City-Dwelling Shepherds: Thoughts Upon Leaving Jordan

No wonder we find metaphors about shepherds and sheep all throughout the Bible—here, in Jordan and the Holy Land, they are abundant.  Just drive a bit outside Amman and you’ll see little boys cleaning their sheep in the river or an old man guiding his flock across the highway. 

So it seemed quite appropriate with the Gospel reading at my last Mass at my English-language parish here spoke of the “good shepherd,” about the way God walks with us, and even carries us through life. 

As I reflect on my time in Jordan and those I’ve met and come to love here, I realize that shepherds are even more plentiful than what I’ve seen in the Jordanian countryside.  They are in my home and my university, in cabs and cafés.  They have carried me during the last four months.

In the way that shepherds make a home for their flock in places that may be far away and new, my friends and family here have done the same for me.  

When I was in Bethlehem recently, I bought a carved, wooden statue of Jesus carrying a small lamb.  I was drawn to it because of the way in which it captured the way God has been with me throughout my time in Jordan—through those the shepherds who have sheltered me, feed me, and simply given me room to play and grow in this new place. 

As I make my way back to the States, that statue will help me remember the shepherds I’ve met here, and the home that they will always provide for me here, whenever I return.

Me and Mary Magdalene

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might come and anoint Him. (Mark 16:1)

I press my face against the pink, veined marble slab, smeared with a fragrant oil that lingers on my neck and hands.  As I push myself from the cold ground, a tension forms in my throat and my vision blurs, but I can’t explain why I’m crying.

Why do tears build above my lower lids, if I know that this rose-colored stone is not where Jesus’ body was washed and wrapped?  If I know that this black sepulcher, whose ashy walls rise into the shadows of the ancient church, is not its final resting place?

Wandering through the empty darkness, I find the chapel of Mary Magdalene situated next to the sepulcher, where a small group of priests, nuns, and brown-clad monks chant the Latin Mass.  The words are strange to my ear but the familiar intonation, which I haven’t heard in months, awakens the waters deep within the well of my chest and draws up buckets that slosh over my lap.  So I sit in Mary’s pews, crying, not wanting to leave the tomb.

And Mary Magdalene was there, and the other Mary, sitting opposite the grave. (Matthew 27:61)

~~~

Days later, I wander through a garden, the purple light of dawn rising over the rock-hewn tomb, and the breeze gently tapping the trees’ leaves.  I’ve imagined this place countless times before—even the red flowers that pop through the dirt and the boulders resting on their sides.

The worshippers packed in rows for the sunrise Easter service are only apparitions that float away like mist, and their loud songs of praise are muffled by the quiet coos of doves resting in the twisted arms of olive trees.

Like the woman with dark hair and a red shawl who waited in this garden many years ago, I too sit alone, waiting for a friend to call my name.

And just like he promised, there he is.  On the stone steps, under the green branches that dip and bend.

He pulls me in, my face pressed into the crevice of his shoulder.  Into the white, woven linen that smells of the oil I spread across the pink marble.

I am drawn in, sown in tightly like the threads that rub against my cheek.  I wonder if this embrace has lasted for eternity, and then realize that eternity itself is this embrace.

When he steps away, and when the mist condenses into human forms once again, the scent of oil lingers in my hair.

I feel a flutter of white wings, splashing around in the waters of my chest.  The wind slips across my neck and drags a trail of clear water down my face.

I now realize why I cried in the dark church.  It’s because I, like Mary, desire to be close to Jesus.

And, I cry here, in the brightness of the sunrise, because I, like Mary, am so desired by God, and pulled into his warm embrace.

She turned around and saw Jesus there…[He] said to her, “Mary!” (John 20: 14, 16)

~~~

This piece describes my visits to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, which are both considered potential sites for the Jesus’ burial and resurrection.  My experience in the garden was shaped by my favorite resurrection account in the Gospel of John, which was read at the sunrise Easter service I attended there.   

I would like to thank a Georgetown Jesuit who introduced me to this story, which has greatly shaped the way I approach my life with God.

Last Easter, which was coincidentally one year ago today, I wrote about Mary Magdalene as well.  That reflection, Praying with Mary Magdalene, is closely linked to this one.

Outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
A pilgrim reverencing a stone in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that commemorates the washing of Jesus' body before burial in the sepulchre. The slab was only placed in the church within the last two centuries, to replace a 12th century one that was there previously.
A sculpture in the chapel of Mary Magdalene in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Jesus appears to Mary after the resurrection.
In the Garden Tomb at sunrise on Easter Sunday.
The red flowers that I'd always imagined in the Garden Tomb, without knowing they were actually there.

Attentiveness in Advent

Every year during Advent, the four-week season leading up to Christmas, Catholics hear passages from Scripture that remind us to be watchful and ready for the coming of Christ.   These passages explain that we are not only awaiting the celebration of Jesus’ birth, but also for his second coming at the end of time.

