Monday, December 21, 2015
Virgin Mary Icon, Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, Israel
Prayer Candles, Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, Israel
We entered the Church of the Nativity through the main Door of Humility. Our guide informed us that the stone entrance had been reduced to a height requiring one to bend over centuries ago so that crusaders would no longer enter on horseback. As we ventured into this dimly lit large expanse of interior space it was apparent that maintaining this aging sixth century limestone structure was a never-ending project. Constantine and his mother St. Helena had commissioned the original church to be built over the cave where evidence suggested that Mary had given birth to Jesus. When this church was destroyed by Justinian in 530 AD, a larger church was built and remains today. The Persians spared this church during their invasion in 614 AD because they were impressed by a large representation of the Magi who were also Persians.
As we approached the narrow stone stairway leading down to Jesus’ birthplace we paused near an Armenian altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary. History notes that Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as its state religion in 301 AD. A very ornate icon of Mary and child was placed next to the elaborate altar. A stand of lit candles was situated nearby. Lighting candles as worshipers enter a church is an important expression of the Light of the World who entered the world in this place to dispel the darkness. It is also customary to light a candle to venerate icons, showing respect and reverence for the subject of the icon. Candles are also lit to honor a saint, commemorate a deceased loved one and extend prayers.
I took the time to photograph the unique icon and the lighted candles that pilgrims had placed nearby in this dimly lit cavernous cathedral. The lighting was very poor and what lighting existed randomly reflected off the icon. But something spiritual and ageless beckoned me to these images like a moth to a fire. As I was reviewing my photos today and zooming in on the dark background, an image beyond the flickering candle flames caught my eye. Somehow in the dark room my camera had captured the image of what appears to be a woman wearing a black hijab present in the photo. I don’t recall noticing her at the time as I was literally focused on the candles, but the image of her face blended into the darkness beyond the smokey candle light creates a very ethereal scene.
--John 8:12, 2 COR 4:6
Friday, December 18, 2015
Mural Over Christ's Birth Place, Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, Israel
Herod the Great's Tomb, Herodium, Israel
The Christmas story involving Mary’s virgin pregnancy and the birth of the promised Messiah easily overshadow the life of Jesus’s earthly father, Joseph. Joseph has been described as a man with strong beliefs and right living who was willing to heavily invest himself for those beliefs. An angel of the Lord first appeared to Joseph in a dream to assure him that Mary, who was pledged to marry him, was with child through the Holy Spirit. And the child was the long awaited Messiah. The angel appeared in a second dream to warn Joseph to flee to Egypt to escape a decree from Herod the Great to kill all males less than two years old in an effort to eliminate the threatening new King of the Jews. When Herod died, the angel appeared a third time in a dream to instruct Joseph to take Mary and Jesus back to Israel. However, Herod had divided his kingdom among three of his sons. A fourth dream revealed that it was not safe to return home where the most brutal son Herod Archelaus ruled, so they were directed to Nazareth where ironically Herod Antipas ruled. He was a key character in the trial and death of Jesus.
Our first excursions into the Holy Land early this year were to Jesus’ birth place at a cave entrance in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the cave burial place at Herod the Great’s fortified palace called Herodium, atop a man-made mountain south of Jerusalem. God’s hand was directing the events in this pivotal drama of human history through his angelic messenger. Herod the Great vainly attempted to kill the anticipated Messiah at his birth by using all of the worldly evil and power at his command without succeeding. And thirty three years later in Jerusalem Jesus was brought before Herod’s son, Herod Antipas, who found him innocent of his accusers and returned Jesus to the governor, Pontius Pilate. Pilate’s wife was greatly troubled by a dream that led her to tell her husband not to condemn this innocent man Jesus. But Pilate was a man of the world and politics prevailed.
Fortunately, that wasn’t the end of the story. The first angelic message delivered to Joseph was revealed to all the world just three days later. Archaeologists believe they found Herod the Great’s cold empty tomb at Herodium in 2007 among the ruins. It was probably decimated by the first Jewish revolt against the Romans in 70 C.E. And we all know why Jesus’ garden tomb which is now preserved inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was found empty. Dreams really do come true!
Tuesday, December 15, 2015
Angel Mosaic, Bethlehem, Israel
There is a field just east of Bethlehem in this war ravaged region that is the hallowed ground of a momentous announcement. It is where an angel of the Lord and a heavenly host of angels announced the arrival of a Savior for the world. Isaiah prophesied that this child would lead the wolf to live with the lamb. It’s important to note that this message was not delivered to kings and religious leaders, but to one of the lowest classes of the time—shepherds who were watching over their flocks on one very significant starry night. The world of that generation was filled with hate and war and the people of the region were anxiously awaiting a warrior king to bring peace to their lives.
They received the Prince of Peace. The mystery of this miracle was that the Creator entered his creation wrapped in human flesh as a present to all mankind. The angel told the shepherds not to be afraid for he was announcing good news. And then a host of angels sang:
“Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”
As I walked this land in February, I couldn’t help but wonder why we still had not achieved that peace which was promised over two thousand years ago. As an adult, Jesus gave men a simple formula for peace—love God and love your neighbor. And He left mankind with a way of living through his teachings and model that can restore peace in the world.
