This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is belsen-grave1.jpg
Mass grave at Bergen-Belsen camp. Inscription says, “Here rest 1,000 dead, April 1945.”
Memorial stones and Israeli flag are placed on monument in observance of Jewish tradition.

One of the spiritual exercises I try to practice is something the Jesuits call “creative prayer” or Ignatian contemplation — after St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the order — that involves placing yourself in a biblical story and imagining how you would have experienced it. But I had a real problem with this year’s lectionary reading for the Second Sunday in Advent. It’s St. Matthew’s version of the familiar story of John the Baptist — wearing animal skins, eating locusts and wild honey, and crying out in the wilderness, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Very familiar, but this year I found it disturbing.

The part that bothered me goes like this:

Matthew 3:7 — But when [John] saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Knowing what we know in the 21st century — the whole tragic story of anti-Semitism aided and abetted by Christian leaders for at least 1,700 years leading up to the holocaust — I’d like to think if I’d been there on the banks of the River Jordan, I would have shouted, “Stop! Don’t go there. You have no idea where this is going to lead …” But more likely, knowing myself, I guess I would have gotten out of there immediately, trudged back up to Jerusalem and made my peace with the scribes and Pharisees. Who knows what’s right?

Either way, when heard the pericope I felt like I needed to think it over. Meditate on it.

And Ignatian contemplation seemed like a good way to get into it. James Martin, editor at large of the Jesuit magazine America, recommends we “compose the place,” or visualize the scene of a passage, and listen for God’s presence. “Try to imaginatively place yourself in a scene from the Gospels,” he says in an interview. “Ask yourself, ‘What do I see? What do I hear? What do I feel, taste and smell?’ And again, see what comes up.”

As Martin describes it, the steps are laid out precisely — “Ignatius wasn’t a military guy for nothing” — but there’s an element of surprise in it.

“I just close my eyes, and try to ‘compose the place’,” he said in the America interview, “imagining the scene with my interior senses, and then I let God take the lead. Usually I’m using the Daily Mass readings, almost always the Gospel reading. And then I let God take me where God wants to go.”

Well, when I closed my eyes, I started out with John the Baptist on the banks of the Jordan River. I’ve visited there, so that part was easy.

But John’s language about the Pharisees and the Sadducees — language that reflects “the often subtle elements of Christian thought that have aggravated anti-Semitic feeling for centuries,” as a reporter paraphrased Krister Stendahl, a Swedish theologian who taught for many years at Harvard Divinity School — was troubling. And it led me far away.

Quite unexpectedly, in fact, it led my thoughts to the German concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, which I’ve also visited.

Composing the two places together, I couldn’t help thinking John the Baptist started something on the banks of the Jordan that would culminate 2,000 years later in the horrors of Nazi Germany. And I was left with the question: What can I, as a Christian, do in my small way to help ensure that it never happens again?

A historical-critical scenario

As I “compose the place” to begin my meditation, I picture myself as a perfectly ordinary guy in the crowd that came down from Jerusalem to hear John preach. Trying to put myself in the scene without too many historical inaccuracies, I imagine I’m from Capernaum. (I’ve been there, too, on the same tour of the Holy Land in 2012.) This place whete is the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism, known as “Bethany beyond the Jordan” in ancient times and as Qasr al-Yahud in the present.

Since in my imagination I’m an ordinary guy from Galilee, the place on the Jordan River is pretty far away from my home turf. But I might be down in Jerusalem for one of the temple festivals (if I’m from Capernaum, it goes without saying, I’m Jewish), probably with a group of Galileans. And it wouldn’t be to far out of the way for us to go down through the wilderness to check out this new prophet on the way home. It’s only 8.4 kilometers from Bethany to Jericho, where the road from Jerusalem turns north and leads back to Galilee.

So we’re at the edges of the crowd, and John the Baptist is standing next to the river. It’s parched, desert, a level wasteland of dry rocks and sand stretching down from the hills and dry wadis leading up to Jerusalem. John certainly looks like a prophet with that long, unkempt hair and camel-skin coat.

And he certainly sounds like a prophet.

Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand, he’s saying. Times are troubled here in first-century Palestine, and we’ve had any number of healers, magicians and prophets proclaiming a new kingdom and an end to the Roman kingdom here lately. Sometimes when they’ve worked up a lather, they’ll proclaim the end of days. Lo an anointed one will come to rally the people of Judah and Galilee, even Samaria; do wondrous things; and kick the Romans out. And they always call out the powers that be, the Sadducees and the temple priesthood, for various sins and transgressions. So this guy is right in line with that.

