Category Archives: Travel

The Soldier Saints: Saint Sebastian

January 20th is the feast of Saint Sebastian, a young Christian from Milan who joined the Roman army in the 4th century as foreign armies began attacking Rome’s frontiers. Like others, he entered military service to save his country from invaders.

A good soldier, Sebastian rose quickly in the ranks. Diocletian, Rome’s finest general and then its unchallenged emperor, appreciated able, brave men. Above all, he wanted loyalty; Sebastian seemed to be everything he wanted.

Yet, he was a Christian. No one knows why, but the emperor, on good terms with Christians early on in his career, suddenly turned against them. In 301 he began purging his army, ordering Christian officers demoted and Christian soldiers dishonorably discharged. The emperor lost trust in them.

Then, Diocletian began persecuting the entire Christian population of the empire. It’s not known how many Christians were killed or imprisoned or forced into hard labor in the mines; it was so ferocious it was called the “Great Persecution.”

As the persecution was going on, sources place Sebastian, not yet dismissed from the army,  in Rome, then under the jurisdiction of Diocletian’s co-emperor Maximian. Here he faced the dangerous situation that caused his death.

Christians were being arrested and imprisoned, and Sebastian was among the soldiers arresting and guarding them. Rather than doing a soldier’s job,  Sebastian did what a Christian should do: he saw those imprisoned as Christ in chains. The whispered words, the small kindnesses, the human face he showed to those in the harsh grip of Roman justice was his answer to the call of Jesus: “I was a prisoner, and you visited me.”

How long he aided  prisoners we don’t know, but someone informed on him. The rest of his story– a favorite of artists through the centuries– says that Sebastian was ordered shot through with arrows by expert archers who pierced all the non-fatal parts of his body so that he would die slowly and painfully from loss of blood.

He was left for dead, but he didn’t die. Instead, he was nursed back to health by a Christian woman named Irene and, once recovered, went before the authorities to denounce their treatment of Christians.

They immediately had him beaten to death.

He was buried by a Christian woman, Lucina, in her family’ crypt along the Appian Way, where an ancient basilica and catacombs now bear the soldier saint’s name. You can visit that holy place today.

The early church revered soldier saints like Sebastian because they helped people in danger, even giving up their lives to do it. They used their strength for others. When soldiers asked John the Baptist what they should do, he answered simply “Don’t bully people.”  The temptation of the strong is to bully the weak.

The soldier saints did more than not dominate or bully others, however; they reached out to those in the grip of the powerful. Sebastian’s great virtue was not that he endured a hail of arrows, but that he cared for frightened, chained men and women in a Roman jail–a hellish place.

Soldier saints like Sebastian recall a kind of holiness we may forget these days. They remind us that it’s a holy task to stand in harm’s way on dangerous city streets, in unpopular wars and trouble-spots throughout the world so that others can be safe. It’s holy, but dangerous, to confront injustice and corruption in powerful political or social systems and take the side of the weak.

Christianity is not a religion that shies away from evil and injustice. Like Jesus, a Christians must not be afraid to take a stand against them. We pray to the Lord, then, for more soldier saints.

Waters of the Jordan and the Sea

The land where Jesus lived spoke to him and inspired so many of the parables he taught. Did the water speak to him too? “

Jesus went out along the sea.
All the crowd came to him and he taught them.
As he passed by, he saw Levi, son of Alphaeus,
sitting at the customs post.
Jesus said to him, “Follow me.”
And he got up and followed Jesus. (Mark 2:13)

From the waters of the Jordan River where he heard his Father’s voice and the Spirit rested on him, Jesus went to Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. He taught crowds there. He traveled its waters and encountered its storms. He called disciples there.

Pilgrims today still look quietly on those waters when they visit this holy place. From the mountains above, the Sea of Galilee seems like a stage for gospel stories we hear. The waters of the Jordan flowing into it and out on their way to the Dead Sea remind them how connected the mysteries of faith are. Fishermen, along with cormorants and herons, still fish the waters. At night, a stillness centuries old, takes over.

.Jesus began his ministry here. This land and its waters spoke to him. They also can speak to us.

The Jordan River figures in many of scriptures’ sacred stories and it’s still vital to this land today. It winds almost 200 miles from its sources at the base of the Golan mountains in the north into the Sea of Galilee and then on to the Dead Sea in the south. The direct distance from one end to the other is only about 60 miles. The river falls almost 3,000 feet on its way to the Dead Sea,.

