From the Prophet Isaiah:
The way of the righteous is level;
O Just One, you make smooth the path of the righteous.
In the path of your judgments,
O Lord, we wait for you;
your name and your renown
are the soul’s desire.
(From the Sanctoral Lectionary [Harriet Beecher Stowe] – Isaiah 26:7-8 (NRSV) – July 1, 2014)
What a day this was! We began early, early in the morning, boarding the bus at 4:30 a.m. with no breakfast and a drive from Jerusalem to Jericho.
We got off the highway and trundled through small roads to a scenic overlook called Mizpe Yeriho (I believe it means “view of Jericho”) where we watched the sunrise over the Wadi Qelt, a tributary stream of the Jordan in the Jericho valley.
Each in the silence of his or her thoughts observed the sunrise and then it was my privilege to celebrate the Eucharist in this desolate desert place. Iyad had brought pita and wine, the necessary vessels, and a stole. I was surprised to see that the stole was a duplicate for the natural-colored, green-embroidered stole I had purchased on the Isle of Iona three years ago while on sabbatical. It was as if I were wearing my own stole!
While we celebrated, a Bedouin tribesman showed up and began laying out his wares — stone bead necklaces, bone and stone bracelets. I was facing away from him so could not see what others reported, that he was obviously elderly, obviously in some early morning pain, obviously unhappy to have to be there so early but there nonetheless to do what he does to support his family. It was both a distraction and a reminder that the Eucharist is never separated from context, and the Body of Christ (the church) is always surrounded by the people it is called to meet and serve.
After that we drove to Jericho and had breakfast in a lovely old resort garden accompanied by a little Pekingese-looking little mutt and a small orange tabby cat. Next after breakfast was a cable car trip (the hanging-gondola style cable car) up what is known as the mount of the Temptations. Tradition here teaches that Jesus spent the forty days in the desert in a cave outside of Jericho (now just on the outskirts of the modern city) and it was there that Satan offered him the Temptations. The cave has, for centuries, been incorporated into a Russian Orthodox monastery and church. Four aged monks now live in the monastery and support themselves by seeking pilgrim donations. (The similarity between the old Bedouin man at our sunrise Mass and the old Russian monk who offered us prayer candles for $1 each was striking!)
We were unable to stop at Tel Yeriho, the archaeological dig of ancient Jericho, but we could see if from the cable car gondolas. Our next stop was at the Sepphoris (modern Zippori) site; Sepphoris was the ancient capital of Galilee and it has been extensively excavated. It is a few miles from Nazareth and is probably where Joseph (and maybe Jesus) worked as a builder. We had a discussion here of the meaning of tekton, the Greek word often translated as “carpenter” but which more accurately means “craftsman” or “artisan” or “builder” (and sometimes “stonemason”). In this environment, “carpenter” seems a very inaccurate translation!
In Sepphoris, our guide Iyad, gave me the broken handle of a First Century vessel as a prize for answering a question accurately – my answer was a guess! The question was “How do we know there was a Jewish community at Sepphoris?” I guessed that it was the discovery of a mikvah (the community’s facility for ritual bathing) among the ruins. Turned out to be right.
From Sepphoris we came to Nazareth and first visited the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation. Greek tradition teaches that Mary was greeted by the Archangel Gabriel at the town well and this church is built over the ancient well. There is some great iconography in this church, including one of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt which depicts Joseph carrying Jesus on his shoulders.
We then walked to the Roman Catholic basilica. Western tradition holds that the Annunciation happened at Mary’s home and this church is built over what is believed to be her home. Originally, Antonio Barluzzi (many of whose churches we have seen) was to have built this church but, after he worked 20 years on the design, the project was awarded to a French architect in the 1960s. It is very massive and very typical French mid-century modern. In my opinion, it’s awful – it has all the spiritual wonder of a subway station.
In the church are depictions of Mary donated by the R.C. Episcopal Conferences of the several countries. The American piece is supposed to represent the “woman clothed with the sun” — an Old Testament image understood to refer to Mary — and it fits the church. It’s a disaster! Just my opinion . . . .
Our guest house was almost literally on the doorstep of the basilica, just half a block up a short street from the front door. And just beyond, the Anglican church in Nazareth, Christ Church. Unfortunately, it was not opened at any time during our stay in Nazareth.
This was a day of many paths, not many of them straight and not many of level, but all of them leading to spiritual enlightenment. I am physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted at this point and sorting it all out is an effort. So I’m putting it all in God’s hands, trusting that what I need to have learned, I will have learned.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.
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