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A reminder of the extraordinary fragility of our lives

Do visits to holy sites really make us any more holy?


Over the decades of my life, I have managed to visit quite a few sites that have been described as holy, sacred or religious.

Beth-starThey include the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Taj Mahal in India, Buddhist temples in Japan and Thailand, the National Cathedral in Washington, St. Paul's Cathedral in London and several others.

Those several others include the spot on the Jordan River where tradition says Jesus of Nazareth was baptized by John the Baptist. As you may know, and as this BBC story describes, recently "Jordan announced an ambitious $100m (£83m) plan aimed at drawing a million Christians to (the Jordanian side of the site) in 2030, to commemorate what is seen as the 2,000th anniversary of Jesus's baptism."

(The top photo above here shows that spot on the river as I viewed it there on a trip to Israel in 2012.)

There are good reasons to preserve historic sites -- reasons both historical and religious. And, on the whole, I'm in favor of the effort to mark the site of Jesus's baptism, no matter on which side of the river it happened.

Cana-1 However, I also know that many spots in the Holy Land are marked as if they stand on the exact spot of, say, the famous wedding in Cana where Jesus turned water into wine (and where you'll find the sign seen at right) or the spot in the grotto (pictured above) of the Church of the Nativity where Jesus was born or the site in Mecca where, as Wikipedia says, "According to Islamic history, the Kaaba was rebuilt several times throughout history, most famously by Ibrahim (Abraham) and his son Ismail (Ishmael), when he returned to the valley of Mecca several years after leaving his wife Hajar (Hagar) and Ismail there upon Allah's command."

I've even walked down the steps into what a guide swore to me was the actual tomb in which Lazarus lay before Jesus brought him back to life.

All that strikes me as geographical literalism, and I don't take it seriously. In fact, I think we need to be cautious about the details of history that such sites are meant to show and honor.

But beyond that, I have a larger question: Do people spend more time on pilgrimages to holy sites than they do on their efforts to live by the creeds represented by those sites? Related to that question is this one: If seeing such sites doesn't move visitors to reexamine their faith commitments and maybe pledge to do better with that, are they very useful?

It's sort of like those people who try to visit every Major League Baseball park in the U.S. and Canada but who, when they're at the games, miss a lot of what's happening on the field because, as my friend and former Kansas City Star colleague Lee Judge has written in various venues, they just don't appreciate how the game is really played.

That's why they ignorantly call out "Balk! Balk!" when an opposing pitcher fakes a throw to pick a runner off of second base.

Maybe there should be a rule that people who are theologically and scripturally illiterate about the faith tradition to which they claim to belong aren't allowed to visit holy sites until they fix that illiteracy. But, no, let's not do that. Making a pilgrimage to such holy sites just might open the door to that very literacy.

That said, I don't plan to visit the Jesus baptism site ever again. If you go when and if it ever opens, send me photos and tell me whether it affected your religious beliefs or practices. I'll watch my email.

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Sometimes faith communities seem completely tone deaf. The latest example is the Church of England, which just apologized to LGBTQ+ people for its treatment of them but then, in the same statement, reaffirmed that such folks won't be allowed to get married in the church. How is that different from apologizing to women for the church's treatment of them but then not allowing them to be priests? (It took until the late 1970s for the Anglican version of the church in the U.S., the Episcopal Church, to ordain women as priests.) If it's worth issuing an apology, it's worth changing whatever action or policy caused the condition for which the church is apologizing.


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