By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
I continued to be amazed and enthralled by the beauty of Israel, the Promised Land. As our bus cruised over well-kept roadways toward Nazareth, I found myself staring open-mouthed at the countryside, almost unaware of what Billy, our guide, was telling us. Snapping back to attention, I learned that Nazareth, a town of about 80,000, is divided into an upper and a lower city. Nazareth Illit, the Jewish upper city, built in 1957 along the tops of the Nazareth hill range, is home to about 30 percent of the population. Nazareth, the lower city, is home to the city’s Christian and Muslim residents. Billy and our bus driver, Anwar, both Muslim, call Nazareth home.
To Christians and Muslims, Nazareth is the City of the Annunciation. But in the Old Testament, Nazareth, the common link between three faiths — Christianity, Judaism and Islam — is barely mentioned. In fact, in John 1:46, Philip was talking to Nathaniel, who hailed from Cana, and told him, “We have found the one about whom Moses wrote in the law, and also the prophets, Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth.” But Nathaniel said to him, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Yes!
Here Mary was born to Joachim and Anne; here Mary took her first steps. Here, when Mary was about 12, she was betrothed to the carpenter Joseph. Here the Angel Gabriel appeared to the girl, announcing that she was to be the mother of the son of God.
Mary, though betrothed to Joseph, had not yet moved into his home; she was still living in her mother’s house, sewing and packing.
From here, Mary traveled to Hebron to visit her cousin Elizabeth, whom she had just learned from the Angel Gabriel was six months pregnant. Here Mary moved into Joseph’s home, completing the marriage ritual according to Jewish law and, a few months later, traveled to Bethlehem to register as members of the House of David. There Jesus was born, in a stable, since there was “no room at the inn.”
After returning from Egypt, where they had fled to avoid Herod’s decree that all male children under the age of 2 were to be killed, the family settled in Nazareth, hidden in the mountains. Luke’s gospel states: “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” Billy brought Luke’s words to life when he said, “Here Jesus grew up, indistinguishable from the other kids on the hillside, playing around the spring or studying with his teachers.”
There are two churches of the Annunciation in Nazareth — St. Gabriel of the Well, a Greek Orthodox church built over “Mary’s Spring,” a natural spring that feeds the ancient well nearby known as Mary’s Well. Women went to the well for water for their families twice a day. Billy explained that an early Christian tradition has Mary drawing water from the spring when the Angel Gabriel appeared to her. A bit confusingly, another tradition says that after drawing the water, she went to her cave home to pray; it was there that the angel appeared to her.
The first definite mention of a church was in 1106-08 by the Ukrainian Abbot Daniel, who documented his visit to the Holy Land.
Over the ensuing six centuries, the church deteriorated badly but people could always access the chapel built over the spring. In 1741 the Greek Orthodox community gained permission from Sheik Dahir al-Umar to take control over the site. The present church was built on the chapel of the spring’s south side by the Orthodox community in 1750.
A church was built next to the cave, or grotto, in Byzantine times, followed by a Crusader-era church, then one built by the Franciscans in the 17th century. In the mid-20th century, Italian architect Giovanni Muzzio designed a church to honor Mary and recall the Annunciation. There are several Muzzio churches in the Holy Land. This one, completed in 1969 and named a minor basilica under Canon Law, was constructed over the site of the earlier churches.
Along the walls of the upper church and of the cortile, its open, internal courtyard, are depictions of the Madonna from the more than 65 nations that call her Patroness. The metallic depiction honoring her as patroness of the U.S.A. was sculpted by Charles Madden of Maple Glen, Penn., and its plaque says in part “… Mary is the expression in multi-faceted splendor that ‘the grandeur of God will flame out, like shining from shook foil. (G.M. Hopkins)’”
Worn sandstone steps wind down to the basilica’s lower level. Here is the Grotto of the Annunciation, believed to be the remains of Mary’s original childhood home, a cave house. An inscription on one wall in the Grotto states very simply: “Verbum caro factum est et habituit in nobis,” “And the Word was made flesh here and dwelt among us.”
Guarded by an iron gate, an altar sits at the front of the cave. Staring through the bars at the holy site, I thought about the Annunciation capturing the hearts and minds of people for the last 2,000 years, and imagined the young girl answering the angel, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to thy word.” Shivers crawled up my arms — this is where it happened, right in front of me! I heard other people commenting that they experienced a similar reaction. One pilgrim in our group, Kathy McMiller of Pleasant Hill, recalled later, “I love telling people that the places we read about in the Bible still exist and that they are ‘Real!’”
