Henry Goes to the Holy Land – Day 4

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January 16, 2015

This morning, we said a very fond fairwell to the Pilgerhaus (Pilgrim House) in Tagbha. It was a wonderful place to stay, and I highly recommend it to pilgrims traveling to the area of northern Galilee.

I finally found the sheep that I knew were out there!

I finally found the sheep that I knew were out there!

After making sure that all our luggage made it back onto the bus, we headed south along the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Traveling through Tiberius, we had glimpses of the old Roman fortifications of that town. Established in 20 CE, the town was named after the Emperor Tiberius. It was the capital of the realm of Herod Antipas.

The town of Tiberius soon became so well known, that the inland sea was called the Sea of Tiberius by the Romans.  However, the Hebrews continued to call it by it’s traditional name, Yam Ha-Kinerett (later just “Kinerett” and still later, “Genessaret”, and then”The Sea of Galilee”).

Date trees

Date trees

After winding along narrow roads for about an hour, we left Israel and crossed the boarder into the West Bank.  Soon we arrived at our first destination, the modern town of Jericho, located near the Jordan River on the West Bank. Jericho is 849 feet below sea level, situated in an oasis of the Wadi Qelt in the Jordan Valley.

Jericho Sycamore Fig Tree

Jericho Sycamore Fig Tree

It's a very big tree and deserves two pictures...

It’s a very big tree and deserves two pictures…

Stopping first near a large, old sycamore fig tree which locals like to say was the very fig tree that Zacchaeus climbed when he wanted to see Jesus through the crowds at during one of Jesus’s visits to Jericho (Luke 1-12). Whether this is THE tree is pretty doubtful, but is a very old tree, and is an example of the type of tree mentioned in the Scripture story.  I’m sure you’ll be glad to know that I refrained from peeing on it.  😉

Fortress ruins in Jerico archaeological site.

Fortress ruins in Jerico archaeological site.

After visiting the fig tree, we went to some ancient ruins of a fortress of some antiquity that had been refortified by Herod Antipas who had also built a winter palace at Jericho.  Also, the Gospel story of the Good Samaritan is set in the area – a Hebrew man is traveling through the mountain valley pass from Jericho to Jerusalem when he is set upon by thieves.

The ruins are interesting but in need of better conservation.

The ruins are interesting but in need of better conservation.

Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of more than 20 successive settlements in Jericho, the first of which dates back 11,000 years (9000 BCE). It was an early religious center for the Canaanite people, and the name “Jericho” is a Hebrew word derived from the Canaanite word for “moon.”

The destruction of the city (“when the walls came tumbling down”) actually occurred quite sometime before the Israelites migrated to the area, but it’s likely that they discovered the ruins and developed a story to explain them that also underscored their rise to dominance in the area during the Hasmonean Empire (a Hebrew dynasty descending from the Tribe of Levi, c. 110 BC).

With new friend Emily on the cable car going up to Mt. Temptation.

With new friend Emily on the cable car going up to Mt. Temptation.

After exploring the fortress ruins, our group drove over to a cable car station that takes people up to the top of a low mountain known as The Mount of Temptation.  Christian tradition attributes this mountain as the location of Jesus’ time of discernment in the wilderness. Their are many caves set into the sheer sides of the mountain, many of which are still used to this day by monks, hermits and shepherds.

Freshly squeezed pomegranate juice made from some of the  largest pomegranates I've ever seen!

Freshly squeezed pomegranate juice made from some of the largest pomegranates I’ve ever seen!

Before boarding the cable cars, many of us stopped to grab a quick cup of freshly pressed pomegranate juice.  YUM!!

Mt. Temptation

Mt. Temptation

Traveling in the cable car up to the “Temptation Restaurant” at the top was a lot of fun, with pauses in the ascent now and then for others to be loaded into cars either above or below us.

Marti didn't like it when the car paused or went over the tower juntions.

Marti didn’t like it when the car paused or went over the tower juntions, but she’s smiling nonetheless.

The view from the top gives a sense of Jericho today.

The view of Jericho from the top of Mt. Temptation.

The view of Jericho from the top of Mt. Temptation.

Rachel and I at the top.

Rachel and I at the top.

We didn’t eat at the restaurant (as “tempting” as that was!) but took the cable cars back down to eat in a pilgrim restaurant below.  Outside where we ate, I met a flock of very nice peacocks.

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Outside our restaurant.

Outside our restaurant.

