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Axis Mundi

July 24, 2017

Axis Mundi” Genesis 28:10-22 © 7.23.17 Ordinary 16A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Back in the day, before there were giant online retailers like Sweetwater, Musician’s Friend, and Reverb, if you wanted to buy an instrument you had to go to a brick and mortar store, whether a chain like Guitar Center or more likely a local shop. There you could try out a guitar way beyond your price range, feel the weight of a Les Paul electric before Gibson put chambers in it or crank a Mesa Boogie tube amp to ear-bleeding levels. One thing you were forbidden to do in many of those places, though, was to play “Stairway to Heaven.” Amateur guitarists deciding on an instrument had picked the acoustic opening of that iconic rock song by Page and Plant so much that shop owners were sick of it, and put signs on the wall banning it from the premises.

Let’s suppose Jacob had gone into his favorite store, “Seraphim Strings,” to buy an inuk, an instrument similar to his multioud, but with frets and steel strings. He would have been disappointed that he couldn’t try out his purchase with what had become his theme song after Bethel. Not the lyrics, of course; the stories are very different. I mean the reminder in the title of a life-changing experience he had had, along with the way the song develops, opens up, emotionally and musically as it takes the listener on a journey into another realm. As the song puts it, Jacob’s shadows were taller than his soul, but there was still time to change the road he was on (http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/ledzeppelin/stairwaytoheaven.html).

How did he get to the place he named “Bethel”? By his own fault, by his own most grievous fault, as the old prayer of confession puts it. He is now a fugitive, on the run from his brother Esau, who with just cause wanted to kill him. You recall that when they were younger men, Jacob had taken advantage of Esau’s momentary hunger and extorted the birthright from the older sibling for a bowl of stew. Then, when their father was old and blind, Jacob had used a trick to get Isaac to confer Esau’s blessing on him instead.

So he is now under self-imposed exile from home and family. But Jacob’s flight is not without direction or purpose. He’s also going back to the home country to find a wife from his mother’s family, which is another story.

But that’s all he knows of the future. Only the broadest outline is clear. Right now he’s alone, and deep down, terribly afraid. All his life he had relied on himself and his wits to survive and even get ahead, usually at the expense of somebody else. So we may assume that’s still his way of thinking as he puts down his head on a stone in some place in the middle of nowhere whose name he doesn’t know. He only wants to get some sleep. He’s not thinking about God nor does he expect to have a spiritual encounter.

Yet it is precisely here, in this unknown place, while he is uncomfortable, while he is on the run, while his defenses are down and his schemes useless, it is precisely here that Yahweh comes in a dream to the trickster and thief. Notice: this low-life has done nothing to invoke the Lord. In fact, we would think somebody so filthy with sin would find nothing but condemnation in God’s presence.

But God comes not to punish but to promise, not to provoke but to provide. Jacob didn’t wake up that morning or go to bed that night thinking “I’m going to make a covenant with God and be the ancestor of a great nation.” No, he has not sought any such thing. But there beside him stands the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebekah, ready to enter into an agreement.

The presence of Yahweh is totally unexpected. This spot was no place, just somewhere to camp for the night. But now, thanks to Jacob’s dream of a stairway to and from heaven and more than that, the revelation of God, he knows that he has spent the night in the house of God, at the very gate of heaven. In Hebrew, Beth-El and sha’ar hashamayim. So his pillow becomes a pillar, a standing stone, to mark a holy place, a shrine. He pours oil on the rock to consecrate it and also to stain it so people could distinguish it from ordinary monoliths. And he promises to set up an endowment for its maintenance by giving a one-time tithe of his income.

Bethel became a very important holy site and remained so for many years, though its fortunes waxed and waned. For the rest of our time this morning, I want to explore what made it so special. To do that, I want to introduce you to or remind you of two terms.

The one is “thin place.” Bethel was a thin place. The idea comes from Celtic spirituality and is a popular one these days. I like to think of the concept this way. There is a barrier between heaven, the unseen but overlapping dimension of the holy; and earth, the realm of our day to day lives. The Greek word for “revealing” is apocalypto, the lifting of a bride’s veil, so let’s say that this barrier is a veil or a curtain of some sort. In some spots, the veil or curtain is so thick we can’t see through it; we can’t perceive the presence of God and the angels and saints at all, and we call the place “godforsaken,” even though there is actually no place, as the psalmist reminds us, where God is absent. Maybe these places are of particular ugliness or they remind us of some horrific instance of suffering, whether our own or that of our neighbors on this planet. But at other spots, somehow the veil, the curtain, is threadbare, nearly transparent, and we have the sense of heaven and earth being very close together. We can see as if through a window into the other dimension, and those who dwell in heaven can peer into ours. The place feels charged with a particular energy or we feel a special peace there, a kind of calm that settles over us. Such a sense may come as a surprise, as it did to Jacob. Or we may have relied on the experience and testimony of others and made a pilgrimage somewhere reputed to be the gate of heaven, a thin place.

Eric Weiner, in a travel piece for The New York Times a few years back, describes thin places like Bethel in Jacob’s day and others in our own, as “places that beguile and inspire, sedate and stir, places where, for a few blissful moments I loosen my death grip on life, and can breathe again.”

He goes on: “[T]hin places…are locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent or, as I like to think of it, the Infinite Whatever.

