Mount Nebo, in the eyes of Moses

Published: February 19 Mon, 2018

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MOUNT NEBO – On the other side of the Jordan River, less than 50 kilometers from Jerusalem, the East Bank reveals holy sites that are less touristic but equally fascinating. Overlooking the “Promised Land,” Mount Nebo is one of the most moving places in this country.

Discover the Promised Land

At night, the road that leads up to Mount Nebo via Madaba gives a strong hint of the spectacle awaiting the visitor by day: streams of light in a deep blue sky. In this place between heaven and earth, the stars mingle strangely with the lighting of villages whose identity we guess. In this large complex, the Franciscans of the Holy Land “watch over” the place since 1933 after buying these lands from Bedouin families who lived there. Even today, the friendship between the monks and these families remains and reveals itself through an active collaboration to make the place thrive. In the enclosure of the monastery, one must lean over the garden of the Franciscans to see that the border is so close! With a gesture, Brother Junio points out the carpet of light nestled in the valley: “This is Jericho!” In the morning, visitors amazingly discover this unique landscape, successively contemplated by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. It is here, as the Bible says, that Moses died after the Lord showed him the Promised Land: “Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, the peak of Pisgah which faces Jericho, and the LORD showed him all the land—Gilead, and as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, the plain (the valley of Jericho, the City of Palms), and as far as Zoar. The LORD then said to him, this is the land about which I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “I will give it to your descendants.” I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross over. So there, in the land of Moab, Moses, the servant of the LORD, died as the LORD had said” (Deuteronomy 34:1-5).

The Serpent of Brass, prefiguration of Christ

Looking around, the visitor sees the arid landscapes of “the Promised Land” in a light mist. A few kilometers below, the Jordan and the Dead Sea mark the border between Palestine and Jordan. In front of this breathtaking panorama, a modern sculpture depicting Christ on a cross surrounded by a snake is a reminder of the event of the serpent of bronze, which Moses erected on a pole capable of healing the wounds of the Israelites. The association between Christ and this unattractive animal makes sense when you read a passage from John: “And as Moses lifted the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him should have eternal life” (John 3:14). Brother Junio explains: “From the snake as from the cross, life springs forth. This brazen serpent raised in the desert, which heals with one glance, is a prefiguration of Christ.”

A place of pilgrimage

In the location, a large church occupies the Mount. Reopened in 2016, after some construction, the church’s art offers a unique style cleverly combining sublime Byzantine mosaics and modern, bright wood furniture. The construction site was successively supervised by Brothers Michele Piccirillo, Carmelo Pappalardo, Ibrahim Faltas and Eugenio Alliata. “The challenge here was to build a church, a place of worship while highlighting the archaeological heritage,” continued Brother Junio. The original Christian sanctuary was built in the 4th century on the highest point of the mountain. It was then rebuilt immediately after violent destruction, of which nothing is known. Upon entering the interior, the visitor can hardly not be overwhelmed by the beauty of the Byzantine works that catch the eye on all sides, on the floor, and on the walls. Opposite, an altar has been built on which the Mass is occasionally celebrated. Every year, the Patriarchal Vicar for Jordan traditionally celebrates a Mass for the Feast of Moses.

What does it mean for a Christian to go to the Mount Nebo Memorial? In 2016, Father Francesco Patton, Custos of the Holy Land, invited his hearers to meditate: “This sanctuary also gives us an experience that is the essence of the pilgrimage: to know that we will not remain in the places we visit. God wants our gaze beyond that. The pilgrimage becomes a way to understand that we are not called to enter into a promised land. Instead, we are called to enter into the promise of communion, which is the very life of God.” A place of worship for Christians, Mount Nebo has the particularity of also attracting Muslim and Jewish faithful who also find in the footsteps of Moses, part of their history.

Claire Guigou