After lunch, we did an amazing thing.  We drove to a site along the Jordan River that hasn’t been open to the public in a long time, due to conflicts between the countries of Israel and Jordan.   The Jordan River is the boarder between Israel and Jordan, so it is a place of much tension.

Armed guards on both sides of the river keep careful watch over those who come to visit the waters. We could see them as we waded into the river and gathered water to bring home with us.

This picture is taken from the Israel side of the Jordan. The open structure on the other side is in Jordan.  Inside it are armed Jordanian soldiers who are keeping a close eye on us.

This picture is taken from the Israel side of the Jordan. The open structure on the other side is in Jordan. Inside it are armed Jordanian soldiers who are keeping a close eye on us.

During our drive into the river area, we passed through the gates of a “No Man’s Land” swatch of territory that is actually a mine field with fencing on both sides of the swatch.

Going through no man's land to Israel's border with Jordan.

Traveling through no man’s land to Israel’s border with Jordan.

However, even in the midst of all of these signs of tension, we found a moment of real peace as Bishop Greg led us through a renewal of our Baptismal promises and then anointed each of us by name.

Bishop Greg anointing Dean Steve Thomason of St. Mark's Cathedral.

Bishop Greg anointing Dean Steve Thomason of St. Mark’s Cathedral.

The water of the Jordan River is very silty in this place, and the mud fine and squishy – much to our remark as we waded along the wooded steps set under water at its bank.

Pilgrims from the diocese of Olympia hanging out in the very cold waters of the Jordan River.

Pilgrims from the diocese of Olympia hanging out in the very cold waters of the Jordan River.

Me and Marti Rickel collecting river water to bring home.  The river is very silty here because it flows quickly and stirs up the thick, soft mud in its banks. It settles out quickly in a still bottle.

Me and Marti Rickel collecting river water to bring home. The river is very silty here because it flows quickly and stirs up the thick, soft mud in its banks. It settles out quickly in a still bottle.

I love this picture!

I love this picture!

Once our time was done, we drove back through the mine field, out through the Wadi Qelt and up through a pass to Bethany.  Gaining lots of altitude very quickly, we passed several modern Bedouin encampments.  These encampments are a mix of old and new – children herd goats and sheep, families build huts of corrugated metal; the port water into their camps and many have generators and televisions.  The Bedouins are a people on the move, moving their camps according to season and location of good grazing for their goats, sheep and camels.

The small shacks are a Bedouin settlement.

The small shacks are a Bedouin settlement.

Bethany is a Palestinian town that has been separated from the nearby city of Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives by the Israeli Separation Wall. Thirty feet high and 430 miles long, the Separation Wall was built by Israel as a security barrier separating Israel from the West Bank.  However, often the wall makes deviations into Palestinian territory.  The wall has a very negative impact on the Palestinian economy and makes travel very challenging.

The Separation Wall blocks the road.

The Separation Wall blocks the road.

At Bethany, we stopped in a church dedicated to the memory of the raising of Lazaras, who (along with Mary and Martha) were very close friends to Jesus.  He seems to have visited them frequently when in the area of Jerusalem.

Inside the Church of Lazaras,  Bethany.

Inside the Church of Lazaras, Bethany.

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The church has some antiquity at least going back to the Byzantine era, and it has beautiful acoustics.  The song during our brief prayer service there was very moving to us Anglicans, who love a well-sung hymn!  David Spring would have liked this very much.

Dome interior.

Dome interior.

Remnant floor mosaics from Byzantine era.

Remnant floor mosaics from Byzantine era of the church.

Once again aboard our bus, we had to drive around the Separation Wall blocking the direct route to Jerusalem.  We stopped in Jerusalem just long enough to drop off our guide to retrieve his own car before continuing our caravan to Bethlehem.

saca souvenir

This portion of the Separation Wall runs through Bethlehem.

The bishops decided to take us to shop at Christian cooperative gift shop that supports about 70 families of Palestinian Christians still living in Bethlehem.  As with Bethany, the economy of Bethlehem is highly impacted by the Separation Wall that excludes it from easy access to Israel.

We were glad to do “exert our economic power” as Dominic put it and support the Christian community by basically shopping our brains out at the cooperative.

My room at the Casa Nova.

My room at the Casa Nova.

Finally, we made the last few minutes of our Journey to our hotel..which is amazingly located on Manger Square, only feet away from the entrance of the Church of the Nativity.

