Nazareth and Hills
 
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Nazareth and Hills
To the Cross
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Nazareth

All the glory goes to Bethlehem in our usual celebrations of the birth of Jesus: no one sings "O Little Town of Nazareth". But if we are to believe the dominant Gospel narrative, Jesus' home, his nurturing and care, and formative years were in the village of Nazareth. This is the place where Mary lived (Ein Kerem's honoring of Mary was in recognition of her visit to her cousin Elizabeth, who lived there). Joseph's home was probably very nearby.

First Century homes were built in caves here, as in Ein Kerem and Bethlehem, and Henry tells us that the generally accepted view, based on excavations, is that the village consisted of 40 to 50 homes, perhaps 300 people; you can imagine Jesus' early life in the small village setting. However, recently new work has revealed additional homes at some distance from the ones already identified, suggesting a significantly bigger town.

Mon, 3/31: This is a place that loves Mary! Not just the idealized Mary of the Italian Renaissance, so common in our shared cultural imagination, but the Mary who belongs to all people. The Basilica of the Annunciation, which celebrates the angel Gabriel's visit to Mary to tell her that she will give birth to Jesus, is graced by a fascinating series of artworks, each donated by a different nation, depicting Mary and her child Jesus. Here is Mary as a Chinese woman, or a native of Chile. Countries from every inhabited continent have art here, a stunning and deeply moving expression of love and faith.

The church itself is modern, that's clear from the exterior. Big too. Henry warns it might not be to our taste, especially if we're drawn more to the classic Byzantine or Crusader-era architecture. We step inside and I am overwhelmed by its unexpected beauty and grace. The interior is wide open, massive, with a 1960s style modernism, almost Bauhaus. Concrete and stone, wood and iron. Nothing too ornate, large sweeping simple lines, all gathering in to a theater-in-the-round stage-like area that is stepped down below floor level. An arch from the Byzantine-era church that once stood on this site serves as a visual gateway into the cave in which it is believed Mary's family lived, rough-hewn rock walls incorporated brilliantly into the worship space. A mathematically-pleasing geometric dome, chic-modern chandeliers (I can't help humming the theme to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" - open the photo on the next page and you'll see what I mean) - it's not at all what I expected in such a unique pilgrimage destination, and I am in love with it all. We hear the sounds of liturgy, though no service appears in progress here. Stairs lead up, and we discover the 2nd level is as large as the first, ring-shaped, with a large hole in the center to allow the soaring ceiling to be visible from both floors. A congregation has gathered in worship. This feels true to me, a real community service, local folk gathered here, I wonder. Nazareth today is about half Israeli Jew and half Palestinian, both Christian and Muslim. Despite the presence of tourists from all over the world, this has the feel of the center of a local faith community's life.

While others seek out lunch, a handful of us follow Henry across the plaza to St. Gabriel's Church. The Orthodox tradition says that Gabriel appeared to Mary by a spring, the symbol of renewing life, and this diminutive treasure is built around an ancient spring; we can see the water flowing out of the limestone bedrock. This has a much different feel: a wall of icons appears to be a screen hiding the altar from view but Henry tells us that the icons are actually understood as windows into paradise, a vista into the realm where the priests already are as they celebrate the mass. So different from the Annunciation Basilica in every way (the sanctuary is tiny, ornate, and artistically busy), but here too I find God and devotion.
 

Beatitudes

The hills of Galilee figure prominently in Gospel stories. One of most well known narratives is the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus speaks from a mountain to a large gathered crowd. This is the setting for his "Beatitudes", the "Blessed are the.." teachings that focus on the qualities of a life of faith and the upside-down values of the realm of God. One such hill overlooks the Sea of Galilee near Tabgha: it is where we will encounter the Beatitudes. As Sayid eases the great gray vehicle he commands so deftly to a stop, Henry encourages us to buy something at the little Palestinian shop by the start of the trail. There are trinkets, hats, snacks. Alice gets a kite. We are requested to walk in silence down to our gathering spot where we will have a worship and reflection time. Alice flies her kite in the stiff breeze as she walks, half heartedly apologizing for not following the program. My heart is soaring with hers. This is exactly right for her, and, I realize, for me, too. Why can't I be that free, that honest about who I am? This is without a doubt one of the most profound and meaningful experiences of worship for me on this pilgrimage. It's hard to venerate a kite.

