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Gran Desierto de Altar

When I lived in Yuma, Arizona in the early 1970s, I crossed the border with Mexico many times. I delivered bottle water south of town; Summerton, San Luis, and rural dwellings in between. The border was unmarked, unpatrolled, unfenced, and unwalled. Sometimes I gave people who lived in Morales a ride home after a few days working in Yuma. Sometimes I gave people rides north, too. Families live on both sides of the border in the green belt along the river.

But away from the ancient Colorado River floodplain stretch seemingly endless “oceans” of sand dunes. To the west, the Imperial Desert had been a formidable barrier to travelers until a wooden road, then a train, and paved highways connected Yuma to El Centro. It is a playground for campers and dune buggies. It was also where the dune scenes for Star Wars were filmed.

To the east of Yuma, past the Marine Corps Air Station and citrus groves, are the barren Chocolate Mountains; to their south, Mexico’s Gran Desierto de Altar. I rode my Kawasaki dirt bike that way once, trying to find and follow the old Camino del Diablo. From up on a high point on the south end of a mountain ridge, I looked into Mexico; sand so deep it covered ancient mountains and volcanoes. No one and nothing, Just sand and wind.

The actual Devil’s Highway crossed the border and ran just south of it around the mountains. Now, the signs directed me to a new dirt road just north of it. Not far east on that road, I came to a sign from the United States Air Force, Luke Air Base, stating that without written permission of the base commander, all moving objects past that sign would be considered targets for bombing practice. I had heard that part of the desert was their bombing range. People who have gotten permission and explored the Camino del Diablo have taken pictures of the old cars, graves, and shacks. No water was there. There were supposedly “tanks” up in the eastern foothills that retained seasonal pools. Far to the east another mountain range marked the location of permanent springs. I wanted to see the rare pupfish there, but was unprepared. I turned around.

The blue route is the new “stay in America” version of the Devil’s Highway. The big mountain just south of the border midway between Ajo and Yuma is a huge volcano. West of it is sand; a dune field stretching to the Gulf of California. No one walks that way. It’s deep shifting sand.

We actually bought that land from Mexico. The reason the border runs at an angle there is the sand dunes. The surveyors could not traverse them, so hugged the mountains and headed to Yuma.

Stand at the Grand Canyon and ask “where did all that material go that used to be here?” The answer is the Gran Desierto de Altar.

We don’t need a fence to secure this border. Take a look. This is not where refugees or migrants enter the United States. Let’s not spend billions of dollars building any more fences here.

An Epiphany

Edward Burne-Jones - Scanned from Stephen Wildman,Edward Burne-Jones: Victorian Artist-Dreamer, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998, ISBN 0870998595
Edward Burne-Jones – Scanned from Stephen Wildman,Edward Burne-Jones: Victorian Artist-Dreamer, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998, ISBN 0870998595

Matthew included a scene in his Infancy Narrative that was probably based on an actual event in history… arranged to make the point that Jesus came for all people, not just Jews. The Magi were an ancient sect in Persia, scientific thinkers, observers of the heavens, trusted with the task of reading the signs and identifying, as a child, the next King of Persia. That tradition lives on in Tibetan Buddhism in fact, where a similar process is used to identify the next Dalai Lama. So Magi showing up, following a star, to bring the gifts that designated royalty would, to his readers, helped them understand Matthew’s answer to Who do you say Jesus is?”

Matthew is clearly answering, in context of the entire Gospel, “The new Moses, God’s chosen leader, for the whole world.”

There were three Buddhist missionaries in Judea who brought ideas like the Golden Rule and Love is the highest commandment. Traditionally they were named Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar. The ancient Church used those names for the Magi of Matthew’s story. In that conflation it becomes Three Wise Men (Matthew doesn’t number them). Balthasar is an Arabian name. Melchior is Persian and Gaspar is Indian.