The Jordan has been sacred to Jews from the time they miraculously crossed it on their way to the Promised Land. The great Jewish prophet Elijah came from a town near the river’s banks. Later he found safety from his enemies there.

Elijah’s successor, the Prophet Elisha, also from the Jordan area, told Naaman a Syrian general to bathe in the river to be cured of his leprosy, and he was cured. Ancient hot springs near Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee fostered the river’s curative reputation then. They’re still used today.

At the time of Jesus, the river’s fresh flowing waters were the life-blood of the land, making the Sea of Galilee teem with fish and the plains along its banks fertile for agriculture. Pilgrims from Galilee followed the Jordan on their way to Jericho and then to Jerusalem and its temple.

The Jordan Today

The river is still essential to the region. Lake Kineret, as the Israelis call the Sea of Galilee, is the primary source of drinking water for the region and crucial for its agriculture. The use of water from the Jordan is a major point of controversy between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

cf: “The Disputed Waters of the Jordan” by C. G. Smith Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers No. 40 (Dec., 1966), pp. 111-128 Oxford, England.

Nourishing Prophets

The Jordan nourished prophets in the past.  Somewhere near Jericho where people forded the river John the Baptist preached to and baptized pilgrims going to the Holy City. The place where John baptized was hardly a desert as we think of it. It was a deserted place that offered sufficient food for survival, like the “ grass-hoppers and wild honey” John ate, but this uncultivated place taught you to depend on what God provided.

Jesus taught this too. “I tell you do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or drink, or about your body, what you will wear… Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.” (Mt 6, 25 ff) The desert was a place to put worry aside and trust in the goodness of God.

When Jesus entered the waters of the Jordan to be baptized, he acknowledged his heavenly Father as the ultimate Source of Life, the creator of all things. Water, as it always is,  was a holy sign of life.  Like the prophets Elijah and John the Baptist, Jesus remained in this wilderness near the water for forty days to prepare for his divine mission. He readied himself to depend on God for everything.

The Jordan after Jesus

Later, when the Roman empire turned Christian in the 4th century, Christians came to the Jordan River in great numbers on Easter and on the Feast of the Epiphany to remember the One who was baptized there. They went into the sacred waters, and many took some of it home in small containers.

Early Christian pilgrims like Egeria, a nun from Gaul who came to the Holy Land around the year 415 AD, left an account of her visit to the Jordan where she looked for the place of Jesus’ baptism.  Monks who had already settled near the river brought her to a place called Salim, near Jericho. The town, associated with the priest Melchisedech, was surrounded by fertile land with a revered spring that flowed into the Jordan close by. Here’s how she described it:

“We came to a very beautiful fruit orchard, in the center of which the priest showed us a spring of the very purest and best water, which gives rise to a real stream. In front of the spring there is a sort of pool where it seems that St. John the Baptist administered baptism. Then the saintly priest said to us: ‘To this day this garden is known as the garden of St. John.’ There are many other brothers, holy monks coming from various places, who come to wash in that spring.

“The saintly priest also told us that even today all those who are to be baptized in this village, that is in the church of Melchisedech, are always baptized in this very spring at Easter; they return very early by candlelight with the clergy and the monks, singing psalms and antiphons; and all who have been baptized are led back early from the spring to the church of Melchisedech.” p 73

A 19th Century Pilgrim at the Jordan

Christians in great numbers have visited the Jordan River since Egeria. Towards the end of the 19th century, an English vicar, Cunningham Geikie, described  Christian pilgrims following the venerable tradition of visiting its waters.

“Holy water is traditionally carried away by ship masters visiting the river as pilgrims to sprinkle their ships before a voyage; and we are told that all pilgrims alike went into the water wearing a linen garment, which they sacredly preserved  as a winding sheet to be wrapped around them at their death.

“The scene of the yearly bathing of pilgrims now is near the ford, about two miles above the Dead Sea, each sect having its own particular spot, which it fondly believes to be exactly where our Savior was baptized…

“Each Easter Monday thousands of pilgrims start, in a great caravan, from Jerusalem, under the protection of the Turkish government; a white flag and loud music going before them, while Turkish soldiers, with the green standard of the prophet, close the long procession. On the Greek Easter Monday, the same spectacle is repeated, four or five thousand pilgrims joining in the second caravan. Formerly the numbers going to the Jordan each year was much greater, from fifteen to twenty thousand….”(Cunningham Geikie, The Holy Land and the Bible,Vol 2, New York, 1890 pp 404-405)

The Jordan and Christian Baptism

Today, every Catholic parish church at its baptistery celebrates the mystery of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan as new believers receive new life and regular believers remember their own baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some eastern Christian churches call their baptisteries simply “the Jordan.”

