The Greeks had a word, omphalos, which described certain places as the centre – literally ‘navel’ – of the world. Many Greeks thought the world’s centre was at Delphi; the Jews disagreed. For them, the centre of the world was Jerusalem.
This idea took hold; ancient maps centred themselves on the Middle East, not Greenwich. And while reorienting our mental maps is something of a leap, the tensions still present across the Holy Land remind us that this way of viewing the world isn’t as alien or as distant as we might think.
The prophet Ezekiel certainly saw Jerusalem at the centre of well, everything: in Ezekiel 5:5 he proclaims that “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: This is Jerusalem, which I have set in the center of the nations, with countries all around her.” He returns to the image in chapter 38, where the centre of the earth, in Hebrew, is specifically described as the navel.
I think this image points to something greater than just patriotism or geopolitics. The navel represents a lifeline, the most intimate lifeline of all, sustaining, supporting, connecting. It’s a parental image, maternal, and it’s centred on the Temple, the Holy of Holies, God’s dwelling place on earth serving as the umbilical between creation and Creator.
It’s a powerful image but one I don’t know what to do with. The Temple is long gone, and while the Wailing Wall remains a centre of pilgrimage, it’s hard not to see Jerusalem’s centrality in the light of decades of conflict between Israel and Palestine. I may want to see peace there, for everyone, but it’s not the centre of my world.
Maybe there’s a reason for that. This weekend is Pentecost; the early Christians gathered in Jerusalem before an explosion of the Holy Spirit sends them out to meet thousands of pilgrims, those pilgrims returning home with the message of Jesus… Then a few decades later, the Temple burns, the Jews are scattered, the church spreads outwards. Jesus alludes to this, the idea that he rebuilds the Temple in three days through his death and resurrection. Maybe his ascension, on the subsequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit paradoxically decentralises the spiritual centre of the earth.
(And if we’re really going to riff on this… Within the Temple, the navel of the earth was represented by an actual rock – the Foundation Stone, the cornerstone on which, it was said, the world was built. Now look at Ephesians 2:19-22 and the language Paul uses. Who is the new cornerstone? And what is being built?)
Maybe, in some cosmic way, the church is now the navel of the earth, a channel for life and sustenance and connection to God. How’s that for a job description?