The view of the blue sea from the hillside is idyllic. We read the Beatitudes and share our thoughts. I lie back close my eyes and think of Dad. "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth." That was the theme of the reflection piece I offered at Dad's memorial service last May. Really, though, most of the Beatitudes describe him perfectly: poor in spirit... hunger and thirst for righteousness.. merciful... pure in heart... peacemaker. My body instinctively adopts his classic nap position: stretched out on my back, legs crossed at the ankles, eyes shielded by the crook of an arm, the other arm resting on my chest. Years of watching him sleep have scribed that position into my bones, and whenever I lie down outdoors my limbs find their way there. "Blessed are the meek...." I want to be like my dad.

Communion that evening is by the shore of the lake. I keep being reminded on this trip of India - the sweet shops and jalebi-like snacks in Jerusalem's Old City "souk"; the cacophony of the market itself; banana groves; the palm trees and bougainvillea here by the lake wafting in the breeze; birds whose calls I haven't heard since India decades ago. I look up from my seat and recognize the smooth-barked tree. What is it? Why is it so familiar! Henry tells us it's a bo tree. The last time I sat under a bo tree was by the Tibetan temple of Bodh Gaya in northern India, the place where Siddhartha Gautama received his enlightenment and became the Buddha. That grand and broad tree was the descendent of Buddha's original, an offspring from a cutting from his. Another pilgrimage perhaps.

Transfiguration

The mountain sits like a perfectly rounded bowl dumped upside down onto the flat plain. Mount Tabor is the site remembered for the Transfiguration, the odd Gospel story in which Jesus and his three closest buddies (Peter, James, and John) spend a little time away from the others, retreating to a mountaintop to pray. Jesus is "transfigured" before his disciples' eyes, his garments and face shine brilliantly, Moses and Elijah, patriarchs of the faith, appear at his sides, and a voice from heaven (in a repeat of the message at his baptism) says, "This is my beloved Son. Listen to him." It is one of the weirdest stories in the Gospels. For the three companions it was a mystical thrill. Jesus, however, begins to talk of his betrayal and death. He sets his face toward Jerusalem.

Tue, 4/1: Transfiguration seems an appropriate theme for our return to Jerusalem. The Galilee has changed us; we are now ready to join that journey toward the Mount of Olives. But first we must get to the top of Mount Tabor. Busses aren't allowed, and a brisk taxi van service keeps the road humming with traffic. In quick order we are shuttled into one vehicle after another. I am in the final one, having served that morning as "sweeper" (the rotating role charged with bringing up the rear and making sure we don't leave anyone behind). There are about 10 in our 6 door vehicle, Henry on the floor. One minute up the road, a loud crack, and the van pulls to a stop. Broken fan belt. We pile out, and a minute later a substitute vehicle is at our side. This one's smaller, though, and 3 of us are on the floor. Apparently eager to impress (or perhaps keep a schedule) the driver flies up the mountain at full speed, navigating the zigzag switchbacks with careless ease. Those of us on the floor are leaning, sliding, grabbing for a handhold. It's only a 5 minute ride, though, and we're there.

We pause at the Basilica of the Transfiguration for reflection and prayer, and Henry takes us to an overlook for an orientation to the land. Below us is the edge of Galilee, the beginning of ancient Samaria, off to our left the Jordan River valley again. Walking from Galilee to Jerusalem, as Jesus and his disciples did, would take a good 10-12 days. We sense a new direction, an eagerness to move. A group of us decides to walk down the mountain and encounter large numbers of hikers coming up. One stops to talk, telling me he used to live in North Cambridge, Mass., not half a mile from an apartment we lived in for 5 years. We wish each other peace as we go our separate ways.

  •  Photos: Nazareth

  •  Photos: Art depicting Mary and Child from nations around the world, Basilica of the Annunciation

  •  Photos: Beatitudes

  •  Photos: Mount Tabor

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Updated 04/12/08