Another glorious day in the Holy Land. We set out at 7.45am by coach to see Mount Tabor, Cana and Nazareth. Some of the most resonant places for us as Christian pilgrims. Fr Mervyn reminded us that today is the Feast Day of St Augustine of Hippo who said of The Lord, “our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” A beautiful sentiment to begin the day with. Today is extra special for two of our pilgrims, Joseph and Ian, as it is their birthdays. What an amazing way to spend your birthday, and no doubt one they will never forget. Speaking of birthdays, yesterday saw the birth of Anne’s fourth grandchild, who has been given a very suitable name considering that today we are visiting the Church of the Annunciation – we wish baby Gabriel every blessing.
Our journey to Mount Tabor took us past the site where in 1187 the Crusaders were defeated in battle and poignantly the True Cross, which St Helena had discovered, was lost to us forever. We saw lots of young soldiers both male and female, waiting by the roadsides to be picked up and taken to their bases around the Golan Heights. Israel operates a compulsory national service system, men serve 3 years from 18 to 21 and women serve 2 years from 18 to 20. The land in this area is used for arable farming and if it wasn’t for the large mountains in the background, you could easily believe in some places that you were home in England. The olive groves however, might look a bit out of place. Olive oil is used extensively in this part of the world both in cooking and for medicinal purposes. There are both Jewish and Palestinian towns around this area, and in some place the communities are mixed.
We arrived at the foot of Mount Tabor at 8.30am and were met by a stunning view over the valleys towards the town of Nazareth. It is impossible for coaches to travel the zig zag road up the mount, so complementary minibuses are provided. Despite the narrowness of the road our driver was adamant that we shouldn’t use the seatbelts! Of course, Mount Tabor is the place of The Transfiguration of Jesus to Peter, James and John, witnessed too by Elijah, the great Jewish prophet, and Moses.
There are chapels on either side of the main nave dedicated to these great men. Tabor is part of the ‘Mystical Triangle of Christianity’ along with Naim, where Jesus resurrected the Widow’s son and Nazareth. The church on the site was built in the 20th century during British rule and is run by the Franciscans, who have former drug addicts to help with the gardens as a way of giving them a new start. Fr Mervyn was keen to point out that Christians have had to build on the holy sites in order to preserve them, even though this does alter their nature from Jesus’ time, especially in cities, at least in the countryside the contours of the land tend to remain the same.
Our Mass was double booked and we ended up outside but the raw simplicity of the chapel added something deeply spiritual to the service, indeed it looked similar to the kind of tents that Peter offered to build for Moses and Elijah during the Transfiguration.
Fr Paul led the Mass and spoke about how the Scriptures have come alive to us during this week, we have seen things we will never forget, just as the disciples that day experienced something they would never forget. We hope that in some small way we will be filled with the glory that they were. Malcolm read for us and Fr Gerardo proclaimed the Gospel, with Ian reading the Bidding Prayers. We sang hymns that reflected where we were – “We Behold” and “Take Me, Lord.” Fr Mervyn’s homily spoke about how the first reading marked the beginning of the real thrust by the Jews to conquer the land, and how God accomplished this through the weak – as evidenced, paradoxically, by the strength of women such as Deborah, who wielded considerable authority as an advisor and Jael with her tent peg hammered through Sisera’s head. Three of the Gospels include the Transfiguration which saw Jesus momentarily metamorphised from a man to The Lord. For a fleeting time, his disciples glimpsed his true glory. We too have these occasional glimpses of the Lord’s prescence, including in each other, we recognise in others that The Lord is here and must thank God for those moments when we see human nature at its best. We can’t hold onto them, but they are there. Following Mass we took in the outstanding views from the terrace that look out onto the mountains of Samaria, central Galilee, the Jordan valley, Jzreel, Mount Carmel and Haifa. The Franciscan gift shop was excellent and many of us took the opportunity to buy those last minute gifts for friends and family.
