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We Visit the Land of Jesus’ Beginnings

The fourth of five blog posts about our recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land (see part 1 here)

PART 4 – Nazareth, Cana, and Galilee

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Gospel Reading at the Church of the Resurrection (Holy Sepulchre)The Byzantine (Greek Orthodox) Church has a significant presence in the Holy Land, which includes guardianship over the most significant sites there – the Holy Sepulchre and the Shrine of Golgotha, and also the largest and most central sanctuary in the Church of the Resurrection, directly opposite the entrance to the Holy Sepulchre itself. It was there on the morning of our first Sunday in the Old City that we attended the Holy Liturgy.

The sanctuary is Byzantine in every sense – huge and elaborate, with a high, frescoed ceiling and a stone-pillared icon screen. Near the back of the church is a small, short pillar with an unusually carved top resembling a human navel. This marks the navel of the world, a symbol of the great Light and Life that originated in this spot and spread over the world. The icon of the Virgin Mary in the Church of the ResurrectionA very large, silver-covered icon of the Madonna and Child adorns one of the sanctuary walls. She is definitely not “Mary,” the maiden of Nazareth found too commonly in Western art, but rather the Empress of Heaven in all her power and majesty. As I stood before her offering my prayers, the huge bells began tolling their call to prayer, filling the church and my head with their soft booming. It was a “Byzantine moment.”

Soon after the Liturgy began, a flock of very serious looking black-robed Byzantine nuns entered, and a few local pigeons flew in to perch on high and observe the worship. Finally Bishop Hesychius made his entrance, flanked by his fez-topped security guards. At the end of the service he seemed pleased – or at least willing – to offer his blessing and the blessed bread to we two “orange monks” who bowed before him.

Going North

Except for two occasions where we engaged guides, Brother Simeon and I were on our own. Compared to conditions we had encountered in some areas of India, Israel and Palestine seemed pretty easy to navigate, and all the local people (with a few memorable exceptions) were friendly and helpful. So putting aside any reservations and the cautions of just about anybody who heard we were travelling here, after the Sunday liturgy we ate lunch at the corner falafel shop, rented a car, and drove eastward past the checkpoints into the West Bank and to the desert.

The life-size lion at the Monastery of Saint GerasimosMaking our way up the western shores of the Dead Sea our first stop was the Monastery of Saint Gerasimos, whose namesake is popular for his saintly taming of a lion who became his companion and helper. Very near to the western shores of the Dead Sea, the grounds were very reminiscent of our former home in Borrego Springs, California – palm trees, flowers, and lots of birds. The recipe for a beautiful desert setting is simple: add water, and the seeds latent in the desert blossom forth (the trick is finding the water). After a short stop there we continued north towards our goal of Nazareth, passing beyond the north shores of the Dead Sea until we encountered the southernmost shores of the Sea of Galilee.

The guide for our earlier desert sojourn, an Arab Orthodox Christian named Nadi, told us the metaphor for generosity and growth that the two different seas present. Waters flow into the Dead Sea, but nothing ever flows out. And because of its stagnant and caustic condition, no fish or other aquatic creatures can live in it. On the other hand, waters flow freely into and out of the Sea of Galilee, and it is home to over twenty-three species fish, who live there in abundant numbers. Lesson understood!

Some people have told us that they thought it was overblown to call this body of water a “sea,” that it was really just a lake. Clearly they never visited here. The Sea of Galilee is long and wide. It is large and benign, and its cool breezes were a welcome change after our long drive through the Judean desert. It was the first of many places in the Galilee where we began to have a better understanding of the clichéd expression “biblical proportions.” Israel and Palestine are small in area. But within that area are tall mountains and steep cliffs, and long and wide seas. Jerusalem itself, with its steep-sloped hills and deep, narrow valleys, is like a rolling sea of high waves of stone buildings.

The other beginning

The shrine of Mary's WellAfter arriving in Nazareth in the early evening, we checked into our guesthouse, where met our ever-cheerful and generous host, Odeh, also an Arab Orthodox Christian, and one of the many people that made us feel so at home in the Holy Land. Our next pilgrim’s stop was just a short walk down the street: the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, in which was the shrine of Mary’s Well.

According to the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James, the Archangel Gabriel first appeared to the Virgin Mary while she was getting water at a well. Frightened at the apparition she ran back to her home, where the angel appeared to her again and gave his message. The shrine of the well is within the walls of the Orthodox church there, in a side chapel several steps down from the main level of the sanctuary. Here pilgrims come to offer their prayers before a very old painting of the Annunciation (not really an icon), which hangs on the stone wall directly above the flowing stream of the holy well.

As we entered the church we were met by the old doorkeeper Nabil, with whom we became fast friends. He told us of his earlier days as a chanter in the church, and greatly gladdened us with his spontaneous rendition of the classic Byzantine setting of the paschal hymn “Christos Anesti” (Christ is risen), chanted with a robustness surprising in a man his age. [Watch him chant this here.] We passed through the sanctuary to the well shrine, and standing before the Virgin’s image we sang to her the Byzantine Marian hymn “It is truly meet and right to bless thee.” As we sat to meditate we heard Nabil’s voice from across the church, apparently inspired by our singing to offer more hymns of his own.

