Saturday, April 23, 2011

Six days ago, my school started Spring Break (planned to coincide with Easter). Five days ago, I left for a trip to Spain. My story today comes from the very last day I spent in Spain.

Along the northwest side of Madrid stands an Egyptian temple dating from the 2nd century B.C. It was moved to Spain several decades ago, a gesture of gratitude for Spain's assistance in preserving the historical temples threatened when the Aswan Dam was created. Now it stands in Madrid, facing the east and the sun sinking behind it.

Every day, tourists pass through the doors into the mysteries of the Egyptian's ancient faiths. Into the walls are carved picture upon picture upon picture of the old gods, Isis and Osiris and Amun and Horus. Most of the gods are engaged in rituals with their human worshipers, either accepting food as an offering or bestowing a blessing upon the Pharaoh. In the last twelve centuries or so since they were first carved, the outlines have largely vanished: sometimes all that can be seen of a particular god is the crest of their crown, or the bowl of fruit they are carrying; tourists have to rely a great deal on the inscriptions to understand exactly what they are seeing.

Further in stand several rooms for offerings, each smaller than an American closet.

I plastered my rear end against a wall for some stability while I was taking photos like this one, and I got a firm reprimand from a security guard (don't touch!) for my pains.

Perhaps the most noticeable feature of the Temple was how dark it was, and how the temple grew darker as the priests moved further and further in. The innermost sanctum was shielded in almost total darkness and would have been relieved only by the lamps of the most privileged priests. In the center of this darkness sat the stone-cold statue of the Egyptian god Osiris. My photo is light only because Spain has tucked lights into the recesses of the walls, to help tourists like me take photos. Imagine this room without any light at all, and you'll have the idea:

To a Western mind, darkness symbolizes mystery and uncertainty. A secret meeting is carried out in darkness; an unknown political candidate is a 'dark horse', a wild card in the election. Ancient Egypt, then, had a faith almost the reverse of what we consider true faith today: Rather than celebrating and teaching what they knew about the spiritual realm, they confessed inadvertently by the surrounding darkness how much they didn't know, the confusion of spiritual things, the difficulty of ascertaining any real truth.

Adding to such uncertainty were the restrictions placed on the temple. A tourist sign pointed out that only the high priests were allowed into the inner altar of the temple; it was the priests that carried the statues of Osiris and Amun to their individual rooms in the temple. The greatest treasures of the temple were tucked away into secret crevices in the foundation, hidden away from all sight. Symbolically, such secrecy again suggests what a reversed faith Egypt had: Most faiths teach their followers truths; Islam teaches a five-fold way to God, and Buddhism a path to avoid suffering. Not so in Egypt, where whatever truth (or even lies) the priests had was deliberately and consistently hidden from the worshipers.

Easter celebrations generally begin with reflection upon Christian history: retellings of the Palm Sunday and Good Friday story, flowers and crosses and pictures of the open tomb on Easter day; for the kids (and for the kid in all of us), chocolate eggs might be thrown in as well. (My personal favourite are the Cadbury cream eggs).

But for me, visiting the Temple of Debod is an equally valid way to prepare for Easter: its darkness and secrecy highlight the tremendous importance of the light and truth of the Christian story. Like the Egyptian temple, the tabernacle and later the Jewish temple initially involved darkness and mystery. In the innermost portion of the building stood the Holy of Holies, which must have been quite dark and which only the priests could enter. Its secrecy symbolizes, we know, the impassable gulf between humans and a holy God.

But this darkness is not central to the Christian faith, as it is to the Egyptian faith. Matthew 27 records that at the moment of Christ's death 'the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom' . The most holy place in the temple would suddenly have been flooded with light and made public to every worshiper in the temple, the gulf between God and man suddenly bridged.

In the darkness of the Temple of Debod, there is an Easter parable. On our own, we human beings are just as dark as the inner sanctum of that Temple. Paul tells us that the unconverted mind is dark, that it cannot understand the truth of the Gospel. That we create such backwards faiths as the Egyptian one testifies to the darkness and confusion of our spiritual philosophies.

And all this darkness makes the Easter story particularly special, because that was the moment when the truth and love of God was made public for the world to enjoy. Christ himself says, "I am the light of the world" (John 8:12): His death and resurrection a spotlight into the gloom of spiritual truth, and the lamp by which we can know God.

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