Beguiling places, airports: redolent of money, glamour, and a sense of endless possibility (who, what and where shall I be today?). This is derived, no doubt, from the smorgasbord of destinations whizzing by on the check-in screens. Of course, airports are nothing more than glorified taxi ranks; bus stations beautified; train stations in their party clothes: the more advanced the vehicle, the more exotic the picking up and setting down.
But airports know their fair share of trauma and tragedy, too. They can be places of flight from misery, or where it just begins. Or they might be places where families broken by circumstance or the law’s delay are centrifuged to the earth’s four corners, full of misery and apprehension.
I am glad to say that I am here for happier reasons. Here I sit, oddly bound for Jerusalem. ‘Oddly’ because I have always railed against clergy who swan off with perhaps the wealthier element of the parish, leaving colleagues to pick up the workload, only to come back full of the marvels they have seen, perhaps behaving as if they’re sudden experts on its tangled history and politics.
I had a second, more principled objection, based on theology rather than personal gripe. The clear understanding of Christians is that we are not members of a historic reenactment society. The faith we practise has got to be performable and coherent in contexts a thousand miles (and two thousand years) from ‘the very place where …’ . If what we say is true, then Christ must be visible ‘walking on the water not of Genesareth but Thames’, as Francis Thompson put it in his poem, ‘In no strange land’. This is why we have local pilgrimage sites: the English go to *England’s* Nazareth, not in Galilee but Norfolk. In the same way, even the walk to the high altar in one’s local church represents the journey up to Jerusalem.
Yet I have decided (oh, so graciously) to lay aside these quibbles and to accept the opportunity and privilege to journey with fellow-clergy to the earthly home of Jesus, to these holy lands that are honoured and loved by so many. So here I am at Heathrow, surrounded by the wild diversity of international travellers, having just had gallons of shower gel impounded, and walked among the mark-up merchants and high class hawkers of every kind of unnecessary merchandise (Did you know there is something called a ‘global burger’?).
And I’ll tell you why I’m going: because it’s an opportunity to dig deeper into the biblical texts (an opportunity that should never be turned down); and it’s a chance to draw closer to the Jesus with whom I am always prone to engage in an over-rational key. For I too want to explore that sense of endless possibility with which we began, but I believe that ultimately it’s not about hanging round airports, but inhabiting and receiving God’s abundant gift of love, and living in patient service of all who cannot easily flee their adversity, and who turn to the followers of Jesus (among others) in their hour of greatest need.
I may, naturally, fail miserably in all of this, but I am optimistic that this place will so work in me that I may work in every place, to his glory who was the son of a particular soil, but who lives and reigns now as Universal King.
I’ll let you know how I get on.
Heathrow, 3 November