Wednesday: Earth Shrines and the Bible

The relentless pace of this conference (presentations and tours) finally eased some this afternoon with a lovely picnic at Shepherd’s Field in Beit Sahour.  (Of the three fields/caves that claim to be the place where angels announced Jesus’ birth to peasants watching their flocks— Catholic, Orthodox, and YMCA!—the last is the smallest and least touristic).  The wildflowers were out in force, as it rained yesterday, and we sat happily outside at last amidst young olive trees.  I repeatedly marvel at the similarity of the flora here to SoCal, and I only wish I could have stayed to watch the old Palestinian caretaker transplant fig starts.
After lunch we processed down to the limestone cave, and while the Swedes held a prayer service at the mouth, I retreated to the deepest recesses to have some alone time.  It’s a large cave; Omar says local shepherding families routinely used to live here.  It reminded me of the Tauferhole Elaine and I visited in the mountains of Switzerland, where the first Anabaptists used to hide out.  It’s pretty cool that today modern urban people visit the cave homes of poor peasants as holy places.  
Pictured above: Cave at Shepherd’s Field.  For more reflection on it, read on.
These backwater shrines, and even some of the major ones, are really starting to grow on me.  It’s easy to be dismissive, as I surely have been, of these sites as religious tourist traps, as they surely are.  But in the cool quiet of the cave I got to thinking about how utterly grounded such veneration is.  My own steady immersion “into the watershed” these last two decades has rendered me much more attuned to this sort of placed spirituality.
Throughout Palestine and Israel, from Elijah’s cave on Mt. Carmel to the springs flowing into the Sea of Galilee at Tabgha, these niches exude an ancient rapport between nature and the human spirit.  Even the most ornate churches will typically have some grotto or rock impinging upon the sanctuary, if not central to it.  “This is where such-and-such part of the sacred story happened.”  There is something sweet and  utterly premodern about the pride which locals take in their traditions.  However legendary, such claims are a gentle reminder that the biblical story is indivisibly terrestrial (however otherworldly most churches would make it).   What’s to deconstruct?  Such shrines, point us at once to the Story and to the land, and we need to be far more rooted in both. 
The highlight of the day’s presentations for me was a talk by Deborah Wiessman of the International Council of Christians and Jews and Yehiel Grenimann of Rabbis for Human Rights.  Israelis who stand for peace and justice in this land have an incredibly tough row to hoe, but these are tough people who do admirable work of witness and advocacy.  They lamented the fact that the worse things get on the ground, the harder it is to find venues for dialogue, so they welcomed the invitation to speak at Sabeel, despite the fact that they were the only Israeli voices represented.  I was delighted that both spoke favorably of the Reconstructionist movement within modern Judaism, since people like Art Waskow and Phyllis Berman are such wonderful allies and colleagues.  While I may disagree with them on things like BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions strategies) or the refugee return conundrum, I love their passion, humor and steadfastness to identity and values, and thank God for their integrity.