January 14, 2015
Like yesterday, today was a beautiful, cool sunny day for exploring. Once aboard our bus, our driver (Nihal) took us along the winding hillside roads to Nazareth. We passed the town of Magdala along the way, the place where Mary Magdalene is believed to have lived.
We also drove along the base of a tall cliff, which our guide, Ghassan Makhalfeh, told us about. Apparently, toward the end of the time of Jewish revolt against the Romans, some Hebrews tried to avoid capture by living in caves, high up on the side of the face of the cliff. They were eventually defeated when Roman soldiers were lowered over the side of the cliff in baskets, so they could enter the caves from above – rather than having rocks and other weapons hurled at them to prevent them from climbing up from the bottom of the cliff.
Many of the towns look very similar to one another, since the architecture is basically the same everywhere, as are the building materials of local quarried stone and concrete. Homes look like three-story cubes with balconies and flat roofs. On top of most roof tops are large black plastic tanks filled with water – the hot sun heats the water in the tanks, so that homes have cost-effective, solar-heated water.
Because its nearly springtime here, the valleys and hillsides are very green with dessert grasses, small flowers and cultivated crops like banana trees, citrus, pear and olive trees. By contrast, in the summer time, most of the hillsides will be brown, with very little plant life. In some ways, the land here reminds me of southern California – palm trees, dessert shrubs and cactus, then tracts of orchards, vineyards and farms. On some hills, we see cows and goats. We haven’t yet seen sheep, but I can smell them on certain breezes – so, I know they’re out there!
After a short drive, we arrived in the town of Nazareth, the place where Jesus was raised and likely lived for much of his life before his ministry began on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
Our first stop was Christ Church in Nazareth, a small local church, where the services are led in Arabic, since the local Christians are Arab Israelis. But on this morning, we were allowed to hold a Eucharist ourselves, led by Bishop Greg, with a nice priest name Fr. Paul Kennington (from Montreal, Canada) as the preacher. Rachel was asked to do the first reading and lead the prayers.
The Christians churches and towns here all still have up their Christmas decorations, and Nazareth is no exception. In fact, when I asked the locals, I was told the decorations will stay up until February 2, when the Feast of the Presentation is celebrated (when Jesus, as a child, is presented at the Temple in Jerusalem). A HUGE, tall Christmas tree is set up in the town center. It’s really unique, too – one side of it has a large inset with a glass front. Behind the glass is a Nativity scene – in the Christmas tree!
Very near Christ Church, just across the close-knit streets of the town, is the convent of the Sisters of Nazareth – an order originating in France that came many years ago to care for the poor living in Nazareth. When the sisters wanted to buy the land in Nazareth to build their convent in 1857, the man selling the property set a very high price, telling them that it was “very sacred ground” associated with “The Just.” Well, the sisters thought that was just a trick to justify the high price of the land, so they looked elsewhere. Only, they couldn’t find another property that would meet their needs.
Ultimately, the sisters came back and bought the expensive property. They built their convent and lived there for thirteen years. Then, they began a small renovation project to improve the plumbing, digging beneath the the foundation of the convent. During the digging, a section of ground suddenly gave way, revealing what they would soon discover to be a very important archaeological discovery. They found the ruins of a crusader era church, built around the ruins of an earlier Byzantine era church, which in turn was built around a first century house. Evidence in the site and writings from early Christian pilgrims to the area helped confirm the belief that the early church recognized the site as the home of Joseph (husband of Mary, father to Jesus), who is also referred to in Scripture as “The Just.”
Our group was led by Sister Margaret Byrne, a member of the Sisters of Nazareth, on a tour of the ruins beneath the convent. Sister Bern was very nice, funny and warm, and originally from Ireland before she moved to the Nazareth convent 23 years ago. Bishop Barry said she was so much like what one might expect a Catholic nun to be that it was like she’d been sent over by Central Casting!
First, we descended down stone and marble steps to the “occupation level” of the crusader church, where Sister Byrne showed us the location of the burial site of a bishop from that time. When they discovered the skeleton, they knew it was a bishop because it had been buried in a seated position (indicating the man’s status) and was wearing a big ring on one of its boney fingers (I’m not sure if all bishops have boney fingers, but they all do have very big rings even today).
