The pace was hectic but worth it. We saw one architectural marvel after another as we toured the many cathedrals that are now on sites known to have been touched by Jesus and/or his disciples. These "holy" spaces are filled with spectacular mosaics, stained glass and other priceless works of art. Words cannot relay the beauty that is there to be seen.
Another delightful aspect of our Israeli tour was the visits to a number of archaeological ruins. Excavations have made it possible to see what the towns and places, familiar to Jesus, would have looked like in his day. In the archaeological park at Magdala there is a first century synagogue in which Jesus actually preached. These snapshots in time reveal just how rustic and physically demanding life was for Jesus and his followers.
Throughout the journey our extremely knowledgeable tour guide relayed copious amounts of information. Armed with a degree in theology, Peter did an outstanding job at showcasing the Christian history of Israel. And, he freely shared his knowledge about art, architecture, religion, archeology, geology, politics and geography. I must say by journey's end I felt as if I had taken a university course.
It should come as no surprise that in the Holy Land there is much ado about the miracles Jesus was said to have performed. Breathtaking shrines, ancient and modern, have been built upon the spots where the magic occurred; and, the tourists flock there. But, according to historical records Jesus was not the only rabbi stunning the crowds with a magic show. At that time there were many others vying for the title of best miracle worker. Why is it then that Jesus ended up in the history books instead of some other rabbi?
For centuries Christian leaders have claimed that Jesus' message is the superior one. Even when studies in comparative religion have revealed that Jesus' teachings reflect a perennial wisdom found in other cultures, some continue to hold up Christ's miracles as evidence of Christian superiority. I wonder how many of these people would change their tune if they realized that miracle-working was simply part of Jewish culture during the first century.
Many of today's folk believe that there has been much ado about nothing when it comes to Jesus. With reason as their litmus test they balk at what they see as far-fetched tales of virgin births and resurrections of the dead. These fantastical fabrications, rather than bedazzling modern people into becoming a part of Jesus' flock, do just the opposite.
I am of two minds when it comes to Jesus' miracles. Like many scholars, I realize that there has been a lot of implausible attached to the this phenomenon. However, if the association to miracle-making is what it took to ensure Jesus remained an important historical figure, then I am glad of it. I am glad of it because humankind thus far has not been ready to hear the real message Jesus was intent on delivering. If the intrigue about Jesus had not been maintained how likely is it that we would still be talking about him these days?
Thankfully, the real deal about Jesus was not lost in the sands of time but rather preserved by Thomas, a disciple of Christ. And now, Thomas' take on Jesus is available to be understood by all of humanity. His gospels, that date back to the earliest of times in Christianity, were tucked away in the Egyptian dessert with a collection of other Gnostic manuscripts until 1945.
Through Thomas we find a Jesus who wants us to confront those bestial aspects of our human nature that cause so much ignorance and suffering. "For the body is a domestic animal. Therefore, you must go about perfecting yourself." commands Jesus. Jesus is asking us to self-regulate in such a way as to weed out aggressive tendencies and delusional beliefs that operate by virtue of our animal origins.
Consequently no matter how mesmerized we remain by miracles and magic, without the acknowledgment of the dysfunctional aspects of our animal nature the ascent of humankind is not possible. Without our humility the human primate is sure to continue with war and rumors of more wars. The real miracle, then, is that Jesus knew this and was willing to be crucified so that the rest of his species, at some point in the future, could know this too.
Happy Easter 2017
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