We left Tabor around 10.40am and arrived in the town of Cana about 40 minutes later, it would have been quicker but we were held up by a recent road accident, which unfortunately required an ambulance to be called. We are lucky to have such a talented driver and he was able to get the coach back on track. There are 4 towns with the name Cana, so this town is always known as ‘Cana in Galilee.’ The Pomegranate is an important image in the Holy Land, being a symbol of fertility, and is the symbol of Cana. We passed a roundabout with pomegranate statues in a circle. Interestingly this fruit has 613 seeds, the same number of Laws that God gave to the Jewish people. 40% of those who live in Cana are Christians and, unsurprisingly given its Gospel associations, wine selling is the cornerstone of the economy.There is a church and shrine at Cana and we listened to readings that emphasis the importance of love – “without love I am nothing at all” it says in John’s Gospel and many of us will have had the reading from 1 Corinthians at our weddings – “Love is patient, love is kind…” Wyn read the Psalm with the response, “The Lord fills the earth with his love.” Of course, being at Cana we read the account of Jesus’ first miracle, turning the water into wine at the wedding feast. A deeply moving moment was the opportunity for couples to renew/reaffirm their wedding vows in the church at Cana. Seven chose to do so: Ellen and Malcolm, Ian and Mary, Pat and Carol, Vincent and Catherine, Mary and Joseph, Mary and Geoff and Gerry and Vera. Fr Paul led the short liturgy. We also took a moment to remember those whose spouses have died.
Excavations locally unearthed a huge stone jug from 2000 years ago, though we can’t know for sure if it was one of the ones used by Jesus, the sheer size would suggest that a community would share them and they would be long lasting, making it possible. The amount of recent graffiti in felt tip was disappointing and the signs didn’t seem to be deterring some people from desecrating this holy site. The local gift shop had a vast selection of wines of all types including the traditional sweet wedding wine, which is 12 years old and guaranteed to be chemical free. Kindly the shop owner gave us two bottles for free and asked us to keep the local Christian community in our prayers. We later shared this at dinner, though the reaction to the taste was mixed to say the least!
Our final stop of the day was Nazareth, and due to time getting away from us we decided to have lunch before exploring. Lunch was excellent – Fr Gerardo was particularly impressed by the spaghetti bolognese. Meals in the Holy Land involve plenty of courses and healthy sized portions, though the obesity epidemic in the west doesn’t seem to have hit here. At $15 a head it was a bargain – soup, spag bol, beef with potatoes, cabbage and followed by macaroons. We took the opportunity to thank Samir for guiding us on our pilgrimage and gave him a gift, this intelligent man has taken his role very seriously and been determined that we should learn as much about the geography, geology, languages, history, peoples, numerology and Bible stories of this area as possible.
In Jesus’ time Nazareth was a small nomadic community of probably no more than 200 people, centred around the natural water suppy, which was still being used in 1960. Today it is a modern city of 75 000, whose wealthy villas attest to the existence of a substantial middle class. 40% of its citizens are Christians and the Mayor must be of the Christian faith. When Pope Paul VI visited in 1966, The Church of the Annunciation was under construction. This is a massive basilica built over what is traditionally reputed to be the house of Mary’s parents. It is in levels and incorporates the Byzantine and Crusader church ruins. Both inside and outside the Church there are mosaics showing apparitions of Our Lady from around the world, giving it a truly cosmopolitan feel. Reactions to this Church were, however, mixed, some enjoyed its grandeur while others were left cold by its ostentation and sheer size. Fr Mervyn spoke about how Mary completely trusted in The Lord and how each time we pray the ‘Hail Mary’ we are linked with Nazareth. It is in this town that The Lord was incarnated on earth, and not Bethlehem, and it is the events here that we remember every March 25th at the Feast of the Annunciation.
Virtually next door to this Church is St Joseph’s which marks the place where Joseph’s house was reputed to be. This would make Mary and Joseph close neighbours before their betrothal. This is a much simpler Church on a far less grand scale than his wife’s, though truly beautiful for all that.
A short walk through the bustling market led us to the synagogue, not the original one but it may have been built on the same site, it has the tell tale Crusader arches that indicate its origins. Here we read the Gospel account of Jesus preaching in the synagogue and being rejected by his own people.
Next door is the Christian-Synagogue Church under the control of the Greek Orthodox Church, this is a delightfully intimate and beautiful church, the curator kindly opened the curtains so that we could view the altar area which is generally kept hidden during Greek services. We headed back to Tiberius around 4pm. Fr Mervyn reminded us that everything we need to know about Jesus’ life is in the Gospels, there is no need to search for what happened during the “hidden years” from 12 to 30, from being lost as a boy in the Temple to the start of his ministry.
We enjoyed a couple of free hours before dinner, with quite a few choosing to pack ready for our departure tomorrow and some others having a snooze! After dinner we were given our official ‘Jerusalem Pilgrim’ certificates, just in case we ever need to prove we did it, and had a little birthday celebration with a cake for all our birthday pilgrims.
Tomorrow we head home, taking in Haifa and Mount Carmel…