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The various expressions of Christianity in the Holy Land

St. George's Monastery in the Judean desert. CYNTHIA BLACK PHOTO

It is fitting that on the Second Sunday in Lent we visited two different monasteries which were each built near caves where Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness. Since there are so many caves in the Judean desert (which surrounds the city of Jericho and is near Jerusalem), it is hard to pinpoint exactly where it was that Jesus confronted Satan's temptations.

Each monastery was literally built around the cave. And each was a Greek Orthodox monastery, one of which dated back to the 5th century. The churches we visited in Galilee were built as shrines to honor an event. The monasteries in the wilderness are prayer communities that make a continual witness to Jesus' life, ministry and the challenges he faced -- especially from the diabolical one.

The piety at the Greek Orthodox monasteries is very different from the Roman Catholic shrines in Galilee. So is the architecture, the art, the arrangement of the worship space -- even the way people cross themselves (if they cross themselves at all). But there is no clear distinction among the Christians who visit the sites. We are Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox and many who have not made up their minds yet.

Among other things, for me this pilgrimage is highlighting the diversity of ways that people experience the Christian faith. All the Christian pilgrims are passionate about their faith -- otherwise they would not have come to this holy land; but the expressions of that faith are so very different. I suppose those various expressions of Christianity compete for spiritual, theological or ecclesiastical supremacy -- including those of us who are Episcopalians. But there is no religious supremacy here, which is both humbling and comforting. And challenging.

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