Of all the pilgrim sites in Israel/Palestine, Nazareth is surely one of the places that has changed the most in the past 2000 years. Mary’s hometown probably contained no more than 40 or 50 homes, lived in by just a handful of families, when Jesus was a boy. It was Nowheresville, as indicated by Nathanael’s question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
During our three days in the Galilee region, our pilgrim group visited Nazareth, now a town of about 75,000 people. We toured the excavations under the Sisters of Nazareth Convent. In the late 19th century, builders discovered several underground layers: a Crusader church was built on a Byzantine church from the 1st or 2nd century. And under that (as Lisa mentioned in an earlier article): the remains of a home from the first century.
It is nearly impossible in the Holy Land to say with any certainty “this is where Jesus thus-and-so.” One has to rely heavily on the traditions of thousands of years of pilgrims, and extrapolation of other things like historical records and archaeology.
But here’s the thing: Tradition has caused this place to be highly preserved and revered since Jesus’ day. Untold numbers of pilgrims have believed that this is the home of the Holy Family. Whether or not that is a fact, history knows that the town was so small, Jesus certainly knew this home.
Furthermore, there is a tomb carved under the house, which is unheard of: ancient Jews never buried anyone within the city, unless one was a king or a “Just Man.” The tomb of Joseph, maybe, beneath his family home?
Our guide was a 20-something French woman who clearly believes this is the boy Jesus’ house. This was a very dear experience.
Just to round out the story, about 200 yards from the home under the convent we visited what is—by tradition—the home where Gabriel approached Mary. That house is now, of course, also in the lower level of a church: the Basilica of the Annunciation.
Even in a land where holy places are often disputed, this was a rare and spiritually enriching, tangible experience of Jesus of Nazareth.
Thinking about the many amazing, moving, important places we have visited so far, I find myself most impacted by two. By impacted I mean where I most felt the presence of God.
First was our morning in the wilderness: the very wilderness where Jesus was tested.
Second was our afternoon at the headwaters of the Jordan where Jesus asked who people said he was, and Peter proclaimed him the Messiah.
In both these places — although so very different — I knew Jesus had been but more importantly, I know that Jesus is with me now. Amen!
Our pilgrim group is sojourning for three days in the north end of Israel, in the Galilee region. It is a relief to leave noisy and tense Jerusalem for the quiet and beautiful countryside.
The Sea of Galilee is fed from the north by the Jordan River, which rises at the Banias nature preserve at the northernmost end of Israel, very close to Lebanon and Syria. The area is lush and full of water.
At Banias, which is near the ancient pagan city of Caesarea Philippi, the ruins of a shrine to the god Pan can be seen above the spring that gives birth to the Jordan. The ancients believed this shrine-cave was in fact a gate to hell. It was here that Jesus, a teacher who always used his surroundings as object lessons, proclaimed that the gates of hell would not prevail against his church.
The centerpiece of the Galilee region is of course the Sea of Galilee, also known as the Sea of Tiberias, and Genesaret.
Our guest house overlooks the sea from the Mount of the Beatitudes. Within view, circling the sea, are the cities of Tiberias, Magdala, and the tiny village of Capernaum. With one glance, one can take in a major portion of Jesus’ home turf. It is very easy to envision Jesus and his friends “going over to the other side” in boats, which was easier than walking.
This evening we shared the Eucharist in one of the outdoor chapels on the hillside overlooking the sea. Lisa Green presided, and I preached, which was a privileged experience to share. It felt ancient to worship in the dark as our spiritual forebears might have in this place (except with light from mobile phones instead of candles!)