After supper at the hotel and prayer in the nearby Franciscan Chapel in the church complex, it was off to bed after a very full day.  So many thoughts and emotions are running through my head, that all the reflection is exhausting but important.

Here’s to Barking at Squirrels!

Henry

Manger Square in Bethlehem is still decorated for Christmas, and the Armenian tradition celebrates Christmas Eve tomorrow. Jerry Christmas!

Henry Goes to the Holy Land – Day 3

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January 15, 2015

I woke early today to the sound of a steady but light rain outside the door of my Pilgrim House room. A heavy mist hung off shore, over the Sea of Galilee, and the temperature was cooler than we’ve had so far. Because of the weather, I decided to wear my sweater today, and you’ll notice that in the pictures from this day.

After breakfast at the Pilgrim House (which, being run by Germans is more familiarly known as Pilgerhaus), we piled on our bus and headed to our first stop only minutes away.

The Primacy of Peter

The Primacy of Peter

The Church of Peter’s Primacy is a small parish church which tradition says marks the spot on the shore of Galilee when Jesus cooked a breakfast of fish for Peter and the other apostles. We can tend to forget that part of the Gospel story, though, since it comes at the end of a larger story. You may better remember how Peter was discouraged with how bad the fishing had been and how Jesus told him to go out into the Sea of Gailee in his boat and cast his nets. Peter protested, but did as Jesus asked. When no fish were caught initially, Jesus told him to put the nets on the other side of the boat…which is when things went nuts. When Peter pulled up the fish net, he had to ask for help from a partner’s boat crew because his net was so full of fish. After the fish had been harvested, Peter felt badly that he had doubted, but Jesus said all was well between them. To prove it, Jesus cooks some of the fish for them on a rock near the shore, and they all eat breakfast. Eventually, Jesus tells Peter that he is the rock upon which he will build his church – this idea is known as the Primacy of Peter as the apostle (The Rock), representing a particular strain of Christian tradition and thought.

Interior of the church, with the large rocky outcrop dominant in the space

Interior of the church, with the large rocky outcrop dominant in the space

The Church of Peter’s Primacy contains within it (in front of the altar) a large area of exposed rock, the rocky area on which Jesus is said to have cooked the fish, the apostles gathering around for breakfast after a successful pre-dawn fishing expedition.

Touching the rock is okay, and some of it is very smooth from where many b pilgrims have touched the surface over the centuries

Touching the rock is okay, and some of it is very smooth from where many b pilgrims have touched the surface over the centuries

After arriving at the small stone church, our group had a brief prayer service in an outside chapel on the grounds before going in to explore the church. I lit a candle and prayed near the rock before heading outside to explore the shore just a few yards away. The shore of the Sea of Galilee is very rocky with the black basalt of the area, but the Primacy of Peter is one of the few places around the sea where it’s possible to gain easy access to the fresh water of the inland sea, fed by the river Jordan.

The shore of the Sea of Galilee beside Peter’s Primacy

The shore of the Sea of Galilee beside Peter’s Primacy

The brown texture of the beach here is not sand or pebbles,  but millions of small shells

The brown texture of the beach here is not sand or pebbles, but millions of small shells

Rather than a sandy shore, though, the beach near the church is actually made up of millions of very tiny sea shells left behind by the life that flourishes in the waters. Some of the shells are hardly larger than grains of sand, so you have look closely at what you’re walking on to realize how amazing it is. I’m pretty close to the ground, as little dogs are, so I thought this experience was especially cool!

Notice the black basalt I'm standing on that is typical of this area - it was the preferred building material during the first century

Notice the black basalt I’m standing on that is typical of this area – it was the preferred building material during the first century

Large heart shaped rock near the church

Large heart shaped rock near the church

Our next stop along the Galilean shores was Capernaum; the town where Peter lived and worked in his family’s fishing business before he left home to be a part of Jesus’ ministry. In the first century, Capernaum was strategically located along an important trade route of the time known as the Via Maris (“The Way of the Sea”), because it ran along the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.

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Not so long ago, archaeologists excavated the remains of a series of early Christian churches (Byzantine and Crusader eras) built around the foundation of a first century home. Evidence at the site strongly suggests that first century Christians believed this to be the home of Peter – a place that the Gospels tell us that Jesus visited frequently and where he healed Peter’s mother-in-law when she was sick.