We found several other places in Nazareth well worth visiting. A short walk down the lane from our guesthouse were the offices and residence of the Greek Orthodox bishop. While excavating for new construction in the 1960’s they discovered a small complex of underground caves, which contained some ancient artifacts and tools and also a very old script identifying this spot as the Cave of the Forty Martyrs. The cave dated back to pre-Christians times, when Jews used them to hide from Romans who were pursuing them, and was later adopted by persecuted Christians. Eventually the Romans found the Christians and they were martyred there. Their relics are kept in a nearby Moslem cemetery.

Chemin Neuf Community, a Catholic community of lay peopleOn our way to the Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation we stopped at the Centre International Marie de Nazareth, which is run by the Chemin Neuf Community, a Catholic community of lay people (married and single), all generous and kindhearted. When the foundations for their center were dug they too discovered ancient history just beneath their feet – in their case, the ruins of an ancient stone house with several rooms. They adapted their building design to incorporate the display of the exposed ruins on the ground floor.

The crest jewel of their facility is a very sophisticated multi-media presentation which walks the viewer from creation to the advent of the Virgin Mary, to the Incarnation and Jesus’ life in the Holy Land, and finally to the mystery of the Resurrection. It is excellently done, very moving, and well worth seeing when you are in Nazareth.

Other points north

Keeping Nazareth as our “northern camp,” we made a day trip to Mount Tabor, the site of the Transfiguration, when Jesus appeared before three of his disciples radiant with divine light, flanked by Moses and Elias. Tabor towers high above the city of Iksal and the surrounding plains of Galilee – richly fertile, filled with acres of olive groves and more, the opposite in character to the barren Judean desert.

The Church of the Marriage in CanaWe also stopped at the Church of the Marriage in Cana, where at the Virgin Mary’s request Jesus turned water into wine; the Mount of Beatitudes on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee; and the nearby city of Capernaum, much frequented by Jesus and his apostles and the site of many important events of the Gospel story. The ruins of the house of Saint Peter and an ancient synagogue in which Jesus is believed to have preached are located there, amidst the low stone walls and other remains of the city.

Galilee is worth the pilgrim’s time for a number of reasons. Devotees of Jesus will get a much fuller picture of the world he was raised in and later frequented during his public life. It is too easy for the mind to create a flat mental image of the life and ministry of Jesus as we hear of it in the Gospels. Amidst the great natural beauty of the Galilee, its broad spaces and high peaks, rolling hills and valleys planted with acres of olive trees and palm trees, and the great Sea itself, one realizes Jesus and his apostles moved in a much wider sphere than we may have imagined.

The frescoes of the Orthodox churches at Nazareth, Cana, and Capernaum would alone make the trip worth the time. They bring an extra dimension to the true meaning of “orthodox” (“right glory”). Painted in the classic Byzantine style, the sacred images of Christ, the Holy Virgin and the saints cover every square foot of the walls and domed ceilings. As British author Stephen Graham explains, “In Orthodoxy the wall must not be dumb, it must speak… The people in the church ought to see themselves surrounded by holy scenes of immense content and immense dimensions.”

The Place

Father Theodoulos of the Brotherhood of the Holy SepulchreAfter a few days touring the north, we drove south back through the Judean desert and then westward into Jerusalem. Glad to be back in the Old City, we spent our last few days in the Holy Land visiting and revisiting our favorite spots – the Lifegiving Tomb, the Golgotha Shrine, the Armenian Cathedral of Saint James, and the Russian church of Saint Alexander Nevsky; and on the Mount of Olives, the Virgin’s Tomb and the Russian Church of Saint Mary Magdalen.

By this time we had become familiar with the priests, monks, and nuns at many of these spots, and felt that much more at home. As yogis we would be most inclined to sit with closed eyes, meditating in these holy places. But in these last few days we found it equally or even more worthwhile to just sit quietly absorbing the sights and sounds, letting it sink into us as treasures to commune with when we returned home.

The Narrow Way

“One cannot realize God unless one is very large-hearted and simple” (Sri Ramakrishna).

Every rose has its thorns, and the religious culture of the Holy Land is no exception. We had some rare but very memorable encounters with the blunt edge of narrow religion, with the Chosen. The Chosen come in different shapes and colors and religions, but share some of the same core qualities. They are the strictest and most observant in their particular religion and denomination and hold the most narrow interpretation of doctrine. Those outside of this exclusive group are unworthy of any attention other than contempt. And being spiritual and intellectual cowards, they are bullies.

I would imagine most pilgrims, being clothed in conventional rather than religious grab, would attract little attention from these types. But our orange clothes and crosses were a red flag for a few of them. This was something we quickly learned to pass over and forget, lest it spoil our trip. In our opinion the most spiritually healthy people we met were those openminded enough to inquire about who we were, and these meetings always were friendly exchanges, in which we shared our joy at being here in the Holy City.

Next: Advice to Pilgrims
Previously: Our Monks Visit the Monks of the Judean Desert

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