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Pilgrimage to the Holy Land – Dec. 23, 2018

I was privileged recently to go on a pilgrimage with Fr. Dwight Longenecker and forty-eight other pilgrims to the Holy Land.  We were retracing the steps of the Magi from Jordan into Israel.  The pilgrimage was based on the historical detective work that Fr. Longenecker produced in his book Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men. One of the main points of this intriguing book is to demythologize the story of the Magi and root them in history.  Why does this story need demythologizing?  There is nothing overtly harmful to the faith in the present-day retelling of the “three kings,” typically named “Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar,” who come from distant countries like “Persia, Babylonia, and India.”  The only issue is that parts of it are fable.  It is these fable-parts that are used to attack the faith, calling it just another made-up myth of the Church.  Fr. Longenecker’s book blunts this attack by placing the Magi in a historical context.

Modern secularists like to cast a wide net, portraying not only Christmas, but also the life of Christ as fable.  They say there was no virgin birth, no miracles, and no resurrection.  According to them, we can know very little about the historical Jesus, what he did or said, or even if he existed at all.  God becoming man is just another made-up story, falling into the genre of ancient Near East mystery religions.  In short, Jesus is a myth.  Worse yet, the people who believe the myth are foolhardy and weak of mind.  Marx and Lenin called religion the ‘opium for the people.’  Prominent atheist Richard Dawkins even goes so far as to write children’s books trying “to save kids” from the perils of religion.  Christmas is scary!  

In one sense, they are right.  Christianity is myth.  Christianity highlights the themes of good and evil, tragedy and triumph, supernatural feats and ordinary failings.  The archetypal hero with a thousand faces can be seen in the Bible.  These profound undercurrents of truth run deeply through the human soul.  Christianity is a myth, but it is, as C. S. Lewis called, a ‘true myth:’ “a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.”  God’s myth is greater than man’s myth, as it is incarnational in nature.

C.S. Lewis’ good friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, penned a modern-day mythic tale in his Lord of the Rings books, weaving in Catholic themes about heroes, truth, death and redemption.  G.K. Chesterton spoke about Christianity as the fulfillment of myth as well: “The Catholic faith is the reconciliation because it is the realization both of mythology and philosophy.  It is a story and in that sense one of a hundred stories; only it is a true story.” God’s true story is revealed to us in the events of the life of Christ.    

Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton used myth in the truest and most profound sense of the word.  That is, all the spiritual truths that percolated up into ancient man’s mind found their realization in the person of Christ. The use of myth today is more of the petty, slanderous kind, with accusations of “untruth.” Think of the ancient Christian “Icthys”fish symbol (“Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior” used by 1st century Christians to mark secret meeting spots in the time of pagan persecutions), which is now mocked on cars with the labels “science” or “Darwin.”  The irony is that the more science digs into Christianity, the more evidence of its truth is discovered.  This has been no more evident than in recent Biblical archeological discoveries.  

Fr. Longenecker’s book establishes the Magi in history, just as many of the archeological sites we visited on our pilgrimage fix Judaism and Christianity in history.  There are the caves at Qumran near the shores of the Dead Sea where nearly a thousand scrolls or fragments of scrolls were discovered beginning in 1947.  These are the writings from the Jewish religious sect known as the Essenes, contemporaries of Jesus.  The archeological discovery found copies, in part or in whole, for nearly all the books of the Hebrew Bible, except Esther. More importantly, the 2,000-year-old scrolls show only minor divergences from modern translations of the Old Testament. This proves the many textual critics of the Bible wrong.  The text of the Bible has remained intact and substantially unchanged throughout its history. 

The pilgrimage also allowed us to see first-hand that we are now in a ‘golden age’ of biblical archeology.  Ironically (to some), this golden age is powered by scientific advancements and new disciplines; things like archaeoastronomy, Lidar studies, and ground penetrating radar, to name just a few.  There are examples of new discoveries everywhere you go in Israel and Jordan. In 1986, two fisherman and amateur archeologists uncovered the “Jesus boat” in the muddy lakebed in the Sea of Galilee during a severe drought.  The fishing boat was radiocarbon-dated to between 120 B.C.-40 A.D., or roughly the time of Christ.  The Apostles would have fished in a boat exactly like this one.  In 2004, the “Pool of Siloam” was discovered, where Jesus cured a blind man by having him wash mud out of his eyes. (Jn. 9:7)  A drainage repair crew working on pipe maintenance uncovered large stone steps down into the pool.  In 2007, archeologists discovered the long-lost tomb of Herod at his Herodium fortress.  In 2009, while building a retreat house along the northern side of the Sea of Galilee, crews unearthed the remains of a first century synagogue at Magdala (home of Mary Magdalene).  This discovery is now the oldest synagogue in the Galilee, with the oldest known representation of the Temple on the “Magdala Stone,” and is likely one of the hallowed grounds where Jesus frequented and taught.  

