“Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. God drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way the the tree of life.” (Gen 3:23-24)
Where do we come from? How did we become what we are? These two questions haunt my imagination. In college, I gave serious consideration to becoming an archeologist who studied hominid evolution. (That dream ended when I looked at where the major finds had occurred and realized that almost single one of them was closed to researchers because it was in a war zone.) But the hunger to learn remains.
That’s why I was so excited to discover this week (a bit late in the game) the Out of Eden Walk, an expedition being sponsored by National Geographic. Over the course of seven years, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek will trace the route by which ancient hominids populated the earth, traveling on foot from Ethiopia across Asia to the Bering Strait, then hopping on a ferry so he can pick up the route in Alaska and end his walk 21,000 miles later in Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of Chile. (If you’re interested, he is live-blogging the whole way, with reflections on history, the cultures he’s passing through, people, sound and video clips, and even instructions on packing a camel. You can follow him at http://outofedenwalk.nationalgeographic.com)
In one sense, this is a wildly exciting project. In another, it’s almost deliberately perverse. Precisely because the events Salopek is following happened millions of years ago, there are no traces left of the ancestors he is seeking. There is no inn with an historical marker saying “Lucy slept here,” no chance that he will have a great conversation with a homo habilis in a local bar. The closest he’s come so far is an ancient boneyard where archeologists chip bones from the earth under the watchful gaze of soldiers (those pesky wars are still going on). Instead, Salopek is encountering the people who live in those lands now, moving fluidly between a past that remains elusive and a present that presses in with clamoring insistence. It contains, in fact, all the challenges of trying to encounter Jesus.
From ancient times, Christians have made pilgrimages to the Holy Land, seeking out the places Jesus where Jesus lived, the roads his feet have walked. Even today, Christians flock to see them, and there are some remains: the Beautiful Gate of the Temple, where Jesus taught; the olive grove at Gethsemane; the cave where his bones were laid.
But that tomb is always empty; Jesus is not there. It may be meaningful to see these places, to touch them and to wonder and to pray, but we encounter Jesus not in ancient stones, but among the flesh and blood of his disciples. The angel said as much, when the women came to the tomb on Easter morning, asking: “Why seek ye the living among the dead?”
It is tempting — it is so tempting — to seek Jesus in the past: to read of him in the Bible, to honor time-worn traditions, to cling to the way things used to be — and to think that is enough. But Jesus is the One who walks always before us: before us and beside us. He did not come to tie us to the past, but to lead us into the future, into God’s future. He speaks to us, saying, I know the plans I have for you, plans of welfare, not of anguish, to give you a future with hope. (Jer 29:11)
The true signs of Jesus are walking around you: they speak and they sing; they laugh and they weep; they serve and suffer and fall down and rise again. They cradle children and wash the dead and, sometimes, they take on crazy projects that inspire our imaginations and teach us to dare again. Seek Christ among them, and live.