Today the most authentic site of Jesus’ Baptism, according to archeologists, is in Jordanian territory at el-Maghtas, where a large church and pilgrim center has been built following excavations begun in 1996 by Jordanian archeologists. It is probably the  “Bethany beyond the Jordan” mentioned in the New Testament where Jesus was baptized and John the Baptist preached.

http://www.lpj.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=599%3Achurch-of-the-baptism-of-jesus-christ-maghtas-project-jordan&catid=81&Itemid=113&lang=en

The Jordan River offers a commentary on the mystery of death and resurrection of Jesus, expressed in his baptism.  At one end of the river is the Sea of Galilee brimming with life, and at the other end is the Dead Sea a symbol of death. The river holds these two realities together, and if we reverse its course we can see the gift God gives us through Jesus Christ.

Like him, we pass through the waters of baptism from death to life.

Reading Mark’s Gospel

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Mark 1, 7-11-  Mark 8, 14-21

After the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus we read at Mass from the first 8 chapters of the Gospel of Mark until Ash Wednesday.

Mark’s Gospel makes no mention of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem but begins with his baptism in the Jordan River. Then he describes his miracles and teaching in the towns around the Sea of Galilee– the Jewish towns first, then in the gentile region. Then Jesus goes up to Jerusalem and his death and resurrection.

Until recently, Mark’s Gospel received little attention compared to the gospels of Matthew, John or Luke. It was hardly read in the liturgy. Early commentators thought Mark was simply a synopsis of Matthew’s Gospel. Commentators today, however, recognize Mark’s Gospel as the first to be written and appreciate the powerful way it tells the story of Jesus. It’s not just a simple portrayal of historical facts or a synopsis of Matthew. It’s rich in symbolism of its own.

Mark’s Gospel, for example, begins in the waters of the Jordan River, where Jesus is called God’s beloved Son on whom the Spirit rests. Water is a recurring image in Mark’s portrayal of Jesus’ ministry.

John Donahue SJ, a recent commentator on the Gospel of Mark (Liturgical Press, 2002) , points out the symbolic nature of the various events in Jesus’ ministry, beginning with his baptism in the Jordan River and then his ministry around the Sea of Galilee. As the Spirit rested on the waters of the Jordan, so does the Spirit stir the waters in Galilee, drawing more and more to Jesus, God’s Son. Crossing from the western to its eastern side of the Sea – from a side largely Jewish to a side largely gentile – Jesus and his disciples bring the gospel to gentiles as well as Jews. 

The storms Jesus and his disciples face on waters of the Sea of Galilee are more than historic storms; they symbolize the fearful challenge and rejection to be faced in bringing the gospel to others. (Mark 6:45-52)

“As he passed by the Sea of Galilee,” Jesus calls some fishermen, Simon, his brother Andrew, James and his brother John. He makes them “ fishers of men.” (Mark 1, 16-19) Along the sea, Jesus teaches the crowds in parables.

The journeys of Jesus and his disciples to Tyre and Sidon, seaports on the Mediterranean Sea, are also more than historical markers. The Syrophoenician woman and the deaf man, both gentiles healed there, are signs that the gospel must be brought over the seas to the gentiles at ends of the earth. ( Mark 7:24-37) 

Jesus multiplies bread on both sides of the Sea of Galilee in Mark’s Gospel. The gentiles are to be fed and blessed as well as Jews. (Mark 6:31-44; Mark 8:1-10)

The Spirit moves in the waters of the Jordan, the Sea of Galilee and the waters beyond yet, as Mark’s Gospel indicates repeatedly, the Jewish leaders, the pharisees, scribes, Herodians, members of his own family, his disciples, do not understand. Neither do we.

Still, the Spirit works through the waters, softening, cleansing, strengthening, giving new life.

Our readings from Mark end on Ash Wednesday.

The Land Where Jesus Lived

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Bethany, outside Jerusalem

“To what shall we compare the Kingdom of God,
or what parable can we use for it?”  ( Mark 4, 30)  Jesus turned to the land where he lived and the life lived around him to answer that question.

It was a changeable land. If you stand on the roof of the Passionist house in Bethany near Jerusalem, as I did some years ago, you can still see ordered rows of olive trees growing beneath you. As night falls, the sky over the Mount of Olives raises questions of its own. Jesus knew this land.

Then, looking eastward to Jericho and the Dead Sea, there’s the barren desert. Then, from Jericho to Galilee the land turns from desert to lush farmland. A changing land.

