Saturday, May 16, 2015

Pilgrimage 3: Biblical Literalism vs Embodiment in the Holy Land

--> Entry for 15 May 2015:

Below the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth there is a hole in the ground, the cave where according to tradition Mary lived with her family.  Thus, by inference, this is the place were she received a message from God telling her that she was pregnant with the Messiah.  (As my mother often noted, angels don’t just carry messages, they ARE messages.  By tradition, the name of the angel in this case was Gabriel, Hebrew for “God is my strong one”. )

This cave is just a small room, a cell really, seen in cross-section, with the fourth wall missing.  At the back there are stairs leading up to the surface.  The room contains a shrine like an altar, bearing the words, “Verbum caro hic factum est”, which translates roughly as, “Here the Word is made flesh”.  This reference to the Gospel of John isn’t meant as some kind of poetic license or metaphor; it’s supposed to be taken literally.  If there is metaphor involved here, it’s in the image of God as logos, that is, the order or meaning of the universe.  The words are saying that in this place the Order or Meaning of the universe is becoming embodied in the baby that Mary conceives at this moment. 

We/I can quibble whether this is in fact the case with all babies, that they/we each are deeply imprinted with the meaning and order of the whole Universe.  However, although this in itself a miracle, I’m trying to talk about something else here.  Similarly, we/I can argue about whether “Word” (“Verbum”) is a literal description or instead a metaphor for God.  On the one hand, if God is unknowable, then all descriptions of God have to be metaphors; on the other hand, if “Word” is to be taken as a literal description of God, then whatever we understand to be the ultimate order or meaning of the everything there is, that is God.  In modern physics this includes the five physical forces, relativity, quantum mechanics, the 9 or 13 dimensions posited by String Theory, and so on; these are God.

I don’t know which if either of these two interpretations I prefer, but I do know that there is something very powerful about the sheer physicality of experiencing God in an embodied way, for example:
• The experience in my body of the physical beauty of the early morning sun burning a golden red path across the Sea of Galilee, which fills me excitement and energy;
• The expanse of the green hills and valleys we saw the other day from the high point of Sepphoris, which brings a sense of calm and peace;
Mary's Cave, Nazareth
• The sense of deep connectedness or bodily resonance with other people that comes at times in church or in fleeting moments of deep contact that can happen in psychotherapy. 

In these days here in Galilee, however, I’m picking up another kind of embodiment:  The stories I’ve heard and read since childhood come alive and are concretised so that they are no longer just stories made up of words.  Here is: Mary’s little cave room, as real as my childhood bedroom, where she experienced a Message from God, a message that was a baby. These aren’t just stories; they are news accounts, however fallible, of things that happened to people I might have known and shaken hands with, people I can identify with, who recognisably have the same kinds of fears and hopes as I do. Embodied stories; words made flesh.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

A couple philological comments:
Angel comes from the Greek ἄγγελος, which literally means messenger (with no religious connotations until the Christian era), which in turn comes from the verb ἀγγέλλω, to announce.
Aside from the liberty taken with capitalization, your translation of "Verbum caro hic factum est" isn't a rough translation, it's an exact translation.