Still slightly shaky, I climbed the stairs to the main level. We gathered in the cortile to be counted, not like the “counting” called for by Augustus Caesar the year of Jesus’ birth, but so that Billy knew we were all there. He then told us of some of Nazareth’s other sites, including the School of the Adolescent Jesus. Little is known of Jesus before his baptism and entry into his ministry, except that when he was 12, he traveled to Jerusalem with Mary and Joseph to celebrate Passover. When they began their trip home to Nazareth, he was not with them. “Then, after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions.” (Luke 2:46)
Today the School of the Adolescent Jesus, run by Salesian Fathers, works with Israeli youth to teach them trades that will land them jobs in Israel.
From Nazareth Anwar, our driver, drove toward the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus began his adult ministry. We stopped at the Catholic Church of the Wedding, built in 1882. The Catholic church sits behind the Greek Orthodox Church of the Wedding, built in 1885, near the remains of a Roman ritual bath and a synagogue. The synagogue may have been where the wedding that served as Jesus’ vehicle to start his ministry actually occurred.
An inscription over the church doorway says, “Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, St. George Convent and the First Miracle Church in Cana of Galilee.”
In the narthex of the Catholic church is a huge stone jar, about 2,000 years old and similar in size to the jars mentioned in the Gospel (John 2: 1-11). During the wedding feast, the host ran out of wine. Mary was a guest, accompanied by her son. When she noticed the dismay on the steward’s face, she requested Jesus help him. Although Jesus protested, saying, “Woman, my hour has not yet come,” like a mother she ignored his protests and simply told the staff, “Do whatever he tells you.” We all know what happened next. Jesus told the staff to fill six stone jars with water, and then have the steward taste it. The steward told the host, “You have saved the best wine until the last.” This was Jesus’ first miracle.
Billy told us of an Arabic tradition connected to the Church of the Wedding. Among Arab families, he said, the birth of a son is very important, as a boy will carry on the family name and history. Couples leave prayer requests at the Church of the Wedding for a son to be conceived.
Outside the grounds of the church we again skirted vendors hawking their wares. I had learned to smile and shake my head no, boarding the bus as quickly as possible.
Anwar and Billy then drove us to the place of the Sermon on the Mount, crowned with the Church of the Beatitudes. The grounds are filled with gardens in full bloom; the fragrance of the flowers gives a hint of what heaven must smell like. The church was built of native basalt by the Franciscans in 1936, with funding by Mussolini. The church is surrounded by trees, flowers and manicured lawns leading down the slope to the Sea of Galilee. Everywhere we went, we saw, and petted, cats — sleek, shiny coated animals with loud purrs and sharp claws, which instantly appeared if we stopped petting too soon!
We gathered for Mass in a garden on a slight rise, near the Franciscan monastery. Under the trees, with the water glistening behind the altar where Father Ernie celebrated the Mass, there was a sense of being in the lap of God, blessed by the beauty of the day and the prayers we said for each other’s intentions. Two cats attended Mass, curled under a tree, waiting patiently for the small rodent they had cornered to reappear. In the meantime, they seemed be listen to Father Ernie intently.
There were many different Christian groups visiting the Church of the Beatitudes, celebrating Mass, praying together or alone, or wandering around taking photos. I heard many languages and was reminded of how small the world seems. Paul Choplin had similar thoughts. “Seeing pilgrims from all over the world praising God and singing hymns brought the reality of the universal church home for me and was very moving.”
From the Church of the Beatitudes, we drove to The Church of the Primacy of Peter at Tabgha, built of basalt rock on the shores of the Sea of Galilee near where Jesus appeared to his disciples after the Resurrection. During a conversation with Peter, Jesus asked him three different times “Do you love me?” You know I do,” Peter answered. “Feed my lambs,” and later “feed my sheep.”
We followed heart-shaped stones down to the water and gazed toward the hazy distant shore. The water was incredibly clear.
The Sea of Galilee, 680 feet below sea level, is actually a harp-shaped lake fed by the crystalline waters of the Jordan River. About 13 miles long and 150 feet deep, it is Israel’s largest fresh-water reservoir.
The basalt rocks, here and elsewhere along the Galilean shore are evidence of a volcanic eruption some 20 million years ago, Billy told us. The lake supports about 60 different kinds of freshwater fish, including catfish, mollusks and a fish very popular back home, St. Peter’s fish, also known as tilapia. Drag and cast-type nets are still in use by fishermen, just as they were 2,000 years ago.
I stood for a moment at the water’s edge and let my imagination drift. I could almost see a fishing boat gliding through the haze toward the shore and smell fish cooking over a charcoal fire. No, what I smelled was tour bus exhaust borne on the breeze. It was time to clamber onto the bus, and head toward Capernaum and a kibbutz named Ein Gev, thinking of the Gospel readings and traveling past hills that looked much as they would have looked when Jesus walked among them.