In October 2016, a renovation project funded by National Geographic was done at the tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  Some historians had previously believed that the original cave was not there, not that old, or doubted that this was the actual site of Christ’s burial (and resurrection) at all.  An archeologist using ground-penetrating radar, however, proved them wrong.  He was able to determine that the original cave walls were, in fact, still present. The simple cave is still there underneath the millennium of marble, icons and incense of the ornate Edicule shrine. 

Mortar samples, taken from between the limestone cave-surface and the marble slab of the tomb, carbon-dated to about 345 A.D.  This is exactly the right time frame when the Emperor Constantine would have discovered the tomb and built the current shrine around it.  The Emperor Hadrian had built a pagan temple to Venus over the Christian holy site, as a means to cover up Christ’s burial spot, and presumably to stop Christian worship there.  Constantine subsequently destroyed the pagan shrine and excavated the site around 326 A.D., nearly matching the 345 A.D. date, and lending credence to this being the actual location of Christ’s tomb.  Modern science again proved the historical veracity of Christianity.  

At no place in the pilgrimage did Old Testament typology burst forth more into New Testament history than at “Shepherd’s Field,” an eastern suburb of Bethlehem.  It is the site traditionally where the angel announced the birth of Christ to the shepherds tending to their sheep.  The shepherds were the precursors to the Magi in worshiping the Christ child.  The prophet Micah had made an ancient prophecy (8th century B.C.) of the birthplace of the Messiah in the city of David, Bethlehem: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me, one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.”(Micah 5:2)  The Messiah, “the Son of David,” would be born in Bethlehem, like King David before him. 

This is the prophecy that was cited to king Herod by his wise men, when the Magi came looking for the newborn king of the Jews.  Herod also perverted this into his maniacal slaughter of the innocence in Bethlehem.  At Shepherd’s Field, the angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds, saying: “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”(Lk. 2:12) This “sign” would be the fulfillment of Micah’s prophecy.  The shepherds and the location were not coincidental either.  

These were no ordinary sheep and no ordinary shepherds.  Shepherd’s Field is where thousands of lambs were born and used for the daily sacrifices, and more importantly, the Passover sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem, as intimated in the ancient Jewish oral tradition of the Mishnah(e.g., Shekalim, 7.4) and Alfred Edersheim’s The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Bk.2, Ch.6).  The “shepherds” were not ordinary shepherds either, but most likely Levite priests.  They were specifically stationed there at Shepherd’s Field to pasture the sheep and preserve the newborn lambs ‘without blemish’or ‘broken bone,’ to meet the requirements of the Law for Temple sacrifices.  The unblemished lambs were then chosen from Shepherd’s Field in Bethlehem and kept for the annual Passover sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Shepherd’s Field and Bethlehem highlight the convergence of Christ, biblical prophecy, God’s true myth, and archeology.  Jesus was the fulfillment of the angel’s announcement to the shepherd-priests. It is fitting that when the shepherds came to the manger, they found not a baby lamb, but the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.  Jesus is the true ‘Lamb of God,’who was the fulfillment of the Passover sacrifice of the lamb, in order to take away sin and keep us from death.  John the Baptist knew Jesus fulfilled this typology of the Passover lamb, saying: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”(Jn. 1:29)  Like many of the Christian sites in the Holy Land, the scriptures, Old Testament typology, and history come together to reveal the divine plan in the person of Jesus Christ.

Diving even deeper into the Old Testament symbology, Jesus is the Passover lamb who must be eaten. He is the fulfillment of God’s true myth rooted in history.  The little town of Bethlehem means ‘house of bread’ in Hebrew and ‘house of meat’ in Arabic. Bethlehem intimates the ‘bread and flesh’ of Jesus in the Eucharist.  Jesus was also placed in a manger (i.e., a feeding trough), symbolism hinting that he is food that gives life.  It is no wonder that when the shepherd-priests found the newborn Christ-child, as the angel had announced, “all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.”(Lk. 2:18) This same wonder is with us still in the ongoing afterglow of the birth of Christ.

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The Lord of the Rings and the Eucharist

As J.R.R. Tolkien declared, “The Lord of the Rings is, of course, a fundamentally religious and Catholic work… the religion is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.” This is possibly no more obvious than in Tolkien’s description of lembas. As Tolkien introduced them into The Lord of the Rings, “The food was mostly in the form of very thin cakes, made of a meal that was baked a light brown on the outside, and inside was the colour of cream. Gimli took up one of the cakes and looked at it with a doubtful eye.” It was a special, almost supernatural, bread-like food given by the Elves of Lothlorien to the hobbit members of the fellowship on their journey. The elves describe the lembas to them saying, “..we call it lembas or waybread, and it is more strengthening than any food made by Men, and it is more pleasant then cram, by all accounts. … Eat little at a time and only at need. For these things are given to serve you when all else fails.” Lembas, or the “waybread,” is meant to sustain them in their deepest and darkest trials.

