In these days when the airports are quiet and air traffic generally much reduced, it is interesting to note that two of our major centres have really rather lovely root meanings to their names. Gatwick is apparently from Old English gāt wīc meaning ‘goat farm’, and Heathrow was once a hamlet in Middlesex, which seems to have been variously written as Hithero, Hetherow, Hetherowfeyld, and Hitherowe - all apparently meaning a ‘row of houses on the heath’. I am relying for this information on Benjamin Myers book Under the Rock, which was a Christmas present last year, and one I enjoyed immensely.
Truly names can mislead as well as describe, and places that once knew quiet can become something quite different. This morning we read of one of the oldest cities on earth; some would claim the oldest; the city of Jericho. Built at an oasis in the desert, close to the Dead Sea, it is a place of palms and oranges, bananas and dates; of green growth beside the wilderness. It was first in line for destruction for Joshua’s army, and we read of the walls famously falling down before the people of Israel in the Morning Prayer reading today (Joshua chapter 6: 1-20).
Like Gatwick and Heathrow, the meaning of Jericho’s name would fit another date and time. Thought to be from the root of the Hebrew word for ‘fragrant’, Jericho was a place visited by Jesus and his disciples and where the crowds acknowledged him enthusiastically; where he healed a blind man and challenged Zacchaeus to change his life, which he did. Contrasts can be so telling to imagine and remember.
The great London airports, with their normally milling thousands of workers and travellers, are hardly thought of as once a goat farm and row of cottages on the heath. They are what they are. Maybe today they stand as symbols of what we are finding most difficult to accept, as the pandemic continues its worldwide spread. Airports are gateways and connecting places; they allow us to meet and mingle from different areas and cultures, yet also provide the portal through which the disease can travel.
Jericho too has always been a gateway and crossing place, where life flourishes in the midst of a barren wasteland. It has faced its crises, and its fallen walls have been investigated by archeologists and historians. Today it stands at a border between Israel and Palestine. Maybe ‘fragrant’ is not so unsuitable a name for a place built upon its natural springs, that continue to flow and water the fruit and vegetables, the trees and the flowers, and keep human beings alive; animals, birds and every living creature - equally needful - refreshed and renewed with hope.