and wound up serving as blessers, healers, and mediators for people in the region who came to follow them. One of them, a man named Moses, became close to a woman named Mavia, presumably a Latinized form of the Arabic Mawiyya. After her husband's death, she became Queen of Tanukh, and led a revolt against the Roman Emperor Valens who tried to appoint an Arian bishop for the region, whereas she would settle only for the Orthodox Moses. She won, and went on to fight on Valens's behalf against the Goths. This revolt became widely celebrated in Arabic poetry, though unfortunately today none of this has survived and we know what we do only through Byzantine sources.

This region actually has a long tradition of such eremitic holy men, whether Christian hermits, Sufis within Islam, or people the ancient Hebrews would regard as Prophets, and there are lots of caves in the western Jordan ready for their use. One of the most famous to pass through this area was the Old Testament's Elijah, who according to 1 Kings after a confrontation with King Ahab in which he predicted a famine fled east of the Jordan river to a seasonal stream called Cherith, where he found water and was fed by ravens until summer came and the stream dried up. Also in this area, very close to the Jordan, you find a small hill, almost the exact same elevation as the surrounding land but separated from it by a series of short ravines filled with green shrubbery. This is Tell Elias, where they say that same Elijah, known as Elyas in the Qur'an, rode a chariot of fire which was taken by a whirlwind into heaven.

Centuries later, following a verse in Malachi, people came to believe that Elijah would return, perhaps as a precursor to the Messiah. I've read that this belief has become so strong in modern Judaism that many Jews leave an extra chair at Passover just in case he decides to put in an appearance. In any case, it was probably natural that when another seemingly eccentric holy figure preaching repentence and reconcilation to divine laws while wearing garments made of hair began operating right in the vicinity of Tell Elias, people began asking if it was him. In the Gospel of John this man claimed he wasn't Elijah returned, though in Matthew Jesus says he was. Everyone, however, can agree that he was John the Baptist, known in the Qur'an as Yahya, seen by the Mandeans of Iraq as the final Prophet and by Christians as the forerunner of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.

One of the main holy sites in Jordan is Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, known in Arabic as al-Maghtas, or "Baptism site." This is where John did his preaching and baptizing, and is widely visited by Christians. Because it's right on the border with the West Bank, getting there involves passing through a military checkpoint and then taking a mandatory guided tour. The site itself is divided into two parts, as the course of the Jordan has changed, and the actual "baptism site," at one time apparently a small pool by a bend in the river, is now completely dry. You can, however, see a small wooden structure above a stone ledge thought to be the actual place of baptism. Stone steps go down to it, suggesting that when there was still water here early Christians - or somebody - still used it for baptisms.

The remains of three Byzantine churches separate this site from the modern river, where there is a small wooden deck with a side open for baptisms in the river today. Nearby is a golden-domed Russian Orthodox Church built for the many Russians who come to this site for baptisms, as well as a stone baptismal font filled with water from the Jordan for infant baptisms. The river itself is very narrow, and would be little more than a large creek in the American midwest. It used to be larger, but the level has been going down due to overpumping from the Sea of Galilee further north, especially by Israel, which seems to have absurdly good water pressure for a supposed desert country.

John the Baptist made quite a stir in his day, and the great Jewish historian Flavius Josephus has far more to say about him than he does the currently more famous Jesus. John's popularity, in fact, came to be seen as a threat to the Tetrarch of Galilee, Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. Herod Antipas had him taken prisoner and brought to his palace at Machaerus. The ruins of this palace can still be seen today, with a few columns and the remains of some internal walls sitting at atop magnificient peak near the Jordanian village of Mukawir near Madaba. The site is marked with a white-on-blue sign: "Memorial of the Prophet Yahya - Saint John the Baptist" in both English and Arabic, and while I was there a church minivan had stopped there for an extremely well-sited Easter picnic. The road ends at a scenic overview on the next hill, from which it is a mainly uphill 15-minute hike to the ruins where John was killed, according to one of the gospels as a gift for the dancing of Salome. The execution was seen as an act of tyranny, and according to Josephus, when Herod subsequently face a military disaster in a war against Aretas IV, King of the Nabataeans who ruled from the stone-carved city of Petra, people said it was because of what he had done to John.

Easter Sunday, I wandered into the nearest church to attend a service, which turned out, appropriately enough, to be St. John the Baptist Catholic Church. The people were, of course, friendly. Madaba has some of the friendliest people I've found anywhere, and I think between my two visits an outright majority of the taxi drivers I've had have tried to invite me home for tea and refreshment. The service was the same as what you might see among Catholics in the United States, except for the prominent display of Orthodox-style icons and the absence of some of the Holy Spirit blessings you're starting to see in American Catholic churches influenced by the charismatic movement. There were also two distinct lines for communion, one mostly male, and the other exclusively female, and some women wore headscarves into the church as was done in ancient times. I could follow most of what went on, though when its Easter Sunday and the gospel reader begins, "And on Sunday Mary Magdalene and Mary went to see the tomb," you can completely zone out and still pass a quiz on the rest. The somewhat shubby priest gave Stock Easter Homily #34795 about the importance of remembering the meaning of Easter throughout the year, though unfortunately thanks to my zoning out I don't know what the exact spin beyond that was.

As I did trek back from the ruins of Machaerus, however, I did have some thoughts of my own, thoughts about the relationship of eternal life and redemption which are at the heart of Easter Sunday. In the sort of Substitution Theology common among western Christians, it is argued that Jesus took on humanity's punishment for sins, namely death, and that being redeemed from our sins, we now have the option of eternal life in heaven. There is, perhaps, another angle, however, and that is that when the fear of death is removed, our fate in this world becomes meaningless. Elijah and John the Baptist both preached fearlessly, and the latter died for it. Normal people fear death, or the other things that can happen to them. In the idea that death has been overcome, however, you can find the implication that we are now free to act righteously, to do what in Islam would be called "commanding the good and forbidding the evil." In that sense, perhaps there is a more concrete dimension to the idea of "salvation" than is often thought, another layer in a complex theological subject.



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