Monday, June 6, 2011

Holy Land tour: Cana to Mt. Tabor

Basilica Church of the Annunciation, largest church in the Middle East. (Glenn Juday photo)

By Professor Glenn Juday

Fighting my body clock that has reversed night and day, I take an early stroll in the cool of the pre-dawn darkness. I ask the owner of the Ron Beach Hotel the origin of the name of his hotel. He said that Ron is the Hebrew word for “happy” and that he and his brother Aaron were looking for a way to incorporate one of their names into the hotel name. So, by simply dropping the first letters of his brother’s name, they now had the “Happy Beach” hotel.

Wedding Church of Cana

Cana is a Galilean town five miles northeast of Nazareth with a population of 8,500 including both Muslims and Christians. It’s an arresting sight in the Middle East to enter a village district and see a concentration of advertisements and shops selling alcohol. But taking a stroll through Cana (modern name Kafr Kanna or Khirbet Cana) the visitor will find plentiful wine shops in one part of the town. The first recorded miracle performed by Jesus and the beginning of his public ministry was the changing of water into wine at a wedding feast (such events lasted a week or so back then) in Cana (John Chapter 2). Thus commerce takes its cue.

The Footprints pilgrim group process through the streets and reach the Wedding Church at Cana, located near and partly over the ruins of a synagogue where the event plausibly occurred, although further research and archeological finds leave room for a fuller picture. Late the night before, our 15 missing pilgrims stranded in the U.S. caught up with us, making our group 133 people, including our pilgrimage priest Fr. Joseph from Toledo, Ohio. It’s the largest pilgrimage group that Steve Ray has had yet. At the Cana Church Fr. Joseph calls all the married couples forward. Then, as they face each other, he leads them in a renewal of their wedding vows. It’s a dramatic moment, punctuated by some choking voices and a few tears.

The Franciscans

Why are the Franciscans given custody of the holy sites? Because of the unique history and status of St. Francis of Assisi and his order. He was born in Italy in 1181, and renounced a life of comfort and pleasure-seeking to lead a reform movement that had a big impact in the church even before his death in 1226. He and his followers got close to nature (he is today the patron saint of ecology) and embraced what he called "holy poverty." He introduced the custom of a manger scene at Christmas time. During the Fifth Crusade he walked into the camp of the leader of the Islamic forces, the Sultan of Egypt and proposed that all live together as brothers in peace. He received a respectful hearing as a holy man, and then was sent on his way.

But ever since, these brown-robed men who shunned earthly power and wealth and focused on serving the poor achieved a sort of “harmless” status. Despite occasional bouts of official persecution, expulsion, and murder, they would keep coming back to the Holy Land, developing a reputation as both harmless and useful enough to tolerate. So, the Catholic Church found them the ideal group to assign the custody of the holy sites - big enough and dedicated enough, but with a low profile in the region.

Church of the Annunciation at Nazareth

We take a short ride in the coaches and assemble at “Mary’s well”, a public fountain fed by a pipe from a church uphill that was built over the ancient Nazareth water supply that the mother of Jesus must have used. The pilgrims process through the streets of Nazareth up to the Church of the Annunciation for the daily Mass. The Church of the Annunciation is largest church in the Middle East, and a designated a minor basilica – a church of significance because of its "dignity," meaning association with events in the history of the faith of a people or region or often because of the quality of expression of the faith in architecture and visual arts. In the case of the Church of the Annunciation, the event commemorated puts it in the very top tier of Christian faith with the Church of Nativity (Jesus’ birth) and the Holy Sepulcher (Jesus’ death and resurrection).

The Annunciation is the greeting brought by the angel Gabriel to Mary that she had been chosen to bear the Son of the Most High, a son of David who was to rule a kingdom without end (Luke 1:28-38). In a unique encounter among angels and humanity, the angel bowed down to her and greeted her as full of favor (in Greek kecharitomene) from God, and that was before she had agreed to become the mother of the Messiah. Christian art often depicts this encounter as a moment of drama – the fate of humanity hinging on her decision. And, in this belief, with her simple "yes" follows the inexorable undoing of humanity’s fall, and the opening of the path to salvation. So, it is a big deal for Christians indeed. Carved on the front fa├žade and the face of the altar in the grotto are the words “Verbum caro hic factum est” (Here the word was made flesh).

At the time of construction of the current church in the 1960s, archeological excavations took place under the church and the current courtyard. Some of the surfaces exposed during those digs have been kept for public viewing. A pre-Byzantine (pre-fourth century) site of Christian worship was discovered, and what appears to be a church/synagogue from the very earliest years of Christianity. Graffiti on the oldest pillars indicate that it was a place of veneration of Mary from the earliest times. Below that are remnants of the first century village of Nazareth.