Now he’s quoting scripture:

This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.”

But what’s going on here? Is John talking about himself, or is he talking about the anointed one who’s going to show us the way? Hard to tell. This sure doesn’t sound like an anointed one, though. Certainly not the one they call the messiah. If he were really anointed, neither one of them would be howling in the wilderness …

Wait — now there’s a delegation of people that look like temple priests shouldering their way through the crowd and stepping right up to John on the riverbank. And he doesn’t like that at all. I don’t either! Why in blue blazes can’t they just get in line like everybody else?

He’s practically yelling at them now. You brood of vipers! Yeah, I’m thinking. Who invited you to come up front? He continues lecturing them. You’ve got plenty to repent anyway, and you’d better damn well do it, too. And start practicing what you preach, while you’re at it. Don’t think you’re any better than anybody else, he’s saying, just because you’re in tight with the high priest’s family and the Romans up in Jerusalem. And I’m thinking, Preach, brother! Let ’em have it!

But then John goes on to something else, and it’s unsettling. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Whoa! What in blue blazes does he mean by that? Aren’t we the children of Abraham already? And what’s wrong with saying Abraham’s children, anyway? What are we, chopped liver? We’re Jewish, aren’t we?

Now John’s very clearly talking about another prophet. The anointed one? Somebody who’s coming along soon, anyway, and he’s going to be really, really powerful — I am not worthy to carry his sandals, John’s saying — and, buddy, this new guy’s really going to clean house. And he’s going to baptize everybody with fire instead of water. (I’m not too sure about that, either. If I had any choice, I think I’d settle for the water.) And some of this stuff sounds downright ominous. He will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. Who’s the wheat and who’s the chaff here? The priests? The Romans? Me?

Now I don’t mind it if this John the Baptist guy takes out after the Saducees. They’re in way too tight with the Romans, and they’re just like everybody else in power — they get fat and happy, and they’ve forgotten where they came from. The law, Torah, applies to them just as much as it does to me.

But the Pharisees are pretty much like everybody else, at least back in Capernaum. They read Torah, and they know it, and they’re pretty good folks. What have they done to get winnowed with everlasting fire? Plus, I’ve got to confess, this business about raising up stones instead of the children of Abraham spooks me a little. To replace us? Why?

So I’m confused, and I can’t put my finger on it, but I’ve got a bad feeling some of this stuff isn’t exactly going to be good news for the children of Israel.

But what do I know?

There’s a couple of guys from home who came down here to follow John the Baptist a while back. Andrew bar Jonah whose brother lives in Capernaum. A couple of his Greek friends from Bethsaida? I’ll see if I can look them up next time they’re up our way, and maybe they can explain it to me.

In the meantime, I wait my turn and shuffle forward with the rest of the crowd as they’re baptized one by one. In the shuffle, I realize I’ve lost sight of the Sadducees from Jerusalem. Did they get baptized? I kind of hope they did, and it’d be nice if they change their ways, but frankly I’m not optimistic.

Finally we get up to the front, and I’m baptized myself. It’s getting late in the day, and it’s a long way home (120 kilometers). So we start out immediately. Maybe we can make it to Jericho by nightfall.

Composing the place(s): The Jordan and Bergen-Belsen

Well, I’m sure my scenario isn’t what the Jesuits had in mind for Ignatian contemplation, but I keep getting tripped up by John’s language about the Pharisees and Sadducees. So when I imagine myself at the River Jordan, listening to John preach and baptize the multitudes who come down from Jerusalem, I have a sense of dramatic irony — of unforeseen consequences — that casts a pall over everything.

Even the setting — the place — is deeply ironic.

The traditional baptismal site at Qasr al-Yahud is literally on the border now between the Arab kingdom of Jordan and the Israeli-occupied West Bank. It’s in a minefield slowly being cleared of explosives left from the 1967 war between Israel and Jordan and its aftermath; the actual border consists of a barbed-wire fence in the middle of the river, studded with red-and-yellow signs in Hebrew, English and Arabic warning “DANGER / MINES!”

The name Qasr al-Yahud, which means “castle of the Jews” in English, refers to a nearby Greek Orthodox monastery dedicated to St. John the Forerunner (John the Baptist to western-rite Christians), evacuated during the 1967 war. Jewish tradition holds it was the place where the children of Israel crossed the Jordan during the Exodus and the prophet Elijah ascended to heaven. So it’s named after the castle where the Jews crossed into Judah.