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Jordan Valley

Jesus experienced a changing landscape as he left Nazareth for the Jordan River and then the Sea of Galilee;  it influenced the way he spoke. His parables are rich with the language of the sower and the seed. Like us, he was influenced by the place and life around him.

In a book written in the 1930s Gustaf Dalman, an expert on the geography and environment of Palestine, observes that when Jesus went from the  highlands of Nazareth, 1,100 feet above sea level to the fishing towns along the Sea of Galilee, 680 feet below sea level, he entered a different world.

For one thing, he ate better – more fish and nuts and fruits were available than in the hill town where he grew up. He looked out at the Sea of Galilee instead of the hills and valleys around his mountain village. He saw a great variety of birds, like the white pelicans and black cormorants challenging the fishermen on the lake. He saw trees and plants and flowers that grew abundantly around the lake, but were not around Nazareth.

Instead of the chalky limestone of Nazareth, Jesus walked on the hard black basalt around the lake. Basalt provided building material for houses and synagogues there. They were sturdy structures, but they were dark and drab inside. They needed light. Light on a lampstand became one of his parables. (Mark 4,21)

Basalt also made for a rich soil where everything could grow. “… here plants shoot up more exuberantly than in the limestone district. Where there are fields, they yield a produce greater than anyone has any notion of in the highlands.” (Dalman, p123)

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Farmland in Galilee

The volcanic soil on the land around the lake produced a rich harvest. The Jewish historian, Josephus, praised that part of Galilee for its fruitfulness, its palm trees, fruit trees, walnut trees, vines, wheat. But thistles, wild mustard, wild fennel grew quickly too and could choke anything else that was sown. The land around the Sea of Galilee was fertile then; even today it has some of the best farmland in Palestine.

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Soil near the Sea of Galilee

The weather in the Lake District was not the same as in the mountains, warmer in winter, much hotter and humid in summer, which begins in May. “It is difficult for anyone used to living in the mountains to work by day and sleep by night…Out of doors one misses the refreshing breeze, which the mountains along the lake cut off…one is tempted to think that Jesus, who had settled there, must often have made occasion to escape from this pitiless climate to his beloved mountains.” (Dalman, p. 124)

You won’t find these observations  in the gospels, of course, but they help us appreciate the world in which Jesus lived and the parables he drew from it.  He was influenced by where he lived, as we are.

And what about us? We’re experiencing climate change now, aren’t we? It’s going to influence our spirituality, how we see, how we live, how we react to the world around us.

May we gain wisdom from our time and place.

Visiting Elizabeth Seton’s New York

If you would like to visit Elizabeth Seton’s New York, start with a ride on the Staten Island Ferry. It’s free, and it offers a view of New York City that takes you back in time to its beginning

In New York harbor you can picture the city as the earliest European explorers did,   it’s a gem at its center. On its left the Hudson River flows to the north, on its right the East River flows out to the coast.

In 1524 Giovanni Verranzano came upon New York harbor–he thought it was a lake– searching for a passage to the Pacific. The Verranzano Bridge stands to the south at the entrance to the harbor today.

In 1609 Henry Hudson, exploring for the Dutch, sailed into the harbor and then up as far as Albany on the river that now bears his name.  The Dutch realized how valuable this place was and made a small settlement on the island. They called their trading post New Amsterdam and traded with the many Indian tribes here and along the Hudson River. Before any Europeans came, numerous Indian tribes fished, hunted and traded here.

The English had their eyes on the place too and in 1642 took it over. New Amsterdam became New York, and it was under English control till the American Revolution in 1776.

Millions of immigrants have come through New York harbor since then. In the harbor you are looking at their gateway to the new world.  The Statue of Liberty stands on the harbor’s western side along with Ellis Island, a major center for processing immigrants.

New York harbor also was the place where early New York City traded with the rest of the world. Elizabeth Seton and her family were closely connected to the harbor. Her husband, William Seton, invested in the ships that made New York one of the richest ports in the world.  But ships were a risky investment; they brought handsome profits but they could also bring bankruptcy if they didn’t come in. The Setons experienced both the riches and the risk.

I suppose you could call William Seton one of Wall Street’s first venture capitalists. In 1801 the Seton’s went bankrupt after the loss of a ship at sea and the family moved to the rented house on State Street, our first stop off the ferry.

Elizabeth Seton’s father, Doctor Richard Bayley, was the first Health Officer for the Port of New York (1796);  he dealt with many of the first immigrants and travellers arriving here.

