Tag Archives: Colts Neck

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.

Catherine of Siena, (1347-80)

St. Catherine of Siena is a doctor of the church and Italy’s patron saint along with St. Francis.

The 24th child in a family of 25 children, Catherine of Siena was a saintly teacher and church reformer.  As a young girl, she clashed with her father, who worked dying wool, and her mother, a hardy determined housewife, after she told them she wasn’t going to get married, but was giving herself totally to God.

She cut her hair and began to fast and pray.  She joined a group of women who helped the poor in Siena, mostly widows associated with the Dominican order. They  were suspicious of the pious young girl who kept to herself and at odds with her mother and father.

At 21 years old, Catherine went beyond the mission of the women’s group and reached out further to the church and society.  Men and women, priests and laypeople, from Siena and its surroundings gathered around her. They cared for the poor– famine struck Siena in 1370 and a plague in 1374– but also they sought to reform the church and the society of their day.

At the time, Italian cities like Siena, Florence, Pisa and Padua were fighting among themselves as rival families clashed continuously over political power and economic advantages. In 1309 the popes fled the violence and factional riots in Rome for the safety of Avignon in France, where the papacy remained for almost 70 years. They call it “the Babylonian Captivity.”

Catherine and her companions pleaded with the feuding Italian cities for peace and urged the popes to return to Rome to exercise their mission as bishops of the city where Peter and Paul once led the Christian church. Catherine cajoled, warned and scolded the absent popes to do their duty as shepherds of their sheep and get back to where they belonged.

Without any formal education, Catherine learned to read and write only later in life, which made her an unlikely public figure. She was also a woman teaching and preaching– unusual for that day : “Being a woman, I need not tell you, puts many obstacles in my way. The world has no use for women in a work such as that and propriety forbids a woman to mix so freely with men.” (Letter) Despite those obstacles, Catherine traveled to the warring cities of Italy urging peace and to Avignon to plead with the pope to return to Rome.

Catherine had a deep experience of God in prayer, as the “Dialogue,” her mystical exchange with God, attests. God spoke with her and she shared those words. Her prayerfulness drew others to join her in her mission of peace-making and reform.

Jesus was her “Gentle Truth,” her guide and strength. “This is a sign that you trust in me and not in yourself: that you have no cowardly fear. Those who trust in themselves are afraid of their own shadow; they think heaven and earth are letting  them down. Fear and a twisted trust in their own small wisdom makes them pitifully concerned about getting and holding on to everything on earth and throwing away everything spiritual…The only ones afraid are those who think they are alone…They are afraid of every little thing because they are alone–without me.” (Dialogue)

As a lay-woman in the church, she was not afraid to speak to power, once correcting a bishop for “ordaining little boys instead of mature men… idiots who can scarcely read and say the prayers.  They consider it beneath them to visit the poor, they stand by and let people die of hunger.”

Tell the truth, God told her. Tell the truth because love impels you. “You must love others with the same love with which I love you. But you cannot repay my love. Love other people, loving them without being loved by them. Love them without concern for spiritual and material gain, but only for the glory of my name, because I love them.” ( Dialogue )  Loving God inevitably means loving others.

She died in Rome in 1378 and is buried there in the Dominican church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Her heart is in Siena.

Going to Mount Carmel: the Prophet Elijah

The Bible Today, edited by Fr. Donald Senior, CP, is always worth reading, The current issue has some fine articles about Messianism written by top scripture scholars. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” Peter says at Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus asks him who people say he is.  We may forget that Jesus was not born Jesus Christ; the appellation “Christ” meaning “Messiah” was added later to his name by his followers. Peter wasn’t alone in this declaration: “We have found the Messiah (which means Anointed,” his brother Andrews says. (Jn 1,41)

Jesus came into a Jewish world expecting a Messiah, but what kind of Messiah were they hoping for? Some Jews of the time expected a royal Messiah, the Son of King David. You see that expectation in the Gospel of Matthew which begins by tracing the human origins of Jesus back to David. “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of David and Son of Abraham.”