Knowing all that, I can’t get all those overlays of history out of my mind as I imagine myself 2,000 years ago listening to John the Baptist at Qasr al-Yahud.

And another image of another place pops into my mind. A year before our tour of the Holy Land, Debi and I visited the memorial at Bergen-Belsen in northern Germany. It consists of a small museum and documentation center at the edge of the area once occupied by adjacent concentration camps for Jews and Eastern European civilians, POWs and — in 1945, when the Nazi German government was collapsing — undocumented prisoners from all over. (Debi’s Uncle Curtis was there as an American POW.) It is immense, wide swaths cleared through a northern European forest of birch trees and evergreens where the camp buildings once stood. (They were burned after liberation in 1945, to control a typhus epidemic.) And, even on a sunny day in August, there was something empty and oppressive about it. I don’t know how else to put it — I had an overpowering sense of absence and loss.

But off to the side of a walkway through the birch forest, there was a mass grave cut into the turf. “Hier ruhe 1,000 tote,” says the inscription. Here rest 1,000 dead. With the date, April 1945, when the camps were liberated. (See picture at the head of this post.) The top of the grave marker was covered with small stones and a little blue-and-white Israeli flag, left there in accordance with Jewish custom as a sign of respect for the dead and a token of permanence in spite of the fragility of life.

And I was moved by the thought of all the anonymous hands who had placed those stones, and the little flag, where a thousand people had been buried in one of the smaller graves at this holocaust memorial. My Lutheran faith tradition says God relies on our hands to perform God’s work, and surely God was at work here. Is at work here to this day.

I’m famous for going off on tangents. Ask any of my old students. But I don’t think this image of another place — a holy place, to my mind — is a tangent. “Not everything that pops into your mind is from God, of course,” Fr. Martin says in his America magazine interview on Jesuit contemplation. But, he adds, anything that “helps you feel closer to God, or, as Ignatius says, builds you up, encourages you, gives you hope, is probably coming from God.” Something about those memorial stones placed on top of that mass grave at Bergen-Belsen, and the hands that placed them there, gave me hope. Gives me hope.

And I don’t think it was an accident the image popped into my mind, especially while I was meditating on the long, tragic history that led from the banks of the Jordan at Qasr al-Yehud down through the centuries to Martin Luther — Luther’s anti-Semitism is part of this history, too, as much as I would like to leave him out of it — and from Luther to the Germans, the Nazis and, ultimately, to survivors of the holocaust remembering the past and hoping for the future. Working to ensure it never happens again.

Krister Stendahl, whom I quoted above on the “often subtle elements of Christian thought that have aggravated anti-Semitic feeling,” made that hope an important part of his life’s work.

A Swedish Lutheran, Stendahl “was painfully aware of how Martin Luther’s tract on ‘The Jews and their Lies’ was dredged up the Nazis to rationalize extermination of Jews in World War II,” according to a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor who interviewed him in 1981.The holocaust may have been an aberration, he told Richard Harley of the Monitor, but much the language of Christianity is problematic.

“Most acts of anti-semitism have indeed been isolated acts,” he said. “But the question we need to ask is: To what extent are these acts occurring in a Christian culture that pictures Jews as despicable? Now when there is psychological need for scapegoats, you can never say that anti-Semitic acts are Christian acts. But they are not disconnected. Christians have a responsibility.”

Which brings me back to John the Baptist on the banks of the River Jordan and the pericope for the Second Sunday in Advent.

The kingdom of heaven, Matthew 3 and Tikkun Olam

Not that John the Baptist was an anti-Semite. Or a Christian, for that matter. Those distinctions came later. In fact, if I’m reading Krister Stendhal correctly, the kingdom of heaven he talked about at Qasr al-Yehud may point a hopeful way forward.

Along with most of the commentaries I’ve read, I’m satisfied that John the Baptist’s aspersions against the “Pharisees and Sadducees” in Matthew 3:1-7 (along with Jesus’ later diatribe against “scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites”), also in Matthew, reflect intramural quarrels between first-century Jewish sects — along with a healthy dose of skepticism toward organized religion in general. I’m completely satisfied their complaint was with hypocrites, and what now we would call the religious hierarchy, not with scribes and Pharisees per se.

In fact, as St. Matthew tells the story, John says very little at Qasr al-Yehud that earlier prophets hadn’t said before to the people of Judah and Israel.