His job was to keep New York City safe from disease, and one of his tasks was to keep travellers who were dangerous health threats isolated. So, quarantine stations were set up in the harbor for immigrants with yellow fever, cholera and small pox.

Within the harbor are some of the city’s early quarantine stations. Bedloe’s Island (1758-1796), Governor’s Island (1796-1799), Thomkinsville in Staten Island (1799-1858), just south of the St. George ferry station.

In the summer of 1801, Elizabeth was staying with her father at the Thomkinsville quarantine station when a boatload of sick Irish immigrants were brought in. She describes the dreadful conditions in a letter:

“I cannot sleep–the dying and the dead possess my mind. Babies perishing at the empty breast of the expiring mother…Father says such was never known before: twelve children  must die for want of sustenance…parents deprived of it as they have lain for many days ill in a ship without food or air or changing…There are tents pitched over the yard of the convalescent house and a large one at the death house.” (Letter July 28, 1801)

That same year, Richard Bayley died from yellow fever contacted while caring for a boatload of Irish immigrants off Thomkinsville. He’s buried in the family plot next to the Episcopal Church of St. Andrew in Richmond, Staten Island.

Arriving back in the city you can see the Seton house and a shrine near the ferry terminal at the end of Manhattan Island where Elizabeth Seton and her family lived for a short time. Stop in for a visit; many mementoes of her are found there. Most of Elizabeth Seton’s New York years were lived in this early section of the city.

From Mother Seton’s shrine and house on State Street walk up Broadway to Trinity Church and then St. Paul’s Chapel, the Anglican parish she belonged to until her conversion to Catholicism in 1805. She lived her early years as a happily married woman with five children on Wall Street and Stone Street, close by these colonial churches.

As a devout Anglican, Elizabeth devoted herself to her family and to the poor. In 1797 she and other public-spirited church women began an aid society for destitute women and their children. “The poor increase fast: immigrants from all quarters come to us. And when they come to us they must not be allowed to die.” (Description of the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows and Small Children.)

Looking eastward down Wall Street from Trinity Church on Broadway , you can see many of the founding institutions of America: the docks and slave market (no longer visible) on the East River  the New York Stock Exchange and the Federal building, a short walk from Broadway, and finally Trinity Church and King’s College on the western side of Manhattan. King’s College built on lands belonging to Trinity Church became Columbia University after the Revolutionary War, and later relocated in northern Manhattan.

Our final stop visiting Elizabeth Seton’s New York is St. Peter’s Catholic Church on Barclay Street, near to World Trade Center. Here she was received into the Catholic Church. Notice the beautiful painting of the crucifixion above the altar. Elizabeth Seton mentioned how moved she was as she prayed before that painting after becoming a Catholic. 

In June 1808, she left New York City with her family for Baltimore, where she founded a school on Paca Street, the beginning of the Catholic parochial schools system in the United States. Shortly after, Mother Seton moved to Emmitsburg, Maryland, where other women gathered around her and took vows as the Sisters of Charity. Her religious followers continued her work through schools, orphanages and hospitals found throughout the United States.

Mother Seton died at the age of 46 in 1821. She was canonized on September 14,1975. There’s a good biography of Mother Seton written by Catherine O’Donnell, Elizabeth Seton: American Saint, Blackstone, 2018

Nazareth: Where Jesus Was Raised


What was Nazareth like? We might think it was a quiet little town far from anywhere else in Jesus’ time; the gospels indicate his early years were spent in such a place.  Recent historical studies tell a different story. The town was not as isolated as once believed.  Just four miles away was the thriving Greco-Roman city of Sepphoris, recently uncovered by archeologists, and nearby were roads to Tiberias, Jerusalem, the sea coast and the rest of the world.

 Galilee’s economy was booming then, thanks to the rich soil of the Esdraelon plains, the fishing villages along the Sea of Galilee, the stability of Roman rule and Herod Antipas, a skillful administrator and builder who was firmly in charge then.  His new regional capital, Tiberias–a model of Greco-Roman city planning– dominated the shores of the Sea of Galilee. A new port, Caesaria Maritima linked Galilee to the rest of the Roman world. 

Could Nazareth, 15 miles east of the Sea of Galilee and 20 miles west of the Mediterranean Sea, situated in a thriving province, be shut off from this world?

How did Jesus get there?

Some historians say Joseph and Mary were not from Nazareth in Galilee, but from Judea.  Matthew’s gospel, in contrast to Luke’s, indicates that Joseph was a Judean associated with Bethlehem, David’s city. Mary’s family may have been associated with the temple in Jerusalem. The Church of St. Ann there claims to mark Mary’s birthplace in that city. 