People at the birth of Christ and people today expect him to save us from our enemies, but he came to deliver all of us from ourselves. And on that fateful night we were sent an ally to walk with us as we exercise our free will to do something actionable about the hate and darkness in this world we were given stewardship over. Darkness and hate were not eliminated that night in this field, but light and love were sent to checkmate them.
MAY THE PEACE OF CHRISTMAS ABIDE WITH YOU ALL THOUGH THE NEW YEAR!
Saturday, December 12, 2015
CTA Clark Street Bus, Chicago, IL
Neon Yellow Biker, Chicago, IL
Yellow Cab with Blue Man Group Ad, Chicago, IL
Hooded Lincoln Park Dog Walker, Chicago, IL
Neon Yellow Runners, Chicago, IL
Office Worker and Red Corvette, Chicago, IL
Traveler with Red Bag, Chicago, IL
I arose early and made my way down to the urban coffee shop in the small Chicago hotel where I was staying for the Thanksgiving holiday. The space for this little shop used to be occupied by the original hotel’s telephone operators, so it bore the name of Elaine’s Coffee Call. The comfortable shop had two baristas that could prepare just about any coffee drink you can find at a ubiquitous Starbucks without the corporate cachet. Freshly prepared scones of the day along with chocolate croissants and coffee cake rounded out the menu for me.
As I gathered my mocha coffee and an apricot scone I noticed that the limited seating at the storefront window was available with only one other customer sitting there reading the morning newspaper over his coffee. I seated myself with a view to Lincoln Park and the outside world and opened my IPhone apps. The man seated in front of the window soon departed leaving me an unobstructed view of the awakening world passing by my out of the ordinary surroundings. My normal breakfast view is generally lit up by the flat screen television inside my home as I consume breakfast with coffee oblivious to the outside world.
Three naked light bulbs hung from the ceiling in front of the window with “Elaine’s Coffee Call” lettered in a movie film font. They created an interesting foreground for the passing landscape outside so I switched my IPhone to camera mode. I then began recording the passing urban scenes outside the window on a chilly Chicago November morning. I quickly captured a passing CTA bus, a yellow taxi with a Blue Man Group ad, an office worker and a red corvette, a heavily hooded neighborhood woman walking her dog, a traveler carrying a red bag and early morning risers running and biking while wearing attention getting neon yellow tops.
Elaine’s Coffee Call suddenly became my unique window on the world while these urban scenes played out in front of me as if I were home watching my flat screen television. The scenes were somewhat detached as I comfortably sat in the warmth of the shop. I was reminded of the massive number of worldly scenes that play out with each new day’s creation. And at this holiday time of the year, it’s all too easy to detach oneself from the needs of all our other fellow travelers on the same journey and only see them as surreal players strutting and fretting their hour upon the stage and passing before us without substance or souls.
Friday, December 4, 2015
Shepherds' Field Angel, Chapel of the Angels, Beit Sahur, Israel
Shepherd and Flock, Qumran, Israel
Announcement Mural, Chapel of the Angels, Beit Sahur, Israel
There is more than enough war and hate all over the world today. Man’s legendary inhumanity to man ever seems to have no limit. I don’t remember a time during this advent season of expectation when violence was so prevalent. I don’t recall a time when the world was more in need of the promise of Christmas. The people of the world are more consumed with fear than possibly any time in this generation. The world is in more need of a message of peace and hope than any time in this generation.
There is a field just east of Bethlehem in this war ravaged region that is the hallowed ground of a momentous announcement. It is where an angel of the Lord and a heavenly host of angels announced the arrival of a Savior for the world. Isaiah prophesied that this child would lead the wolf to live with the lamb. It’s important to note that this message was not delivered to nobles and religious leaders, but to one of the lowest classes of the time—shepherds who were watching over their flocks on one very significant starry night. These men were not encumbered with the political and economic biases and filters that would have scrambled the angel’s message. The world of that generation was filled with hate and war and the people of the region were anxiously awaiting a warrior king to bring peace to their lives. The angel told the shepherds not to be afraid for he was announcing good news for all men. And then a host of angels sang:
“Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”
As I walked this land earlier this year, I couldn’t help but wonder why we still had not achieved that peace that was promised over two thousand years ago. As an adult, the Savior gave men a simple formula for peace—love God and love your neighbor. The lambs these shepherds were raising were quite possibly those used in the nearby temple for blood sacrifices to atone for the sins of the people. The Lamb of God who entered the world that day became the substitute for these blood sacrifices by shedding his own blood for us. And He left mankind with a way of living through his teachings and model that can restore peace in the world.
In this beginning of the twenty first century, God’s people need to rally around life change, peace, joy, love, hope and action to fulfill our Heavenly Father’s expectation for all humanity. People at the birth of Christ and people today expect him to save us from our enemies, but he came to deliver all of us from ourselves. A provocative newspaper headline after the San Bernardino massacre declares that “God isn’t going to fix this” while mocking politicians who were praying for those directly affected. No, the majority of suffering in this world is caused by other human beings who have the free will for good or evil, but God will help us bring good out of any bad situation.
And on that fateful night we were sent an ally to walk with us as we exercise our free will to do something actionable about the hate and darkness in the world we were given stewardship over. Darkness and hate were not eliminated that night in this field, but light and love were sent to checkmate them.
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956