Advent wreath in Georgetown's Dahlgren Chapel

Gabriel tells Mary about the birth of her son.
Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. (Luke 1)

John tells his critics that he is not the Messiah.
There is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me. (John 1)

And Jesus tells his disciples to prepare for his second coming at the end of time.
Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming. (Mark 13)

To be honest, every year during Advent I feel a bit bashed over the head with these constant reminders about Jesus’ coming.  ‘Ok, ok, I get it!’ I think after the third week. The message never seems all that surprising or relevant. We surely never forget to celebrate Jesus’ birth—even amid the red and green Christmas regalia—and the event of the second coming seems far away (and, in my mind, not quite as concrete as the way it’s described in Scripture.)

Thankfully, this year these concerns of mine were addressed by two Georgetown Jesuits, whose homilies on the Advent Scripture passages helped clarify what this season is all about.

These two events we hear about—Jesus’ first coming at Christmas and his second coming at the end of time—are at the ends of a very long timeline of history, a Jesuit said, and we are in the middle, distant from them.  What we really should be preparing ourselves for are the third, fourth, and fifth comings of Christ that happen in between.  The times when Jesus breaks into our lives in ordinary and unexpected ways.

As Christians, we believe in the Incarnation, the act of God taking on human form in the person of Jesus.  The Incarnation isn’t a singular event that happened two millennia ago, but rather a fundamental doctrine that tells us in quite simple terms about how we understand God: God wants to be with us, here and now, and reaches out to us through human experience. A belief in Jesus doesn’t ask us to remove ourselves from this world in order to be with God; it says that we can best achieve unity with God by engaging fully with our human reality.

The question is, do we notice Jesus’ third, fourth, fifth, and infinite comings, these expressions of the recurring Incarnation?

Unfortunately, the Jesuit said, we often don’t.  We’re too connected to our phones, music, and email.  And even when we put the technology away, our minds are running at 100 miles per hour, thinking ahead about the ways in which we can be as efficient as possible.  We don’t give ourselves time to reflect back on our days, to find the times in which Jesus has appeared to us.  During Advent then, we must be actively attentive to the Incarnation, to God’s countless attempts to push through the clutter of our lives.

Knowing that I’m guilty of this lack of attentiveness as much as the next person, I welcomed this challenge from the Jesuit.  It’s a challenge I have already been working on for much of my time at Georgetown: to slow down enough to notice Jesus in my life.

And, thankfully, I have begun to notice.

When a chaplain-in-residence passed me on campus several weeks back, he said, “Hey Jordan!” and gave me a quick fist bump. It was a simple, silly gesture, one that the chaplain probably forgot about two minutes later. But for me, it was a brief, yet powerful example of the way Jesus appears to me everyday.  With his short but enthusiastic hello, the chaplain reminded me of the great love God has for me, reflected through ordinary people and ordinary situations.

I recognized the significance of this small act because I wasn’t talking on my cell phone (as I often do when I walk) or mentally preoccupied with my next task.  By simply slowing down, I was also able to recognize that the jokes I shared with my friends, the music the choir sang at Mass, and the beautiful sunset that burst into view as I turned a corner in one of the most ugly parts of campus are all little third, fourth, and fifth comings of Christ.

Most if not all of the time, “finding Jesus” isn’t about having a mystical experience or undergoing a massive life change.  It’s about simply realizing that a hug from a mentor or a laugh with a friend is the mystery of Incarnation at work. 

It’s not always easy to realize, in the moment, that many of these everyday experiences are of God and from God.  It takes a moment of stepping back and reflecting.  In a homily later during Advent, another Georgetown Jesuit encouraged the congregation to reflect back on the ways Jesus has shown himself to us.  We closed our eyes.

Jesus “brings good tidings to the poor,” he said, quoting the day’s reading from Isaiah.  When you were down or depressed, how did others bring you up?  Recognize these moments, he said, and name Jesus as gift.

He continued: Jesus “heals the broken-hearted.” When you were broken-hearted or hurt, who helped you heal?  Jesus “proclaims liberty to the captives” and “releases the prisoners.”  When you were prisoner to your own habits or feelings of inadequacy, how did others free you from those things?  Be thankful for these moments, and name Jesus as gift.

When read in full, the Isaiah passage makes clear that the “good tidings” we hear from Jesus don’t come to us in abstract terms, but through the smiles and fist bumps of those around us. He says, “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me … he has sent me to bring good tidings…” We, humans, are the way in which God reaches out to the world.

This reflective exercise allowed me to think back on the at once simple and profound ways that I experienced love from friends, family, and mentors during past semester. When one part of my life felt empty, they (often times unknowingly) would rush in fill it up that hole to the point of overflowing.  Their outpouring of support and love was Jesus—God Incarnate.  It was a gift, and I must constantly reflect back in gratefulness in order not to miss it.

As we move into the Christmas season and begin the new year, we need not look for God outside of the normalcy of our everyday lives.  Instead we just to be more attentive to what’s already around us.  We must remember what we celebrate on Christmas: Emmanuel—“God is with us.”

This quote was cited by the first Jesuit during his Advent homily.