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Geography and Easter - a personal reflection

24 Mar 2021 11:14 AM | Anonymous

By Ian Stehbens, RGSQ member

When Lilia Darii asked me for a short article on Geography and Easter, I was both surprised and stimulated. Never before has anyone asked such a question of me, neither from my network of fellow geographers nor anyone from the fellowship of Christian believers. But Lilia’s request excited me because of its uniqueness, freshness, and significance. There is much that emerges from the intersection of the disciplines of Geography and Biblical scholarship, and it is a two-way street. Here, I define Easter as the events involving the passion, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians call Jesus Christ as an outcome of these ‘Easter Events’.

Geography (geology, culture, migration, geopolitics) informs the Easter Story

The Easter events occur at Jerusalem, where cultures are in collision: occupying Roman forces and Hebrew religious tradition. The Hebrew/Jewish tradition is based on the worship of the God who sets slaves free from oppression in Egypt and that tradition was celebrated culminating in the Passover Meal. It was eaten on the eve of Jesus’ crucifixion. From across the eastern Roman Empire at that time, the Jewish Diaspora as well as former slaves from many lands and cultures were making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in gratefulness for their freedom. The resultant great gathering demand the oversight of the Roman Governor of Judea who came from Tiberias in Galilee. The puppet King Herod Antipas and the resident High Priest also came to Jerusalem. These competing authorities generated an ambivalence of authority. Jesus and his disciples were also in Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. When Jesus is arrested and brought before the authorities it was the Jewish religious authorities who initiated his arrest and trial. When they reached consensus, they handed Jesus over to Roman authority, and he was tried on different grounds by Governor Pilate. Without conviction, he was taken outside the city wall to the vicinity of Golgotha and crucified.

The Geology of Jerusalem is Cretaceous limestone (Nezer formation) overlain by formations of chalk and chert to the immediate east of the city but, immediately to the west, the underlying Shivta and Weradim formations of limestone with some dolomite are encountered. Outside the walls of the city, a series of old quarries are found from which the stone to build the walls was extracted. Golgotha (The Place of the Skull) is a feature of this karst landscape and because of caves its external appearance gives rise to its descriptive name. Jesus was not crucified on a hill but rather in an old quarry cum rubbish dump. While Golgotha is a hill in the background, the “hill of Calvary”, referred to in Christian story and hymns, is the Hebrew traditional understanding of Jerusalem being a city built on a hill. Thus, the traditional images of a hill with three crosses upon it is quite misleading!

Jerusalem is on a plateau 600-700M asl. The karst geology gives rise to the cultural tradition of burial in caves or crypts. The new tomb in which Jesus’ body was placed has a cut limestone rock rolled in place to seal the tomb.

The Jerusalem region is tectonically active, so it is little surprise that an earthquake is recorded as having occurred the day of his crucifixion. The Gospel of Mark, written in Rome, where again the geology is limestone, makes significant comment on the limestone caves and sarcophaguses both in the Easter narrative and in Chapter 5, where the tension between Roman authority and Jewish opposition is raised and Jesus is caught in the intersection, exercising healing, and restoring authority. All this resonated with the initial readers of Mark’s Gospel who were meeting in the underground catacombs among the sarcophaguses in Rome, whilst experiencing Nero’s torture and persecution, decades later.

Geography is used by the Gospel Writers to express the drama in the story

Mark has an extraordinarily strong and clear geographical construct which is dialectical and purposeful. From Chapter 1-8, the narrative is set in Galilee where Jesus is revealed as Son of Man (100% human), calls disciples and as they exercise ministry together, Jesus’ authority and purpose are demonstrated. The Galilean section climaxes in the Transfiguration as Jesus is identified as Son of God (100% divine).  At this point the disciples are told that this now means going to Jerusalem (8:31, 9:31, and 10:33) where betrayal, condemnation by national authorities then suffering, flogging, death at the hands of the occupying power will occur (and all this will be followed by resurrection).

The disciples resist this proposed journey and reveal their inadequate understanding of the role of the Messiah/Christ. He cannot suffer such a fate. They do not want to go to Jerusalem. For the rest of the Gospel of Mark (Chapter 8-16) the geography shifts towards and into Jerusalem. There Jesus experiences, at the point of his deepest tribulation, a coronation on a cross.

Luke’s Gospel is written in the Greco-Roman world, distant from Jerusalem. Way below Jerusalem, deep in the rift valley is Jericho - a place despised by the Jewish people through their history, was being cursed by Joshua in the earliest pre-Jerusalem history. But in Luke’s geo-theological construct it becomes the place of revealing the thrust of Jesus’ ministry: the blind see, the despised are invited into fellowship, the rejected and wounded are responded to with pity and active compassion, enemies are treated as friends. Joshua’s curse (Joshua 6:26) is abolished at the cost of God’s Son, whose work is to be completed by his followers.

Emmaus, down the Roman Road of oppression, identified with the camp of the occupying military forces, becomes the place where the resurrected Jesus enters and is recognized. With haste, those who recognize him return at once to Jerusalem to declare to the gathered group of disciples that Jesus was recognized by them when he broke bread. Then Jesus himself stood among this assembly greeting them with “Peace be with you”. The scourged Emmaus and the cursed Jericho both physically in the low country, one to the east, the other to the west, are thus raised up by grace, whilst the Holy City potentially faces destruction by Roman forces. Luke thus answers the question, ‘Is the power of grace, the power of Jesus Christ, greater than the power of Rome and greater than an ancient curse?’ The geographical constructs of both these gospels, as examples, are designed to intentionally carry the power of the message the writers seek to deliver.

Easter generates a geographical dispersal which becomes a missionary movement

Dr Luke outlines the dispersal of the gospel message in his second work, The Acts of the Apostles. Easter (the encounters with the risen Jesus) changed lives dramatically. Early churches formed, people were dispersed as refugees from persecution, and people moving about the Empire communicated the message and their witness from one end of the Mediterranean to the other. Luke himself is part of the movement, which he outlines as he follows St Paul and others from Jerusalem to Rome. These geographical advances were initiated by Jesus: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” The movement of the Christian faith and the establishment of the church very quickly moved north through Asia Minor, Galatia and to St Petersburg. Similarly, St Thomas took the gospel to India where it has been continuously shared and celebrated ever since. One does not need much time in Tonga to recognize that the gospel has spread to and taken root in the social and economic fabric of that kingdom at the end of the earth!

Easter’s central message has been received in many cultures around the globe. Its celebration and application have been contextualised in each culture resulting in spatially variant forms.  

Easter impacts the believer resulting in changed values and behaviours

Personally, Easter has impacted my life.  As a geographer my vocation has required me to create and lead therapeutic communities in Australia. Systems thinking and spatial analysis enabled me to develop the art of mapping conflicts and wars in the South Pacific, South East Asia, and East Africa so that communities and nations could make peace, reconcile, and build sustainable just peace. My faith compelled me to contribute to the development of geographical curricula in social geography (Settlement Patterns and Processes), inquiry (Australian Geographical Inquiries) and environmental education. My Easter-formed values and my geographical formation inform each other, as I advocate for environmental management of special landscapes. I am just one disciple among millions who continue to demonstrate the relationships between geography and Easter. Peace be with you.

Map courtesy of Ian Stehbens.

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