The Basilica of the Annunciation is a lively, vibrant parish, and the home parish of Amer, our super guide. He is very knowledgeable about archeological results that inform the history of the region, and has done some advanced study with the experts in Israel. People like Amer in a long chain extending back as far as the origin of Christianity are the “living stones” that complement the archeological materials.

A Tekton

As a forester and ecologist traveling about the region, I see a basic fact that must have influenced resource use for the last several thousands of years. There is just not enough tree cover or forest productive potential to sustain extensive wood-based construction. The modern landscape is still considerably altered from the pervasive loss of tree cover and a general decline in land productivity caused by more than a millennium of very heavy grazing. But even allowing for the modern recovery of forest cover that has taken place, it appears that 2,000 years ago wood could only have had a relatively restricted role in meeting the needs of the population for buildings. Undoubtedly, wood played a critical role as fuel, in uses such as structural timbers and supports, and very probably for the various structures used to handle the main building material – stone. So how could Jesus have been a carpenter? It’s another language moment, because tekton is the Greek word for the occupation that Jesus held before his public ministry.

Tekton has a few shades of meaning, but foremost appears to be one who works or constructs with his hands. The translation of tekton into English as "carpenter" or Jesus as a "carpenter’s son" is weak, and not a sufficient basis for concluding that he was a millwright or specialized worker in wood. The strong weight of archeological evidence and the consistency of the material culture of first century AD Judea, Samaria, and Galilee indicate clearly that stone was the dominant building material. It is reasonable to infer that Jesus as "one who works or constructs with his hands" spent more than a small amount of time quarrying stone, shaping stone, hauling stone, placing stone. He could have been the go-to guy for rigging the timbers or shaping them, or even a skilled woodworker, but if he built things, he probably had as much or even more stone dust than sawdust on his hands.

Our group trudges up the slope to the Church of St. Joseph. Underneath the church are first century AD-era cave dwellings, one of which local tradition indicates was the house of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Caves or overhangs could be shaped and enlarged. By performing limited construction and adding a door across the typically wide entrances, residents could make a secure shelter for a limited investment. The rock mass would provide warmth in the winter, and cooling in the summer. This kind of shelter was practical, cheap, comfortable, convenient, and common. Nazareth was apparently a very small village, but it offered access to day labor only an hour’s walk away associated with the construction of the Roman-style city of Sepphoris. The cave dwellings are present, and any alternative type of dwelling pattern lacks evidence at this point.

Mt. Tabor National Park and the Church of the Transfiguration

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority describes Mt. Tabor National Park as one of Israel’s most impressive mountains, rising by itself from the Jezreel Valley. At least from the fourth century Mt. Tabor has been proposed as the site of the Transfiguration of Jesus, when the Bible recounts that he appeared in a glorified form with Moses and Elijah (Matthew Chapter 17). The location of the Transfiguration is not given definitely. The Bible simply says that Peter, James and John accompanied Jesus up a “high mountain.” The Franciscan Church of the Transfiguration occupies the summit, and is a favorite of many travelers because it is an attractive church in a quiet, cool, and quite scenic location.

Although it’s a high elevation landform adjacent to the Nazareth Mountains, Mt. Tabor is a horst - a raised fault block remnant surrounded by subsidence blocks, and is not volcanic. The slopes and nearby highlands have been the subject of an extensive reforestation/aforestation program by the Jewish National Fund. After several failed attempts with other species, the Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis) was chosen in the 1930s as the ideal tree for planting. Generations of Jews around the world, but especially in the U.S., donated to the National Fund to support this type of forest restoration. Aleppo pine easily copes with the summer aridity of the soil and grows rapidly. Nearby slopes and the area north of Nazareth are covered with extensive new forest blocks.

Reforestation blocks in the Nazareth Mountains north of the city of Nazareth. Pine and cypress have been planted. Some oaks have survived or are expanding. Pockets of deeper soil on slopes that are not as steep support olive groves. (Glenn Juday photo)

One of the rock-cut cavities at St. Joseph Church, Nazareth said to be the cave workshop and or dwelling of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. This cavity was converted to a Baptismal pool with a mosaic floor as part of a Church during the early Byzantine period (sixth century). Steps have been cut into the rock down to the pool. (Glenn Juday photo)

Niche altar in the grotto at the center of the Basilica Church of the Annunciation, said to be the place where the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would be become to mother of the Messiah. The Latin inscription reads "Here the Word became flesh." (Glenn Juday photo)

Pilgrims walking the streets of Nazareth to the Basilica Church of the Annunciation. (Glenn Juday photo)

Franciscan Wedding Church at Cana. (Glenn Juday photo)

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