The alien structure built for viewing Peter’s home

The alien structure built for viewing Peter’s home

The Franciscan community that owns the property now built a large building over the site of Peter’s house that looks as though a giant spaceship has landed, complete with extended landing legs like the Apollo lunar module. Though the architectural affect is pretty hideous, you can walk up into the spaceship for a good view of the ruins of Peter’s house, looking down through the paneled glass floor. I suppose it’s a reminder of how a family once got a sick man through the crowd around Peter’s house for Jesus to heal by cutting a hole through his mud and thatch roof and lowering the sick man down into the house.

A glass floors provides viewing down into the ruins

A glass floors provides viewing down into the ruins

Me and Laura Smith, wife to the bishop of Arizona, The Rt. Rev. Kirk Smith. Behind her you can see the altar in the viewing center

Me and Laura Smith, wife to the bishop of Arizona, The Rt. Rev. Kirk Smith. Behind her you can see the altar in the viewing center

Looking into the ruins of the first century chapel that surrounded Peter home

Looking into the ruins of the first century chapel that surrounded Peter home

Looking over the basalt foundation remains of Peter’s first century neighborhood - his home is under the center, which is visible in the background

Looking over the basalt foundation remains of Peter’s first century neighborhood – his home is under the center, which is visible in the background

The first century ruins of Capernaum also contain a Byzantine era synagogue, but underneath the foundation of it are the remains of a first century synagogue – one that Peter and Jesus would have visited. For a long time, religious scholars didn’t think that Hebrew communities really had local synagogues, that the only place they would gather for worship was the Temple in Jerusalem. But as the years go by, more and more sites are being discovered that show us that many towns around the Galilee did have small synagogues in the first century, all facing the south – the direction of Jerusalem.

Underneath this Byzantine synagogue are the remains of a first century synagogue

Underneath this Byzantine synagogue (the light stone ruins) are the remains of a first century synagogue

All the evidence indicates that Capernaum was a relatively large, predominantly Hebrew town, based around a bustling fishing industry which the Romans economically exploited during their occupation in the lifetime of Jesus and the apostles. In some ways, for Peter and the others to leave their livelihoods behind was also to freely (and dangerously) walk away from the unjust system of oppression experienced under the Roman Empire.

A first century olive press

A first century olive press

Detail of one of the stone capitals from the synagogue,  depicting the Ark of the Covenant

Detail of one of the stone capitals from the synagogue, depicting the Ark of the Covenant

Ghussan reminded us that we had to hurry back onto the bus in order to get to our pre-arranged boat trip out onto the Sea of Galilee.

Operated by a Jewish community known as a kibbutz, our group walked along a dock from the learning center to board a large version of the types of wooden fishing boats used in the first century. Only, the boats of the first century were not motorized (as this one was) but driven by wind and sail. As we boarded, the pilot and crew quickly ran up an American flag to fly alongside the flag of Israel. We would pass boats with Japanese and British flags during our time on the water. People from all over the world come on pilgrimage to this place.

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Bishop Greg the pirate!

Bishop Greg the pirate!

Me, Rachel and Sarah Monroe of the Diocese of Olympia

Me, Rachel and Sarah Monroe of the Diocese of Olympia

Once out into the middle of the sea, the pilot shut off the gas engine. During our prayer service, the silence was only broken by the sound of Israeli jet fighter planes buzzing our particular boat, tipping their wings towards us – perhaps because of the American flag. Altogether, six Israeli military aircraft buzzed our boat while we were out on the water. I’m fairly certain we were supposed to feel glad and honored by it, though in truth, we all seemed to feel a bit awkward. We are, after all, a fairly reflective group, what with trying to pray and all.

One of several Israeli military aircraft that said hello to us

One of several Israeli military aircraft that said hello to us

Each passenger on the boat received a certificate, even me!

Each passenger on the boat received a certificate, even me!

Once back on shore, we made our way into the Kibbutz center where an important archaeological find is on display. Inside are the carefully preserved remains of a first century fishing boat, and example of the type of boat used on the Sea of Galilee during the first century. It’s made of all kinds of different woods from the local area, as though they used whatever they could find to do the job or make a repair. The locals call this display, “the Jesus boat.”

The Jesus boat - notice the image projected on the wall behind it from an old mosaic of exactly this type of boat

The Jesus boat – notice the image projected on the wall behind it from an old mosaic of exactly this type of boat

Our next stop was completely unexpected, since it was not on our itinerary at all. Because the weather was so cool and overcast, the bishops had made the decision to move our daily Eucharist from the outside venue they had intended in Tagbha to a special visitors center located on the site of the first century town location of old Magdala.