“Travel to thin places does not necessarily lead to anything as grandiose as a ‘spiritual breakthrough,’ whatever that means, but it does disorient. It confuses. We lose our bearings, and find new ones. Or not. Either way, we are jolted out of old ways of seeing the world, and therein lies the transformative magic of travel.

“It’s not clear who first uttered the term ‘thin places,’ but they almost certainly spoke with an Irish brogue. The ancient pagan Celts, and later, Christians, used the term to describe mesmerizing places [like windswept islands and craggy peaks]. Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter” (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/travel/thin-places-where-we-are-jolted-out-of-old-ways-of-seeing-the-world.html).

A thin place is not necessarily relaxing nor must it be a religious site. It could be a city or a cathedral, a bookstore or a bar, a canyon or a concert hall. It’s wherever we find ourselves transformed, pushed to see the world in a different light, to exclaim with Jacob: “God is in this place, and I did not know it!”

Yet, as Weiner points out: “…ultimately, an inherent contradiction trips up any spiritual walkabout: The divine supposedly transcends time and space, yet we seek it in very specific places and at very specific times. If God (however defined) is everywhere and “everywhen,” as the Australian aboriginals put it so wonderfully, then why are some places thin and others not? Why isn’t the whole world thin?

“Maybe it is but we’re too thick to recognize it. Maybe thin places offer glimpses not of heaven but of earth as it really is, unencumbered. Unmasked.”

Someone else has observed: “[I]n a thin place there is an immediacy of experience where words of faith become words of life. In this hallowed space and time heaven and earth for a moment are one.

“We return from thin places refreshed and renewed. We are graced with a new awareness of the thin places in all of life. Having seen the glimpses of glory in those sacred landscapes, we begin to see glimpses all around us. Soon the birds outside our window sing of the mystery we might have passed over in our busyness” (http://www.explorefaith.org/mystery/mysteryThinPlaces.html ). Or again, with Jacob, we say of the whole world, now perceived as a thin place where we see into another realm: “God is in this place, and I did not know it.”

So Bethel was a thin place, and there are so many in our world, indeed, the veil is threadbare everywhere to the eye of faith. But the other term that describes Bethel and its stairway to heaven is axis mundi, the hub or navel of the world.

Axis mundi is a very broad concept, present in many cultures and religions throughout the world. Think of a line drawn through a place, for instance, which connects heaven and that spot and the underworld. The locale becomes a pivot, the center of the universe of values and spirituality, somewhere from which everything else emanates, and people go out equipped and sustained from having been there. A city like Jerusalem or Mecca or even New York, called by one author a “signal of transcendence” (Peter Berger), can be an axis mundi. Or a shrine like Bethel or some other place of encounter, where the world assumes a new character. One author says of an axis: “…it expresses a point of connection between sky and earth where the four compass directions meet. At this point travel and correspondence is made between higher and lower realms. Communication from lower realms may ascend to higher ones and blessings from higher realms may descend to lower ones and be disseminated to all. The spot functions as… the world’s point of beginning” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Axis_mundi). Or as the text puts it, the angels of God were going up and down on a stairway set on the ground with its top reaching the sky. Bethel, by the way, happened to be at the intersection of a north-south road and an east-west one, giving it even more credibility as an axis.

The exciting thing about the notion of axis mundi is the versatility of the symbol. It might be a place like a city, a shrine or a mountain, but it can also be an object, like a stairway or a stone. It can be a tree, like the world tree of Norse mythology or the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden story and in the book of Revelation. A home or building, like a skyscraper, can be an axis mundi, a world center. Finally, the human figure has been depicted as such an axis in art and in other faiths and disciplines. Recall da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, the anatomical study depicting arms and legs at different angles. The Buddha is thought of as a world center in human form, and I understand from one resource that yoga and tai chi regard the human body as an axis mundi. In our own faith, we’re told by Paul that our bodies are temples of the Spirit.

For Christians, the cross is the penultimate axis mundi. Its vertical dimension represents connection between heaven and earth. Its horizontal arm stands for human community, for arms outstretched in compassion for the suffering, in reaching for another. It extends in all directions—north, south, east, and west, signifying the care of God for all humanity, not just one race or group in one region of the planet. When Christ was crucified, the veil between heaven and earth was torn, and the suffering of humanity became the suffering of God, incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.

And indeed, it is he that for us is the ultimate axis mundi, the world center, the one around whom all history revolves. In Christ, the Representative and Perfect Human, the One who embodies our best selves, our connection with God, the recovery of the image of God marred and broken by sin, in him heaven and earth meet. In his death on the cross, the relationship is restored. He even made a promise, according to the gospel of John, that refers to Jacob’s stairway, telling Nathanael that the new disciple would see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man (John 1:51).

Jesus is our connection, our center, our stairway, our axis mundi, who consecrates all of human life because he walked among us. He makes all our places thin places, where to our surprise and delight, we realize God is there. And as we walk through the world, enlightened and inspired, we can say with the hymn writer: “O how blessed is this place, filled with solace, light, and grace” (Benjamin Schmolck, “Open Now Thy Gates of Beauty”). And as we are filled with God’s Spirit, we can each be for our neighbors an axis mundi, connecting them with the God of love, who speaks a word to travelers on their journeys, making somewhere that was previously no place into the very gate of heaven.

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