We Roman Catholics are accustomed to thinking that the early church moved its headquarters from Jerusalem to Rome like a frog hopping from one lily pad to another. In fact, it moved on the ground, along the trade routes.
The early church grew north toward Damascus (where St. Paul was converted) and Antioch (where St. Peter lived before going to Rome), and east toward Mesopotamia (where St. Thomas the Apostle preached).
The Islamic State terrorist group has undertaken to drive Christians from these lands. The destruction of the ancient church has been thorough. In addition to killing Christians and driving them from their homes, there has been a campaign to destroy the physical evidence of faith: shrines, statues, churches and monasteries.
Last month, there were reports about the Islamic State destroying books and artifacts at a fourth-century monastery near Mosul. Earlier this year, we saw stories about destruction around the world’s oldest Christian church, in Dura-Europos, Syria. I have been wondering why this iconoclasm is so upsetting, alongside the far more ghoulish crimes ISIS has committed.
Some years ago, one of our children spent a semester studying in Jerusalem. My wife and I went to visit him for a week, and did the things first-time visitors to the Holy Land naturally do. Some, I confess, were underwhelming.
We visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. And though it was old, and we attended Mass and said heartfelt prayers, I came away with some doubt about whether Jesus was born on that spot. He might have been. But the stable might just as well have been two miles away.
We also visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. This was Jordanian territory until the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel captured the Old City. At that point, a team of archaeologists began excavations on the south side of the Temple. They uncovered the ritual baths, where Mary would have gone for her purification when Jesus was presented in the Temple.
They also uncovered the steps up to the double gate in the southern wall of the Temple. Ordinary people would have gone up these steps, and entered the Temple through the double gate. The doorway is uncovered down to bedrock. I have a picture of my wife and I standing in the door.
Unlike some other stops on our pilgrimage, this one left me feeling like Moses must have felt before the burning bush. Jesus, Mary and Joseph entered the Temple through that door. Jesus walked over the stone we are standing on. It is holy ground.
The picture of us standing in that door, which I treasure, has a special poignancy at Christmas. It is the most tangible reminder of the Incarnation. Jesus was born to Mary near that city. Forty days later, his parents went through that door to present him in the Temple. As an adult, he stepped where we are standing, on his way to pray.
And that is why we find the iconoclasm of the ISIS campaign so sacrilegious. It is a sin against faith, an effort to erase from our memories the fact that God became man, lived among us and died on a cross. Our faith is not just an intellectual construct; we are not just disembodied spirits. Jesus was and is as real as we are.
It was a saint from Syria, John of Damascus, who captured best why these things matter: “Now that he has made himself visible in the flesh and has lived with men, I can make an image of what I have seen of God … and contemplate the glory of the Lord, his face unveiled.”
When we ask if Christianity will survive in the Middle East, we are asking not only about its future, but about the things of its very beginnings.
Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington. Catholic University’s website is www.cua.edu.