The Eucharistic tones and parallels are undeniable. The Eucharist has been called the “food of angels,” or as in Tolkien terms, the food of Elves. Gimli, the dwarf, initially even looked at it with a “doubtful eye” thinking it was just ordinary bread made by men, harkening the disbelief in the Eucharist among many, especially in the modern world. He quickly realizes this is not any ordinary bread. The unique and special qualities of lembas are depicted throughout the tale. As Merry and Pippin talk of it at one particularly stressful moment in the journey while trying to escape Orcs, “The cakes were broken, but good, still in their leaf wrappings. The hobbits each ate two or three pieces. The tasted brought back to them the memory of fair faces, and laughter, and wholesome food in quiet days, heedless of the cries and sounds of battle nearby.” They continue saying, “Lembas does put heart into you! A more wholesome sort of feeling, too, than the heat of that orc-draught. I wonder what it was made of.”

As the hobbits journey deeper into danger and to the very epicenter of evil, Mount Doom, the lembas play an increasingly significant role. Sam and Frodo are following their path of self-sacrifice, even to the possible end of laying down their lives for the love of their friends, for which, in Christian terms, “there is no greater love.” They are analogously on their way of the Cross. On the contrary, the evil characters find the lembas repulsive. Tolkien describes the Orcs’ reactions saying, “But I guess they disliked the very look and smell of the lembas, worse than Gollum did. It’s scattered about and some of it is trampled and broken, but I’ve gathered it together.” When the two hobbits reached the point when there was “no hope anymore” came Tolkien’s most poignant description of the lembas: “The lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die. It did not satisfy desire, and at times Sam’s mind was filled with the memories of food, and the longing for simple bread and meats. And yet this waybread of the Elves had a potency that increased as travellers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.” The lembas sustained the two hobbit sojourners in their darkest hour, not by feeding them necessarily physically but by feeding their will. The waybread also evokes the viaticum, “a provision for the journey,” that is, the Communion given to people on their deathbed. It is the Eucharist for the journey, or the “waybread,” home towards one’s death. There are differences however. For one, lembas are not described as having any divine qualities, whereas the Eucharist is the divine sacrament of the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ. Additionally, the Eucharist is not just meant for times when all else fails, as lembas are described, but rather for our daily journeys. The two hobbits on their way fraught with death and destruction relied completely upon this waybread.

We too are all on our journeys to our inevitable deaths. Christ has left us His Body and Blood in the heavenly sacrament of the Eucharist.  It is our sustenance in this life. It is our waybread. Like the humble and seemingly weak hobbits, we must take our waybread in order to heroically, and against all odds, ascend the Mount Dooms in all our lives and complete our missions. As Tolkien confessed, he at first unconsciously, and later consciously, wove Catholic ideas and themes into the story. Tolkien was not out to re-create a Christian world or myth. Rather, he tried to create a literary myth to point towards the truths of the real world. The primary thrust of the story, as Tolkien said in one of his letters, is “about death and the desire for deathlessness,” two notions central to mythology and Christianity. As G.K. Chesterton spoke of Christianity as the fulfillment of myth, “The Catholic faith is the reconciliation because it is the realization both of mythology and philosophy. It is a story and in that sense one of a hundred stories; only it is a true story.”

We are the real-life Sam’s and Frodo’s. They are metaphors of us, as Christians, taking up our crosses, amidst our tribulations, while being sustained by the Eucharist. Though we are “weak” and “ordinary” people (hobbits if you will), we can achieve great and heroic ends by staying on the narrow paths of our simple faith journeys. Our lembas, the Eucharist, strengthens our wills and spirits, and presses us up the mountain, even when we would rather turn back and give up. But, it is up to us to choose: to give up or to not give up; to follow Christ or to not follow Christ. Tolkien’s literary myth spells out the lucid choice each one of us is to make of our own freewill between life and death, and good and evil. As Frodo laments the fact that the evil ring has come into his possession and the apparent hopelessness of the situation, Gandalf says to him: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” And so it is with each one of us to decide. Yet, as Tolkien slowly reveals Aragorn, the Christ-King archetype, he repeatedly declares to Sam and Frodo, “be not afraid.” In the end, even if, as Frodo, after our long journeys into the darkness, we remain faithful, but seemingly fall short in our mission, God’s grace can still save us.



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