Another tradition, however, says Mary was born in Sepphoris, near Nazareth. After Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the gospels indicate his family moved north to the small town of Nazareth to escape the clutches of Herod the Great, who ordered the slaughter of infants. When Herod died, he was succeeded by his son Archelaeus, who was just as unstable as his father. Herod Antipas, another of Herod’s sons yet slightly less dangerous than Archelaeus, inherited power in Galilee after his father’s death in 6 BC and ruled till about 36 AD, in the lifetime of Jesus. He began building the city of Sepphoris in 3 BC. Workers from nearby Nazareth would likely have been recruited to build that city.

Jesus and his followers rejected

Whatever its history, Nazareth will always be a mystery. Instead of supporting Jesus, the Nazareans turned their backs to him, the gospels say. They drove him out of their synagogue when he announced his mission and said he was mad. (Mt 13,54-58)  After his resurrection, there is no evidence Jesus appeared there; his followers in Nazareth were few. “No prophet is without honor except in his native place,” Jesus said. (Mt 13,54)

A Christian Minority through the Centuries

Followers of Jesus in the town where he was raised continued to be few, it seems. By the time Matthew’s Gospel was written, around the year 90, after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD,  scribes and temple officials as well as the pharisees from that city had moved to the Galilean cities of Tiberias and Sepphoris, near Nazareth, and began a powerful new movement in Judaism.

Did they drive the followers of Jesus out of the Galilean synagogues just as his contemporaries drove him out of Nazareth?  Matthew’s gospel offers numerous warnings that the disciples would be handed over to the courts and scourged in the synagogues. (cf. Mt 10, 17)

“Slender evidence suggests that a Jewish Christian community survived in Nazareth during the C2 and C3 AD, “ writes Jerome Murphy-O”Connor. (The Holy Land, 423) The nun Egeria, one of the few early Christian visitors to Nazareth, found a cave considered part of Mary’s house in the 4th century,  but she did not stay long in the town.  In 570 AD a pilgrim from Piacenza found Nazareth a hostile place:  “there is no love lost in the town between Christians and Jews.” Two Christian churches were built at that time, but after the Muslim conquest of Palestine in the 7th century the number of Christians in Nazareth declined further and their churches were destroyed.

When the Crusaders conquered the town in the 11th century, they rebuilt the Byzantine shrines and added their own buildings; some remains are visible today. But after the defeat of the Christians in the 12th century, Nazareth once more became a Muslim stronghold and Christians a minority.

Through the ages, the Christian presence in Galilee remained small, dependent mostly on Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. After the crusades, it was considered dangerous for Christians to enter Nazareth.  In 1620 the Franciscans bought a site in the  town where the house of Mary was said to be and they continued to nourish a Christian presence in the town. Through their efforts the large Basilica of the Annunciation, built over the early Byzantine and Crusader churches and archeological remains from the ancient town, was dedicated in 1968. The Greek Orthodox church also continued its ministry in this revered spot.

Nazareth itself remained poor and undeveloped from the time of Jesus until recently, when it became the provincial capital of Galilee and its population soared. From less than 1,000 inhabitants in Jesus’ time, the number has grown today to 70,000, mostly Muslim.

The large basilica of the Annunciation, with its extensive collection of art from all over the world honoring this mystery, is a gathering place for Catholic pilgrims. Here faith attempts to interpret this mysterious town “where our feeble senses fail.”

19th Century Nazareth

An English vicar left this quaint description  as he approached Nazareth towards the end of the 19th century. Unlike its neighbor, Cana, the town then was experiencing a modest revival:

“Our horses began to climb the steep ascent of 1,000 feet that brings one to the plateau in a fold of which, three miles back among its own hills, lies Nazareth.

“At last, all at once, a small valley opened below, set round with hills, and a pleasant little town appeared to the west. Its straggling houses of white soft limestone, and mostly new, rose row over row up the steep slope. A fine large building,with slender cypresses around it, stood nearest to us; a minaret looked down from the rear.