Hope for a Messiah like the warrior King David who would free the land of Israel from its oppressors grew stronger among the Jews after the Roman occupation of Palestine by the Roman general Pompey in 63 BC. It can be seen in some of the Essene writings discovered from Qumran in recent times.

The Gospel of Matthew  indicates that ordinary people too were hoping for a kingly messiah at the time of Jesus. “Can this be the son of David,” the crowd says after he cured a man who could not see or speak. (Mt 12,23) “Hosanna to the son of David,” the crowd says as he enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. (Mt 21,9) That causes the leaders in Jerusalem to become angry, because a claim like that could fire revolution and they feared what would happen because of it. (Mt 21.15)

Jesus never claims to be a political revolutionary, however.  He refuses to fit neatly into that kind of messianic expectation. He will not lead an uprising against the Romans. He’s not John the Baptist come back from the dead. “Jesus is not confined to playing an already fixed role–that of Messiah– but he confers, on the notions of Messiah and salvation, a fullness which could not have been imagined in advance.” (Pontifical Biblical Commission)

If we ask what messianic expectation of his time Jesus comes closest to, we might find it in the hope for a prophetic messiah like Elijah.

Like Elijah, he will speak the truth against the powerful, he will help the poor, he will suffer persecution; he will raise the dead.

Our visit on November 8th to Mount Carmel, long associated with Elijah, will help us place Jesus in the context of his time.

Zacchaeus, the Tax Collector

31st Sunday C

We are going on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land this Friday, about 40 of us from here at St. Mary’s parish in Colts Neck, NJ. We are going to the land where Jesus lived and died and rose again, to the place where our church was born over 2,000 years ago.

We’re going to pass through Jericho, the place mentioned in today’s gospel, where Zachaeus climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus.  We’re going to visit Bethlehem where he was born and Nazareth where he grew up and the places where he ministered around the Lake of Galilee. We’re visiting Jerusalem where he was crucified and where you can see his tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

It’s a holy land for Christians, and it’s a holy land for Jews and Muslims as well. At present, it’s a land of contention, violence and wars over the land itself, the water, and the millions of refugees who have been displaced in the last century.

The principal parties at odds are Jews and the Palestinians, of course, but sometimes we forget that Christians are involved too. Not only are there Christian holy places there, but millions of Christians live in the Middle East who can trace their roots back to the time of Jesus. They’re in Palestine, Israel, Iraq, Syria, Egypt and other countries of that region; and many of them are leaving the region because the situation in which they find themselves.

In the last few weeks representatives of these Christians from the Middle East met in Rome at a synod to discuss their situation. It’s a matter of survival, they said. Christians may leave or may be forced out of the Middle East if the situation continues.

Leaders of our church are encouraging Christians throughout the world to support the church in the Middle East and to know what’s happening there. I would hope we will be able to do that as we are able on our visit.

We hope also that this visit will help us to know Jesus Christ and the stories about him better.

There’s been an explosion of knowledge in this part of the world in recent times as archeologists, historians and scholars explore the sites of the Holy Land and writings of the bible. We hope that this trip will help us know the bible better, and therefore know Jesus better too.

How can our visit help us know the bible better? Let me give you an example. After we arrive in Israel, we are going to Tiberias, a Jewish city on the Lake of Galilee where we’re staying for four days. There are many hotels there now, but in Jesus’ time, Tiberias was the capital of Galilee, where Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great and the ruler of Galilee, resided.

Herod was in power for almost all of Jesus’ lifetime, building his kingdom. Like his father, Herod was a great builder; archeologists are now uncovering the extent of his building, not only in Tiberias, but also in other sites in Galilee as well. He built on a grand scale. As a strong ally to the Romans he wanted to make sure when Roman visitors came they would be impressed by the places where he lived, his palaces, his public buildings, his style of life. He built lavishly.

