We have reached the land of Jesus’ birth and death. Today one hundred and one of us spent most of the day just north of the Sea of Galilee, starting where it all started in Nazareth, moving on to Cana, and ending on Mt. Tabor. With a group our size it takes time and while I had hoped to include the monastery of Mt. Carmel here in Haifa as a late afternoon stop, we did not make it back before their 500pm closing. Darkness comes quite early here in the Holy Land at this time of the year (445pm today) as it is about as far east in what is called the Central European time zone as one can get. On the other hand, sunrise tomorrow morning will be about 545am.
Everything and I do mean everything was closed on our arrival in the port of Haifa today. Because it was Jewish Sabbath, there were no workers loading or unloading the mammoth freighters in the harbor, no cars on the street and little noise anywhere. Haifa and this eastern part of Israel is heavily Arab, Muslim and quite productive. To witness it all so still was eerie.
It took about an hour to drive from the port to Nazareth which is a city built up and down several hillsides. Since Nazareth is today mostly Arab Muslim and Arab Christian (declining dramatically in number) and since it was Saturday there was considerably more activity to be found there, traffic jams and people on the non-existent sidewalks. Nazareth has throughout its history been something of a melting pot of people, even in biblical times, a biblical “Podunk” lacking any one religious or cultural identification. It was for this reason that Nathaniel could ask in the Gospel, “can anything good come from Nazareth.” Well for us it certainly did.
The angel Gabriel is said to have appeared to Mary at what today is called “Mary’s Well” of which there are two, one public and open to everyone on the streets and one under an Orthodox church. Which one it actually happened at is mostly irrelevant as the Holy Land is place where one experiences the Lord more than validating information or seeking specificity. The Franciscan fathers have built a magnificent basilica on the spot where legend days Mary and Joseph lived and raised Jesus and there is also almost attached a Church of St. Joseph which does not press the imagination as much. There was an American group celebrating Mass on the lower altar of the basilica, which is closer to Mary’s home. So what began with an angelic appearance to Mary then moves on to the Jerusalem area with Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth in Ein Karem (not on the West Bank) and eventually with Joseph to the birth of her child in Bethlehem, which we will visit on Monday.
Mary and Jesus would have walked down a steep hill and up another one on the five-mile walk to Cana and the famous wedding. We had Mass in the new chapel at Cana, again run beautifully by the Franciscans responsible for the holy places here. Monsignor Bosso gave a wonderful homily on “relationships” which centered somewhat on Mary’s relation with a “testy” Jesus in the famous Gospel where water was turned into wine. Then, all married couples present renewed their wedding vows and there were few dry eyes to be found. My group sang beautifully at this Mass and since we had the small space of this Church to ourselves, it was a wonderful liturgy. I think all married couples on this trip (and there are three whose marriages I have personally witnessed) would consider this the highlight at least of today and perhaps the whole trip.
Then on to Mt. Tabor, which at 1700 feet dominates the countryside of this Galilee region. Off to the east in the distance is to be seen Mt. Hermon which stands at about 5600 feet and which some of the Protestant churches have begun to say was the site of the Transfiguration, not Mt. Tabor. Whatever, the new basilica and surround grounds on a day with a high of perhaps 75 degrees, blue sky and delightful breeze captured our hearts and imagination. It was not hard to envision Jesus, Peter and James sharing that special moment of “epiphany.” Monsignor Bosso here pointed out that the transfiguration account in the Gospel immediately follows Jesus’ prediction of his impending death and resurrection and was meant to convince his two friends that they too needed to prepare themselves for the “cross” which would lead to resurrected life and transfiguration in the life, which is to come. He reminded us that moments of glory often precede or follow moments of challenge in life and we need to prepare ourselves for these moments in order to share the glory of eternal life.
To get to the top of Mt. Tabor, the busses can only take you about a third of the way and then you transfer to a ten person taxi which takes you the rest of the way up a spine-chilling crooked and an narrow road with many, many hairpin turns eliciting prayers from everyone in the cab. The saying around here is that the real reason the two apostles did not wish to leave the place was they didn’t want to take the taxi ride back down!
Tomorrow we spend the whole day around the Sea of Galilee and Sunday Mass will be celebrated for all of you at the Church of the Primacy. Stayed tuned.