The fountain well and pillar with no name in the Magdala Center

The fountain well and pillar with no name in the Magdala Center

The newly erected center is dedicated specifically to the women who followed Jesus during the time of the apostles. Inside the entry level of the center is a high arched round hall with a large burbling well fountain in the center. Five pillars support a painted dome above, with each pillar representing a woman noted in Scripture as those who accompanied Jesus and the apostles.

The pillar that moved Rachel most was the pillar that did not have a name inscribed on it. Our center guide, Alessandra, told us the nameless pillar was intended to represent all the women throughout Christian history who were not named but who were faithful, continuing to pass along the Christian tradition to their daughters and sons.  In many cases those nameless women of the centuries were leaders, healers, mystics, scholars and teachers of the church.

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The boat sculpture in the main level chapel to the apostles

Beyond the large entry hall is a glass wall, with an airy chapel dedicated to the twelve apostles. There is a model of a fishing boat from the time, with another glass wall that looks out over the Galilee. There are twelve mosaics, one of each apostle.

The chapel beneath the center

The chapel beneath the center

Descending down a spiral marble staircase to the floor beneath the center, our group celebrated Eucharist on the exposed stone sub-floor of the occupation level of a Byzantine church over which the center is built. Bishop Barry led the service, with Dominic assisting. Bishop Greg had Rachel take up an offertory collection, which we gave to the Magdala Center.

The first century synagogue of ancient Magdala

The first century synagogue of ancient Magdala

In 2009, the people who purchased the land to build the center made an amazing discovery as they were breaking ground for pilgrim hotel. They found the town ruins of first century Magdala, which include a synagogue.

The grooves on either side of this stone indicate that it was used like a lectern. The grooves each held the end rod of an open scroll. There is a very high probability that Jesus used this plinth during his preaching around the Galilee. 

The grooves on either side of this stone indicate that it was used like a lectern. The grooves each held the end rod of an open scroll. There is a very high probability that Jesus used this plinth during his preaching when he visited the synagogue at Magdala.

Jennifer, an archaeologist from Chicago who works at the center, gave us a tour of the synagogue ruins. They continue to excavate more of the town, known for its fish salting industry during the time of Mary Magdalene. It’s amazing to understand that she would have walked the streets there, gone to the synagogue and sat in the women’s gallery there. It was a town that Jesus would have known well, to which he could have sailed or walked easily during his time in Galilee. He would have needed to pass through it every time he accessed the walking road through the mountain pass near there – the road to Jerusalem from the Galilee.

Peter’s Fish from the Sea of Galilee

Peter’s Fish from the Sea of Galilee

The next stop was lunch! Some of us ordered “Peter’s Fish,” the type of fish that live in the Sea of Galilee and are harvested even today.

The Church of the Beatitudes

The Mount of the Beatitudes

After lunch we visited a Catholic church called The Mount of Beatitudes. No one really knows where exactly Jesus gave his sermon on the Beatitudes, but the tall banks of the shores in this particular area would have acted as a natural amphitheater for someone to talk and be heard by many people gathered on its slope.

In this church, the altar is in the center

In this church, the altar is in the center

There were some weird things about this site that were confusing to me. Can a thirsty dog have a drink or not?

The juxtaposition of these signs seems ironic!

The juxtaposition of these signs is weird!

But we did have a brief prayer service in the church and had a look around its gardens.

Our final stop of the day was back at Tagbha, on another part of the property where we are staying.

The Church of the Multiplication

The Church of the Multiplication

The Church of the Multiplication has long been associated with the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. The exposed mosaic floors of a Byzantine church (which goes back to the 300’s) were likely created when the shrine was expanded in 480. The central focus of the shrine is a particular rocky outcrop. You can see a part of the rock just beneath the present day altar. In front of the rock is a 5th century mosaic of two fish and a basket with five loaves of bread.

Mosaic of Loaves and Fishes

Mosaic of Loaves and Fishes

I lit candles at the icon of Mary in the church, and Rachel and I said prayers for a parishioner (Julie Amdal) at Trinity who is having surgery soon. We have also been saying prayers for the repose of the soul of Wick Congdon and comfort for the Congdon family (and other parishioner’s, too) in the prayer services we have had.

