Thursday, 26 February 2015

The privilege and challenge of space to 'be'

One of the reasons for spending so much time of my Sabbatical in Palestine and Israel was to be able to spend time ‘being’ in places that I have visited previously, but not had so much time to ‘be’ in because there is the next place on the itinerary to get to, the counting of pilgrims to be done (or the offering of information to other visitors who think I look as though I know what I am doing because I am wearing a clerical collar!)

The time I have had in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the Galilee has afforded the privilege of being able to look, to listen, to pray, and to ‘be’ in the places that countless millions of pilgrims have visited before me – amongst whom I have also been one in earlier years. There has been space to breathe, space simply to sit and to think – with nothing required of me except that I am in this place in this moment. The space afforded has meant that thoughts and prayers have been wide-ranging and often challenging. I have carried friends in my mind and reflected on how important they are to me. I have carried parishioners in my heart – those who are unwell, those who are in challenging situations, those who have celebrated important events in recent months, and everywhere I have gone, I have lit a candle for the people of my church and prayed for them (secretly hoping, I guess, that they are praying for me.)

Today’s journey was to Nazareth. The population of the town is city is Arab - both Christian and Muslim with the people of each faith living and working alongside each other quite happily for many, many centuries. It is a city that has seen much improvement in infrastructure over the past twenty years or so and it has a relaxed feel to it – quite different to Jerusalem.

I was looking forward to visiting the Basilica of the Annunciation, built over the site of the house of Mary and Joseph. Set across two levels, the lower level is spacious and simple, with beautiful contemporary stained glass windows that almost  to colour the air – adding to the ‘scene’ something of the joy and delight that must have filled Mary’s heart (alongside the absolute terror and fear I imagine she must have felt a) at the appearance of an angel and b) the news that she was to have baby!) Set at the farthest end away from the entrance is a chapel that, when the congregation is seated around the altar, they are facing the remains of the home that Mary and Joseph are believed to have inhabited. We were so lucky in our timing as there were very few other people visiting the Basilica and, although there was a Service of Holy Communion upstairs, the singing that carried over into the lower level was stunningly beautiful in its simplicity and added to my joy of being in this place. Time spent here is always a real gift and, although I find it hard to comprehend the way in which Mary managed to understand what was being asked of her, I am so glad that she answered, “Let it be to me according to your word”. I can spend ages in this part of the Church – gazing at the windows… wondering and wandering…

Outside the Basilica, the internal walls of the ‘compound’ are decorated with images of Mary created and gifted by various nations from across the world (these continue in the upper part of the Basilica too). Images of Mary with the infant Christ are also to be found in the Greek Orthodox Church of St Gabriel in the upper part of the city. Amongst the images is one in which the angel is holding out its hand in blessing to Mary, in whose womb is the infant Christ. I hadn’t noticed this painting before – I guess, because like so many others, I have looked over the ‘fence’ to gaze at the water below that bubbles up from one of the many springs in this area and from which Mary is believed to have collected water. Seeing this image reminded me of Damian Hirst’s Madonna exhibited some years ago at a Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. Considered controversial by some, I loved it – imaging as it does, a heavily pregnant Mary with Christ in her womb. Her breasts are ready to give milk for Jesus to feed on, and there we see the Incarnate God waiting to be born in the form in which his ministry would be seen and we could come to know him – the Word made flesh indeed.

I love it when artists surprise and challenge (even if I don’t like what they produce to surprise and challenge!) This Holy Land is full of surprise and challenge – for visiting the places in which Mary and Joseph lived and worked to care for Jesus, as well as the places where he taught and healed and prayed, bring surprise and challenge of their own. How will I respond? How am I being changed? What am I being led to think of, to pray for, to consider, to put aside… the answers to any of these questions will, if one is open, inspire and challenge in their own way.

We all need space and place to look, to listen, to pray, and to ‘be’… and I hope that you have space and place – and time – to do these things too. I also hope that you have the courage to be open the surprises and challenges you may discover along the way…

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