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!)
When I made the decision to join the pilgrims from St. Martin’s, I had no idea what to expect. I had never been to the Middle East, I had never been part of a group tour, and I had never been on a pilgrimage. I began to learn more about Jerusalem. I read, I watched videos and I talked with others. Although helpful, nothing prepared me for the experience of the last several days.
This has been an incredible journey. I’ve visited places I’ve read about and familiar Bible stories have come to life. I have learned a lot and realize how much more I have to learn. There are things that I didn’t anticipate: my tears at the Temple steps and the Western Wall, the humility I felt seeing the Bedouin shepherd and his goats and sheep walking on the desert path, and the joy and serenity of new friends and Christian fellowship.
The journey is not only about where we have been or where we are going. It is an inner journey- carving away time to be still, unpacking the itinerary and allowing God to lead me. I am blessed!
Yesterday I did something that many people have on their bucket list. I don’t have a bucket list, but nevertheless I found myself floating around in the Dead Sea, considered to be one of nature’s wonders.
It wasn’t the floating that attracted me because I float naturally in almost any position in any type of water. For some reason God has made me very buoyant. It was the natural healing of the skin that takes place because of the high density of salt and minerals in the water that really intrigued me. I tend to have sensitive skin so I thought I would try it out and see what would happen. I waded into the water and sticky mud. I walked to the middle of the enclosed area and sat down to float. It was an interesting feeling. The water felt like syrup against my skin. I felt very smooth. I floated around for awhile talking to people. It was a very different than normal swimming but it was very peaceful.
As I pondered this experience, I found myself drawing some analogies between the Dead Sea and my faith. In the Dead Sea nothing can live, but the Sea lifts people up so that they can float. There is no struggle because the salt supports them and they cannot sink. When I was dead from sin, I could not not achieve eternal life on my own, but Christ lifted me up with him on the cross. I did not have to struggle because his love supported me.
When I get stuck in the mud of daily living, Jesus cleanses me with his blood and makes me whiter than snow. He smoothes out the rough patches in my life. When my desire to follow him loses it saltiness, my life seems meaningless but he restores my faith. He is the spice of my soul. Christ’s healing power is far greater than that of the Dead Sea. His love never recedes, but continues to roll over us forever. We cannot sink because he is there to lift us up in all circumstances. Glory be to God!
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb.
Today our pilgrim group visited Ein Karem, a sweet small town neighborhood west of Jerusalem. The town is, by tradition, the hometown of John the Baptist and the site of Mary of Nazareth’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth.
This is a view of the countryside Mary (may have) traveled through.
The courtyard at the Church of the Visitation features mosaics of the Magnificat in dozens of languages, as well as one of the most delightful statues anywhere, depicting the pregnant Mary and the more-pregnant Elizabeth standing belly to belly. Lisa Green and I both love the statue.
Also in Ein Karem: an ancient spring as old as Mary’s visit, and named for her.