If anything, he’s downright mild-mannered in comparison to the first chapter of Isaiah, for example: What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord …  I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquities. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates … When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen.

But with the prophets, there was always the other side of the coin. Repentance and reconciliation. Isaiah again: Repent, cease to do evil. Learn to do good. Seek justice for widows and orphans. Follow the commandments, the covenant. Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord …  If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Even the kingdom of heaven that John proclaimed on the banks of the River Jordan at Qasr al-Yudah, is grounded in Judaism. And therein, Krister Stendahl suggested at a 1997 symposium on the people of God (laos tou theou in New Testament Greek) hosted by the World Council of Churches, resides a way out of the world’s “schisms and divisions and worse.”

It brought home a couple of the things I’d been wrestling with. And a couple of new thoughts that I like very much.

The Christian church, Stendahl said, functions as “an ‘Operation Headstart’ for the Kingdom of God” — fundamentally a Jewish concept (the kingdom and not Head Start), and one that John the Baptist preached. A powerful step toward “Christian self-understanding,” Stendahl said in at the 1997 symposium, would be the following:

  • To understand the church as a people — not an ideology, or just a means toward individual salvation.
  • To see the church, on the analogy of Israel, as a people chosen by grace and set apart for specific service.
  • To explore ways to express the relation between the church and the Jewish People, the people who coined the phrase.

I especially like that. A people chosen by grace and set apart, called to service. God’s work, our hands, in today’s ELCA Lutheran vernacular. We even put it on T-shirts.

I haven’t begun to explore its depths, at least not in any organized, disciplined way, but there’s something else that Krister Stendahl said — referring to two other papers that were presented at the World Council of Churches symposium — that I want to keep thinking about.

So I’ll just quote it in one great big three-paragraph lump here, for convenient reference, copy it to my research blog and link to it below:

As Barbara Schwahn makes so clear in her reflections on “The People of God” (Document No. 6, p.10), the laos theology needs the full context of the whole creation as a corrective. Jesus’ choice of the Kingdom as the aim and end of the whole enterprise, i.e., the Mending of the Creation (what Jews call Tikkun Olam) is paradigmatic. The laos, when faithful and creative, is supposed to help in that mending not only of itself but of the world. And the imago dei, i.e. that all are created in the image of God, is the common bond of humankind, and a fact more decisive than the tarnish and brokenness that have occured subsequently and that varies in degrees according to various doctrinal traditions.

Beyond and prior to all religious covenants that constitute communities of faith and of culture, there is the bond of common humanity, in the image of God, which should not be belittled in the interest of glorifying one’s own special revelation.

Thus I hail Godlind Bigalke’s instinctive choice of the imago dei as the starting point in considering the topic for formation/transformation/yea restoration. To which I add the Lord’s Prayer, the extended cry for the coming of the Kingdom, the mended creation.

I copied the Krister Stendahl quote, with links, to my research blog Hemlandssånger at https://hemlandssanger.wordpress.com/2019/12/11/krister-stendahl-on-people-of-god/. And I tacked on a Works Cited list here. I think I need to keep coming back to this.

Works Cited

Moshe Gilad. “Christian Pilgrims From Across the World Come to Israel to Visit This Site. There’s Just One Problem: It’s Sitting in a Minefield,” Haaretz, Jan. 18, 2018 https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/MAGAZINE-minefields-channel-believers-into-one-route-to-israeli-holy-sites-1.5744389.

Richard M. Harley. “Anti-Semitism: Christians Have a Responsibility,” Christian Science Monitor, June 4, 1981 https://www.csmonitor.com/1981/0604/060464.html.

Douglas Martin. “Krister Stendahl, 86, Ecumenical Bishop, Is Dead,” New York Times, April 16, 2008 https://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/16/us/16stendahl.htmlhttps://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/16/us/16stendahl.html

Sean Salai. “Father James Martin: An Introduction to Ignatian Contemplation,” America, Sept. 21, 2016 https://www.americamagazine.org/content/all-things/easing-contemplation.

Krister Stendahl, “Formation of Christian Folks in a Plural World: Response by Krister Stendahl to the paper ‘Formation of the Laos’ [by Godlind Bigalke,”] Le Cénacle, Geneva, 7-10 May 1997, World Council of Churches https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/wcc-programmes/education-and-ecumenical-formation/ecumenical-lay-formation/formation-of-the-laos/response-by-krister-stendahl

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