I reported about my initial experience of Israel in the Old City of Jerusalem. The sense of darkness I felt was short lived as our group went to other important sites. The very next place we went to was the Church of the Visitation which was a light and lovely church commemorating the visit Jesus’ mother Mary made to her cousin Elizabeth after she learned that she was pregnant. The garden outside the church there were two bronze statues of pregnant women facing one another celebrating the life growing in each of them and the friendship they had with one another. Inside the church was a painting of the two of them. It brought tears to my eyes thinking about the women in my life who have supported me during difficult times and celebrated with me my times of joy.
Other churches we visited were also places of light. They lifted my spirits as they drew our attention to one aspect of the life of Jesus after another. We followed Jesus life in a chronological way, moving from his early days as a baby born in Bethlehem and as a boy raised in Nazareth to the man baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan River and preaching out of his home base in Capernaum. Our scholars suggested that the Bethlehem stories are symbolic rather than historic, which support the readings I have done. While I found these places somewhat interesting, my interest really came alive when we went to Nazareth and then on through the rest of the trip. These were were real historic places where Jesus walked and preached his message.
Here are a few of the highlights:
We visited the place on the Jordan River where Jesus cousin John is said to have baptized Jesus. The place was surrounded by structure intended to protect visitors who wanted to go down into the water as Jesus had done. It was very tastefully done maintaining the natural beauty of the place. Our instructor pointed out to us the transition this experience meant for Jesus, leaving behind one way of life for another:
- His way of praying from the traditional ways of his people to an inner contemplative prayer.
- His work of carpentry to preaching and shepherding the people of Israel.
- His letting go of his vocation as a man with a family to one totally dedicated to his mission of preaching.
- His shift from his earthy family to the new community of the members of the Kingdom of God on earth.
We heard that the symbol of the dove had a double meaning. Symbol of peace and of the Holy Spirit, yes, but also of sacrifice since the dove is often used as a sacrifice in the temple where it’s neck is broken and it is burnt as an offering. I thought about the peace makers throughout history who have been assassinated because of their work, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King are two examples. What is it about a peace testimony that is so vile in the eyes of the world that there are those who seek to kill them those who preach peace?
This is what I wrote in my journal about Nazareth:
“…my favorite place so far. Streets are narrow and cobbled, up and down, twisting. The cars coming around the corners totally surprised us and we had to walk single file and press up against the buildings. Churches are light and bright, well kept by Franciscans or other orders. The symbols are more cheerful and there is more contemporary art work than in the Greek Orthodox churches.
“We stopped to visit a mill in which there is a well believed to be the one that Mary, Jesus’ mother used when she went to get water for her family. This was one of three wells, we learned, that held the same claim. The owner of the mill was a delightful man with a great sense of humor, proud of his family heritage and of the mill that had been owned by generations of his family. He described his childhood with great color, playing under the bellies of the camels and running between the huge bags of imported spices.”
Along the streets were small cafes where men sat schmoozing about God-knows-what – religion? taxes? whether the fish are biting? It seemed so ordinary and I could easily imagine Jesus sitting among them, having his own opinions on those very topics.
I will save the visits to Bethsaida, Capernaum and Bethany for another day lest I get too lengthy in my writing. As our group moved away from Jerusalem into the territories of the Sea of Galilee my spirits were lifting out of the darkness where I started into a lightness that continues to color my portrait of Jesus.