Encountering Galilee

Feast of the Ascension

Thursday, May 5

The day began in Sepphoris, only four miles from Nazareth. Though never mentioned in scripture, Sepphoris was Herod Antipas’ first Galilean capital. At its height, it was a cosmopolitan center with intersecting paved roads, grand houses, and five thousand residents. As with other cities, Jesus assiduously avoided Sepphoris.  Even so, from the top of the Governor’s house in Sepphoris, one can see most of Galilee, with a bird’s-eye view of the land Jesus traversed during his year+ of ministry.

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The “Galilean Mona Lisa”” on the floor of a house in Sepphoris

Understanding now much better the geography and first century demography of Galilee, the careful intention behind Jesus’ movements from one place to another is abundantly clear. For instance, Jesus likely selected Capernaum as his primary base of operations because it was strategically positioned between Sepphoris and Bethsaida, the capitals of the Herod brothers, Antipas and Philip. No itinerant wanderer was Jesus.

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Looking across Galilee from Sepphoris

Also from the roof of the Governor’s house, one can look north toward Lebanon and east toward Syria. While we were there, an air raid siren unnervingly erupted, reminding us of the Middle East’s instability and the human tragedy that continues to unfold in Syria. I later learned that the siren was commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day, which in turn reminds one of the necessity that Israel be vigilant of its own security, even as it should do so with justice toward and reciprocal security for its Palestinian neighbors. Nothing in this land is simple or easy.

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First century Nazareth house

From Sepphoris we returned to Nazareth and had access to the excavated ruins of a first century house and sliding stone tomb within the precincts of the Sisters of Nazareth. First century Nazareth most likely consisted of as few as 150 and no more than 300 residents, of whom 80% were children. The village (which had been recently settled by tansplanted Jews from Judea) would have had, at most, a dozen houses. The consequent overwhelming probability is that Jesus once stood-if not actually resided-in the house we visited. And the sliding stone tomb (called since Byzantine times “the Tomb of the Just Man” and believed by the Sisters to be Joseph’s tomb) is incredible to see. Such tombs were only in use from approximately 50 B.C to A.D. 50, which means this tomb almost certainly contained the remains of someone in Jesus’ kinship group.

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“The Tomb of the Just Man”

I found myself wanting to stay in the ruins far beyond the time allotted to us. It was almost unfathomable to be standing in the footprint of space in which Jesus once stood.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at the El Babour Spice Mill, which we’d first visited yesterday. The owner, a Palestinian Christian named Tony Kanaza, had made us a meal in his shop: barley, spiced meat, nuts, and homemade yogurt. There are twenty-three in our group, and he’d cooked enough for all of us, with food to spare. Tony’s material hospitality was surpassed only by the joy and generous spirit with which he offered it. He told us that those who break bread together cannot hate, and that he understands his work as an act of peace. I was almost overcome by emotion as I considered this man, who is in many ways marginalized in his own country, but who refuses to relinquish either joy or hope for all who live in this holy land. Without doubt, Tony’s spirit is an incarnation of the Christ.

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With Tony Kanaza at El Babour Spice Mill

As we returned to our hotel, the call to evening prayer rang out over Nazareth from the White Mosque. I offered a prayer of my own, for peace among God’s people.

It has been a most remarkable day, and I am thankful.

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