“Fig trees, single and in clumps, were growing here and there in the valley, which was covered with crops of grain, lentils and beans. Above the town, the hills were steep and high, with thick pasture, sheets of rock, fig trees now and then in an enclosed spot.   Such was Nazareth , the home of our Lord. (p 513)

“The town is only a quarter of a mile long, so that it is a small place, at best; the population made up of about 2,000 Mohammedans, 1,000 Roman Catholics, 2,500 Greek Catholics and 100 Protestants – not quite 6000 in all; but its growth to this size is only recent, for thirty years ago Nazareth was a poor village.”  (p 516)

The Catholic shrines of Nazareth were not among the English vicar’s favorite places to visit, but he does recognize one of the town’s enduring holy places:

“The water of Nazareth is mainly derived from rain-cisterns, for there  is only one spring, and in autumn the supply is precarious. A momentous interest, however, gathers around this single fountain, for it has been in use for immemorial ages, and, no doubt, often saw the Virgin and her Divine Child among those who frequented it morning and evening, as the mothers of the town, many with children at their side, do now.” (p.515)

“The Virgin’s Spring bursts out of the ground inside the Greek Church of the Annunciation, which is modern, though a church stood on the same site at least as early as 700 AD.They say that it was on this spot that the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin; and if there is nothing to prove the legend there is nothing to contradict it.  Indeed, the association of the visit with the outflow of living water from the rock has a certain congruity that is pleasing. “ (p.516)

The Word Made Flesh

Nazareth, where Jesus lived most of his time on earth, offers few traces of the town he knew. Those were hidden years when the Son of God “humbled himself” by living inconspicuously, immersed in the steady, ordinary rhythms of a small 1st century Jewish town.  Jesus “became flesh” in Nazareth,  “one like us in all things but sin.”

Instead of Nazareth of the past, then, we may find him just as well in Nazareth of the present–or in any town or city or anyplace today, for that matter.

Jesus did not come only for the world then, he comes also for the world now, to dwell among us. Nazareth may help us understand the mystery of his Incarnation in our town and place.

Saving Santa Claus

Santa’s coming to town for Macy’s annual Thanksgiving Parade. From the parade he’ll go into the store  for Black Friday and be there for the rest of the days till Christmas.

But Santa Claus is more than a salesman, isn’t he? He’s a saint– Saint Nicholas. He reminds us Christmas is for giving rather than getting. His story of quiet giving mirrors God’s love shown in Jesus Christ.

Telling his story is one of the ways we can save Santa Claus from being captured by Macys and Walmart and all the rest. First, take a look at our version for little children. Then, you might want to go on to our  modest contribution for bigger children– like us:

Dedication of the Churches of Sts. Peter and Paul

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On November 18th, we honor the great apostles, Peter and Paul, in the ancient churches where they were buried: the Vatican Basilica of St. Peter and the Basilica of St. Paul, both built in the fourth century. The two apostles are founders and protectors of the Roman church.

Rome’s Christians marked where these apostles were martyred with special care. Peter, early sources say, was crucified on the Vatican Hill in 64 near the obelisk not far from the circus of the emperors Caligula and Nero and was buried  nearby. The Emperor Constantine erected a basilica over his burial site in 326, while Sylvester was pope. Later in 1626 the present basilica replaced it. Recent excavations have uncovered Peter’s burial place under the papal altar of this church.

Paul,  tradition says, was beheaded on the Ostian Way, outside the ancient city walls, in 67. Constantine built a large church over his grave in 386. It was rebuilt after a fire in 1823 according to its original measurements. The apostle’s grave lies before the main altar of the church.

We build churches honoring apostles and saints, often enshrining their relics, because we believe they watch over us even now. “The company of the apostles praises you…From their place in heaven they guide us still.”

Defend your Church, O Lord,

by the protection of the holy Apostles,

that, as she received from them

the beginnings of her knowledge of things divine,

so through them she may receive,

even to the end of the world,

an increase in heavenly grace.

Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,

who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, for ever and ever. Amen   (Collect for the feast)

 

St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome
St.Paul outside the wall, Rome

Mother Cabrini

Mulberry Street, New York City, ca.1900

From 1880 to 1920 more than 4 million Italian immigrants came to the United States, mostly from rural southern Italy. Many were poor peasants escaping the chaotic political situation and widespread poverty of a recently united Italian peninsula.

Almost all the new immigrants came through Ellis Island; many settled in the crowded tenements of the New York region, where men found work in the subways, canals and buildings of the growing city. The women often worked in the sweatshops that multiplied in New York at the time. Almost half of the 146 workers killed as fire consumed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911, were Italian women.

Over time, the immigrants moved elsewhere and became prominent in  American society, but at first large numbers suffered from the over-crowding, harsh conditions, discrimination and cultural shock they met in cities like New York. Many returned to Italy with stories of the contradictions and injustices lurking in “the American dream.”