Of course, you needed money for that kind of building; that’s where tax-collectors come in. There was no dialogue, no voting on tax collections  between Herod and the people he ruled. He told his army of tax-collectors, “Here’s how much I need so you go out and get it. Go to the fishermen along the Sea of Galilee and the farmers near Nazareth and get what I need; I don’t care how you squeeze it out of them.” And they went out and got him his money, with a little kept for themselves.

You can imagine the anger and anguish this would cause. Of course, people wouldn’t complain to Herod directly. He was a vicious ruler who had John the Baptist’s head cut off, remember. He was a brutal man from a brutal family. No, people were wary of Herod, but they could be angry with tax-collectors, whom they generally despised.

What about the tax-collectors themselves? I’m sure they saw Herod’s policies as unbalanced and wrong. They would bemoan this vain man who pushed people too much. But what could they do? After all, he was the one who had John the Baptist’s head put on a platter. You didn’t disagree with Herod.

“Jesus looked up and said,’Zacchaeus, come down quickly,for today I must stay at your house.’ And he came down quickly and received him with joy.”

Far from dismissing the tax collectors and being angry with them, Jesus saw them as they were: people caught in a bad situation. Yes, they had their faults. But Jesus reached out to poor Zacchaeus and the rest of them.

Is that the way  God looks at us? Often compromised, too weak to change things,  sometimes hopelessly going along and getting things wrong, and regretting it. Still, God calls us from the place where we watch it all to come and share his life and friendship.

Think of Zacchaeus as you pass through Jericho.

Nov 6 Tel Aviv to Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee

The drive from the airport to Tiberias is about two hours. Israel and the occupied territories are about the size of New Jersey, so our trips to different sites will not be too long.

This is the land of Jesus and we’re going first to where he was raised and began his mission: Galilee. In the scriptures he’s called a Galilean, from Nazareth. Our hotel is in Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee, where we will be staying for four days. It’s not too far from Nazareth and Capernaum and other Galilean towns mentioned in the New Testament.

On a map of 1st century Palestine you can see where these places were.

Our official guide will tell us a great deal about Tiberias and the surrounding area, but let me say something about the city where we will be staying.  Today it’s a Jewish city of modern resorts, hotels and spas, but it’s also one of Judaism’s holy cities. Let’s look at it at the time of Jesus.

Herod Antipas

It was built by Herod Antipas,  Tetrarch of Galilee, around the year 20 AD. He made the city his capital and  named it after his patron, the Roman Emperor Tiberius.

Herod Antipas (4 BC-39 AD) is mentioned a number of times in the New Testament. Jesus called him “that Fox.”  He ordered John the Baptist beheaded and later wondered if Jesus might be John come back from the dead.

Pontius Pilate sent Jesus to Herod before sentencing him to death, but Jesus didn’t say a word to him. One other interesting connection to Herod: Johanna, wife of Herod’s steward Cusa, was a follower of Jesus who stood with Mary and the other women at his cross.

Like his father, Herod the Great, Herod Antipas loved to build, and his splendid Greco-Roman city of Tiberias arose from 20 and 27 AD, while Jesus lived in Nazareth. It had a Roman gate, stadium, spacious squares with marble statues,  a grand palace with a golden roof and a large synagogue. To pay for it, Herod relied on his tax-collectors in the cities and towns in his district–places like Capernaum and Nazareth– to squeeze the fishermen and farmers for whatever they could get.

The ruins of Herod’s city lie south of the present city of Tiberias.

Talmudic Judaism

After the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Romans in 70 AD,  pharisees and scribes from the city flocked to Tiberias and made it a base for reconstituting Judaism. Instead of the temple, they made the synagogue the center of Jewish life and worship. Tiberias itself became the site of over 12 synagogues and an important place for Jewish learning.  A rabbinic school established in the city eventually produced the Palestinian Talmud, a written collection of rabbinic teachings on Jewish laws and traditions, around the beginning of the 4th century. Jewish historians describe the early centuries after the destruction of Jerusalem as the Time of Talmudic Judaism.