Today it is conflated into the season and day of Epiphany (the Magi followed and saw the Light). But that is another layer of meaning in the conflation. The Epiphany at this season was, in Northern Europe, the day folks realized that all human hierarchy, in families, between men and women, in the economy between owners and servants, lords and tenants, in government… all of it is just an invented institution. On Epiphany our ancestors woke up basking in the realization that goodness and provision are gifts none of us owns nor earns.

No matter which layer of the story appeals to you; men on camels, the magical recognition of the next King, Eastern wisdom showing up in nascent Christianity, or pagan traditional world-upside-down celebrations, the meaning is about the same. We are loved by the Author of Love, gifted resources to spread that love to the whole world as a bright star, a light that leads others to truth, forgiveness and healing.

Luke’s Context

We’re studying the Gospel of Luke.

Scholars don’t know exactly when it was written. In reality, it was probably composed over a period of time. Luke traveled with Paul until Paul’s arrest and death in Rome just before 70 AD. Luke may have started writing then. Parts of Luke’s Gospel were added later, basically adding new material on the front. It matured and eventually became the only gospel included in the first canon of scripture used by the Church (with Paul’s first five letters).

Jews had wanted to repel the Romans since they occupied Israel in 63 BC. Judea was ruled by Roman procurators, whose chief responsibility was to collect and deliver taxes to the empire. Whatever the tax collectors got over and above their quota, they could keep. Rome also took over appointing the High Priest.

Luke refers to all these issue indirectly, by naming rulers or contrasting genealogies; Jesus’ and Herod’s. About the time Luke reports Jesus’ birth a group arose among the Jews: the Zealots. Some people think John the Baptist was a Zealot. They were active until about the same time Paul was killed.

The anti-Roman feelings reached a peak during the reign of Emperor Caligula, who in the year 39 AD declared himself a deity and ordered his statue in every temple in the Roman Empire. The Jews, alone in the empire, refused his command; First Commandment stuff.

Caligula threatened to destroy the Temple. A delegation of Jews was sent to pacify him, to no avail. Caligula raged at them, “So you are the enemies of the gods, the only people who refuse to recognize my divinity.” Only Caligula’s violent death saved the Jews from wholesale massacre at that time (it would come soon enough).

In the decades after Caligula’s death, Jews found themselves subject to gross indignities, Roman soldiers exposing themselves in the Temple and burning a Torah scroll. Ultimately, the combination of financial exploitation, Rome’s unbridled contempt for Judaism and the favoritism extended to gentiles living in Israel brought about open revolt.

In the 66 AD, Florus, the last Roman procurator, stole vast quantities of silver from the Temple. The outraged Jewish masses rioted and killed the Roman garrison stationed in Jerusalem. Cestius Gallus, the Roman ruler in neighboring Syria, sent in a larger force of soldiers. The Jewish insurgents routed them, too.

The Romans returned with 60,000 heavily armed and highly professional troops. They launched their first attack against the most radicalized area; Galilee. An estimated 100,000 Jews were killed or sold into slavery. The Jewish leadership in Jerusalem did almost nothing to help.

The refugees who succeeded in escaping the Galilean massacres fled to the last major Jewish stronghold: Jerusalem. There, they killed anyone in the Jewish leadership who had not helped. All the moderate Jewish leaders who headed the Jewish government at the revolt’s beginning in 66 AD were dead by 68 AD; not one died at the hands of a Roman. All were killed by fellow Jews.

Roman troops prepared to besiege the city camped outside. Inside the city, Jews were engaged in a suicidal civil war. The Romans would have won the war in any case. The Jewish civil war both hastened their victory and immensely increased the casualties. In expectation of a Roman siege, Jerusalem’s Jews had stockpiled a supply of dry food that could have fed the city for many years. But one of the warring Zealot factions burned the entire supply, apparently hoping that destroying this “security blanket” would compel everyone to participate in the revolt. The starvation resulting from this mad act caused suffering as great as any the Romans inflicted. Either way, there was great starvation. As Luke put is “he was very hungry.”

During the summer of 70 AD, the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem and initiated an orgy of sadistic violence and destruction. They destroyed the Second Temple. It is estimated that as many as one million Jews died.

Around that time, Luke wrote.