Also associated with this era of the site, is a large cistern which Christian pilgrims from that time drew water from a first century well linked to the cistern. They believed that this was the well where Mary was sitting to draw water when the Angel Gabriel visited her with the invitation to bear God’s child. Therefore, the water was considered to be holy, and visiting pilgrims would drink it and take it back to their homes of origin in small clay vessels as a kind of sacred relic.
After walking through the crusader era portion, we walked through to the first century part of the dig. There we saw the occupation level that existed at the time of Jesus. The remains of a Roman road lead right beside the doorway of a first century Hebrew home – the one believed to have been where Joseph, Mary, Jesus and his brothers (by a former marriage of Joseph) lived. As Bishop Kirk of Arizona said, even if it wasn’t really Joseph’s home, it is a place Jesus would have visited as a boy. In the first century, less than 400 people lived in Nazareth – everyone knew everybody else, and children ran from home to home like the unified life of a small village.
As though all this were not amazing enough, the most important find was still before us. Just beneath the first century home, carved into the local soft limestone, is a first-century Hebrew family tomb. The location of this mini cemetery would have been considered okay to the family living above it, since limestone is considered “kosher” or able of neutralizing any ritual contamination that might otherwise be associated with the dead.
The three-foot tall narrow entrance way to the tomb is guarded by a round carved stone door, only used in Hebrew tombs during the first century, that rolled along a narrow channel in front of the entryway. Inside the tomb are two niches or holes carved side by side, which would have been the resting places of householders – Joseph and Mary (if the early Christians were right in their belief, and this is the home of Jesus’ family).
After the amazing visit to the convent of the Sisters of Nazareth, Ghassan guided our group through the market place of Nazareth (called a “suk” pronounced like the name Sue with a “k” on the end) until we got to the Basilica of the Annunciation. This is a Roman Catholic church built over the remains of early Byzantine and Crusader churches, which in turn were built around a house which the early Christians believed to be the childhood home of Mary, where she lived with her parents before she married Joseph. Outside the church is a large courtyard featuring many mosaic pictures depicting Mary as she is imagined or understood in cultures around the world. So, each mosaic is unique, showing characteristics of the country that sponsored it’s mosaic.
When we entered the church, we arrived just before the noon service called The Angelus. It was amazing to hear that old rite! After is was over, we had special permission to go down the steps to the chapel in front of the entrance to the first century house. There, we held a brief service before coming again and going to our next destination – the Synagogue Church.
Though the Synagogue Church is a Christian domain, it is believed by some that the remains of the first century synagogue in Nazareth is below it. It’s a sweet little church that is still the parish church of some Christians in Nazareth, and we were grateful for the permission to hold a short prayer service there as well.
Our final stop before lunch was St. Gabriels Church, which is the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation. In addition to containing many beautiful icons and frescos, this compact space leads down a dark stone hall to the head of a spring – fed well. To the Eastern rite, this is the location of the well where the Angel Gabriel spoke to Mary.
We had a wonderful lunch in Nazareth, where one of our group (Andrea Peabody) was honored with a cake for her birthday). Rachel also had a tall bottle of beer imported from Bosnia, of all places! After lunch, we boarded the bus to head to Cana – the place associated with the wedding feast at which Jesus turns jars of water into jars of wine.
At the Greek Orthodox Church of Cana in Galilee, we held another prayer service and also a blessing of those in lifelong relationships, led by Bishop Greg. I have really appreciated how we have been able to worship – even if briefly – in each of the churches we have visited. These places are not just tourist sites or educational sites – they are places held as special or sacred for generations of Christian communities. Surely, the dedication, hopes, needs, dreams, and concerns of so many have made these places worthy of regard and respectful interest by people all faiths and philosophies.
After a wonderful day, we drove back to the Pilgrim House, had another healthy and good dinner, shared highlights from our day, said Compline and then went off to bed.
Here’s to barking at squirrels!