I was recently on pilgrimage in the Holy Land. As the next forty days can be seen as a kind of interior journey to the sacred time of Easter, I thought we could begin these Lent reflections with a link to the holy places associated with the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
Meditation, like a physical pilgrimage involving travel, varied companions and a combination of constant change and steady purpose, is a journey within a journey. Indeed the path of life is composed of pathways beyond measure, sometimes crossing, sometimes blocked, sometimes rapturous, at other times frustrating. Always surprising. As everything is always passing, we learn to be good pilgrims by adapting to reality, shedding the half-baked illusions with which we often try to cope with change. The first illusions to drop are about God.
Normally we imagine God as way above change, as an extra-terrestrial outside the traffic flow of human history. If God ever does come down to the human level, he travels like a powerful person with a motor-cycle escort (clergy for example), while ordinary people are pulled over to let Him pass. To disabuse us of this idea, God happened in a unique and inexplicable way through a young woman called Mary in a town of about 150 inhabitants, called Nazareth, a backwater of a backwater of a land with inhabitants always fighting with each other and occupied by a ruthless pagan power. The Jewish joke is that if a Jew was stranded on a desert island he would build two synagogues so that he could have one which he refused to go to. God was translated into the human in an all too human place. A holy land of immemorial territorial disputes.
Jesus of Nazareth was born into an artisan class. He worked with his hands. His teachings on the deepest of mysteries were couched in the language of farming and village life. He did not speak in abstract sutras trying to verbalise the subtleties of the divine. He used down to earth symbols like a treasure buried in a field or a wayward younger son who comes home with his tail between his legs. Instead of conceptualising the truth, he tried, usually unsuccessfully, to help people discover it for themselves, allowing it to emerge through their own ordinary lives. Later some people realised he was not giving an answer but that he embodied the truth. The medium was the message.
In Nazareth there is a bronze plaque on the ground of Mary’s house where (believe it or not) Gabriel happened to her and she said yes. The plaque says “And the Word was made Flesh”. That’s a good sense of direction to begin Lent with. The sacred language of Christianity is the body. Mine, yours, everybody’s body. Alike and unique.