Mother Maria Francesca Cabrini

Mother Maria Francesca Cabrini (1850-19170), founder of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, an order of women missionaries , came to America in 1889 at the urging of Pope Leo XIII to serve the underserved poor. Her work is succinctly described on the website of the Cabrini Mission Foundation.

“She proceeded to found schools, orphanages, hospitals and social services institutions to serve the needs of immigrants in the United States and other parts of the world. Despite poor health and frailty, Mother Cabrini crossed the ocean 25 times during 29 years of missionary work, and with her sisters founded 67 institutions in nine countries on three continents – one for each year of her life.

Mother Cabrini was a collaborator from the start of her missionary activity. She was a woman of her time, yet beyond her time. Her message – “all things are possible with God” – is as alive today as it was 110 years ago. Mother Cabrini lived and worked among the people, poor and rich alike, using whatever means were provided to support her works. She was a progressive, strategic visionary, willing to take risks, adaptable to change, and responsive to every opportunity that arose to help others. In recognition of her extraordinary service to immigrants, Mother Cabrini was canonized in 1946 as the “first American saint,” and was officially declared the Universal Patroness of Immigrants by the Vatican in 1950.”

Be good to have leaders like her today in the church, as well as in society, wouldn’t it? “… a progressive, strategic visionary, willing to take risks, adaptable to change, and responsive to every opportunity that arose to help others.”

Her feastday is November 13th. “Mother Cabrini, pray for us.”

Native Peoples, Colonists and Missionaries

H.Hudson halfmoon

For the injustices against the native peoples and the land God provided,“Lord, have mercy.”

For the brave missionaries that ministered to them. “Thanks be to God.”

The native peoples are often forgotten in the story of the “discovery” of America. Our heroes tend to be the settlers who came on ships, built towns and cities, explored the land and gave us what we have today. But it came at a price.

If you ever visit New York harbor by way of the Staten Island Ferry look at the  shores now crowded by the buildings and piers of today.  Native peoples once fished, hunted and traded in large numbers here. The water was fresher then, fish and shellfish plentiful, the air cleaner, the earth less damaged by human activity.

The National Museum of the American Indian , located in the old customs house across from Battery Park near the ferry, is a good place to remember the role of the native peoples in the story of America. They traded with the Europeans; they were their guides into an unknown land; they provided many of the foods that fed growing populations in Europe and America. They respected  the land more than those who came after them.

A young Indian woman, Kateri Tekakwitha and a Jesuit priest, Isaac Jogues, are figures to remember  in the customs house. They represent the clash of civilizations that occurred when Europeans and native peoples met. Across the street from the customs house is the statue of Christopher Columbus.

Europeans brought disease.  Smallpox  disfigured and partially blinded Kateri Tekakwitha, a young Mohawk woman who lived along the Mohawk River past Albany, NY. The native peoples had no immunity to small pox and other diseases. Three out of ten died from it. By some estimates 5 million native people lived in North America when the first Europeans arrived. Within a hundred years there were only 500,000. Besides disease, the major cause of their diminishment, the native peoples also suffered from wars and greed.
Museum of American Indian

At the museum, besides Kateri Tekakwitha remember Father Isaac Jogues, the Jesuit missionary who, while attempting to advance peace-keeping efforts with the Mohawks at Ossernonon (Auriesville) was killed by a war party on October 18, 1646. Previously, in 1642  Jogues had been captured by this same tribe. He escaped in 1643, fled here to New Amsterdam (New York City) and then was put on a ship for France by a kindly Dutch minister.

The French missionaries came to the New World out of the turmoils of the Old World expecting a new Pentecost among the native peoples here, but it didn’t turn out that way. Instead, disease and political maneuvering made the native peoples suspicious of  foreigners and the seed of the gospel fell on hard ground.

Letters back to France from the early Jesuits–marvelously preserved in “The Jesuit Relations”–often express the missionaries’ disappointment  over their scarce harvest, but it didn’t stop them. They were well grounded in the mystery of the Cross.

 “My God, it grieves me greatly that you are not known, that in this savage wilderness all have not been converted to you, that sin has not been driven from it. My God, even if all the brutal tortures which prisoners in this region must endure should fall on me, I offer myself most willingly to them and I alone shall suffer them all.” St. John de Brebéuf

The Indian woman and the priest persevered. We forget how difficult it is when civilizations clash– like now. We remember the Christian missionaries: Saints John de Brébeuf and Isaac Jogues, Priests and their compassions on October 19th..

Columbus, Central Park, NYC
Indian behind symbols of European trade and expansion: Customs House, New York City

Here’s a video on the Jesuit Martyrs at Auriesville:

Saints of Auriesville