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January 9, 2004
The feast of the Baptism of Christ -- bigger in places closer to Eastern Orthodoxy, like the Holy Land, than it is in most parts of the United states -- sends us a powerful message about the universality that the whole of the epiphany season shows forth. If we thought the coming of Christ could be contained in a lovely but essentially domestic story of fidelity and courage at Christmas, we will not think so by the end of this season: week by week, wider and wider grows the reach of what Christ means to the world. It is for us, but it is not just for us. Nothing we have is just for us. Everything is connected.

This week, the place names are everywhere in the lessons: we're in the middle of Jerusalem, down by the River Jordan, up in Galilee, walking the dusty road of Judea. But we also look beyond the boundaries of the Holy Land: the coastlands wait for His law, Isaiah says, He will bring justice to the nations. There will be no limit to the spread of Christ's presence save what human beings put on it, and even those limits won't last forever. God's purpose is stronger than our parochialism.

We are the result of that universalizing. We would not be here in this church if it hadn't been for the insistent push outward in the early Church. It happened from the very beginning, and it didn't happen without a struggle. But we would not be Christian today if it had not happened.

Today, the Church around the world is much larger than the Church in the Holy Land -- only a tiny percentage of the people of modern Israel are Christian. But the work of the Church is large there: two hospitals, one in Gaza and one in Nablus in the West Bank. A clinic, a nursing home. One college and several intermediate schools, including one for the deaf and one for the education of girls. Vibrant churches and community centers, all struggling but flourishing in the midst of an increasingly violent and oppressive day-to-day situation. Just this week, the Episcopal hospital in Nablus has been occupied by Israeli soldiers. When will they leave? How will the hospital workers live and work while they are there? What will happen to the patients? How to be safe when nothing around you is safe. How to care for the sick and the injured. How to teach the children. How to remain focussed and faithful to the cause of life when death stalks everyone. How to remain committed to loving action and service when hate is everywhere.

We close our eyes and imagine Jesus, imagine the rocks by the river Jordan, imagine the old villages, the cobbled streets of Jerusalem. We imagine crowds of people in 1st century dress. Donkey carts and camels. Ancient things. We open them and see modern people running through those same old streets, hiding behind trash cans, dodging bullets, driving tanks into the side of a house and knocking the whole thing down. And beyond our vision, the stuff of daily life in almost impossible circumstances: a baby is born. A little girl stands patiently in her school uniform while her mother braids her hair. A classroom of deaf children talks, silently but a mile a minute, with their hands. A doctor leans closer to his patient and listen intently through his stethoscope.

Our faith was born there. All three of the Abrahamic faiths live there, and have lived there for centuries. One of these days they will do so in peace, as difficult as that is for us to imagine. It is possible that the tiny group of Christians in that beautiful and troubled place will be the key to this uniting, providing a third party in between the warring two who figure so prominently in the sad headline we read every day.

Christians? Hospitals. Schools. Deaf children talking excitedly to their teachers. Brand new babies coming for their checkups. Old people sitting in the sun together. Young people in college and trade schools. There are worse associations a faith could have in a warring country than these lovely ones. Now we work in that holy and tragic land in a time of war. But everything we have there is something that will build the peace. When it comes, we will already be there ready to embrace it.

Here is some of what the Episcopal Church does in the Holy Land.
Copyright © 2018 Barbara Crafton
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