Fifth century mosaics

Fifth century mosaics

The atmosphere in the Church of the Multiplication is very quiet and restful. Even a puppy gets the sense of the long history of quiet prayers in this place. Today, a small German order of Benedictines regularly says prayer offices and leads Sunday services in the church.

First outdoor chapel

First outdoor chapel

After visiting this last church of the day, Bishop Greg, Rachel and me (along with several others) decided to walk back to the Pilgrim House. First, though, we visited the two outdoor chapels outside the church and near the shores of the sea. We sat quietly for some time at each of the chapels, and at the first one, we were met by a local hyrax – little furry rock dwellers (about the size of a groundhog) that have pointy noses just like mine!

Me and my new friend, Hyrax

Me and my new friend, Hyrax

At the second chapel, Rachel and I walked down to the shoreline, which is more typical with rocks and grasses (and more difficult to negotiate) than the unique beach at the Primacy of Peter.

Second chapel

Second chapel

More typical of the Galilean shore

More typical of the Galilean shore

After a short shower of rain (from which we were protected under the shelter of the chapel), our group walked back to the Pilgrim House for quiet time, dinner and Compline. Like yesterday, I was so tired that I went straight to bed to dream of the fish, hyrax, cats, seagulls and dogs that I met along the journey this day – all companions on my earthly pilgrimage. I feel very grateful to be here in this place with them all.

Here’s to barking at squirrels!
Henry

Original mosaic in situ, Synagogue in Magdala

Original mosaic in situ, Synagogue in Magdala

New replica of the mosaic as it would have looked

New replica of the mosaic as it would have looked in the first century

Henry Goes to the Holy Land – Day 2

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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.

The town of Magdala today

The town of Magdala today

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.

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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.

Olive Groves near Nazareth

Olive Groves near Nazareth

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.

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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.

Communion at Christ Church

Communion at Christ Church

A banner made by the children of Christ Church parish

A banner made by the children of Christ Church parish

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!

Christmas tree in Nazareth town center

Christmas tree in Nazareth town center

Nativity inset into the Christmas tree

Nativity inset into 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.

Sr. Margaret Bern at the convent of the Sisters of Nazareth

Sr. Margaret Byrne at the convent of the Sisters of Nazareth

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.”

Sanctuary in the convent church

Sanctuary in the convent church

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!

The Byzantine section meets the Crusader section of the site

The Byzantine section meets the Crusader section of the site

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.

Me and Bishop Barry at the entrance of the first century childhood home of Jesus - the home of Joseph the Just

Me and Bishop Barry at the entrance of the first century childhood home of Jesus – the home of Joseph the Just

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.

About three foot high, the first century tomb has a slightly larger rolling stone door typical of a Hebrew tomb at that time

About three foot high, the first century tomb has a slightly larger rolling stone door typical of a Hebrew tomb at that time

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 two receptacles for bodies and area for preparing the bodies for burial

The two receptacles for bodies and area for preparing the bodies for burial

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).

Church of the Annunciation

Church of the Annunciation

The upper level sanctuary

The upper level sanctuary

Painting above the altar in the Church of the Annunciation.

Painting above the altar on the uppet floor level in the Church of the Annunciation.

Looking up into the dome of the Church of the Annunciation  It is meant to look like a flower, because the name,

Looking up into the dome of the Church of the Annunciation
It is meant to look like a flower, because the name, “Nazareth,” means “Upside Down Flower” – with its roots in heaven and blooming on earth.

The suk in Nazareth

The suk in Nazareth

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.

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My Favorite depiction of Mary at this church is inside and was commissioned by Canada

My Favorite depiction of Mary at this church is inside on the upper level and was commissioned by Canada

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.

In the Church of the Annunciation, looking into the shrine of the first century home attributed to Mary

In the Church of the Annunciation, looking into the shrine of the first century home attributed to Mary

House shrine close up

House shrine close up

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.

Altar in the Synagogue Church

Altar in the Synagogue Church

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.

St. Gabriel's

St. Gabriel’s Iconostasis

Fresco of the Annunciation

Icon of the Annunciation

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We lit prayer candles at St. Gabriel’s

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.

The church at Cana

The church at Cana

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.

Greg has indeed come to Nazareth

Greg has indeed come to Nazareth

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.

An icon of the shroud of Turin that hangs in the Pilgerhaus lobby

An icon of the shroud of Turin that hangs in the Pilgerhaus lobby

Here’s to barking at squirrels!

Henry