The Gospel of Matthew

Some scholars say the Gospel of Matthew, the most contentious and polemical of the gospels, may have been written near Tiberias around the year 90 AD. (Other places they suggest are Antioch in Syria and Sepphoris, not too far from Nazareth)  The gospel certainly reflects the struggles between the Jewish authorities in Tiberias and the Jewish Christians of Galilee over the future of Judaism. The sharp critique of the scribes and pharisees in the 23rd chapter of Matthew is an example of the contentious spirit that must have existed on both sides.

It would be good to keep Matthew’s gospel in hand as we travel around Galilee.

Peter’s confession at Caesaria Philippi that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God”, the highpoint of the Matthew’s gospel, makes a claim that the Jewish authorities from Tiberias would fiercely dispute.  After all, Jesus came from nearby, inconspicuous Nazareth where his own neighbors rejected him.  Did he really rise from the dead? Rumors were that his disciples stole his body from the tomb. Perhaps he resembled Elijah, or John the Baptist, or one of the prophets, but he could be a false prophet too.

The Jewish authorities would also question the credentials of the chief followers of Jesus–  uneducated fishermen and unpopular tax-collectors. Could they be authentic teachers in Israel?

Modern scriptural studies point out the real life situations that influenced the creation of our gospels. They didn’t drop down from heaven, they came from people struggling over the questions Jesus asked Peter: “Who do people say that I am?” “Who do you say that I am?” They were written to answer his critics then, and we hear these old disputes even now.

For example, Matthew’s gospel speaks to questions about the origins of Jesus, born of a virgin and conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Matthew’s Jesus speaks to the crowds from a mountain, like Moses, not in a synagogue like the Pharisees. The gospel is filled with Old Testament references backing up his claims. Matthew’s gospel  challenges the story that after his resurrection his body was stolen by his own disciples. Matthew takes on the task to disprove that story.

Finally, Peter, the fisherman, and Matthew, the tax-collector are star witnesses of Matthew’s gospel. “Flesh and blood” hasn’t revealed this to them, but the Father in heaven.

Did the Christians Lose?

I think the followers of Jesus lost the battle with the new Jewish establishment in Galilee at the end of the 1st century, and many moved on to other places. Only some  remained in Galilee. The final words of Jesus to his eleven disciples in Matthew’s gospel seem to indicate a call to other places.

“The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.  When they saw him they worshipped, but they doubted. Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”  Mt 28, 16-20

Fourth Century Christian Expansion

The Christian presence in the Holy Land increased when Constantine gained control of the Roman empire in the 4th century and favored the Christian Church. As Christians came to the Holy Land and built churches and shrines over the places where tradition said Jesus lived and ministered,  Galilee remained a Jewish stronghold.

When Muslims conquered the Holy Land in the 7th century, Christians and Jews alike came under their rule. Because of harsh Muslim rule under the Seljuk Turks and their destruction of the great Christian shrine of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem in the 11th century,  Crusaders from Europe invaded Palestine and re-established a Christian presence again. Evidence of Crusader churches and fortresses can be seen today.

Muslims, Jews and Christians

Muslims regained control of the Holy Land in the 13th century and remained in power  till the 20th century. Under Ottoman rule, Jews were treated more favorably than Christians, but as the fortunes of the Ottoman Empire declined so did the economy of Palestine. By the 19th century , Jewish and Christian and Muslims saw a land that was poor and neglected.

As the nation states formed in Europe in the 17th century, persecutions of the Jews increased and Jewish aspirations to return to their ancestral lands strengthened. By the 19th century Jews from Russia and Poland were settling again in parts of Palestine, in Jerusalem as well as in Galilee. After the holocaust, the Jewish population dramatically increased.

The Christian presence today is small and increasingly limited to shrines at Christian holy places, sustained especially by religious like the Franciscans.

Tiberias Then and Now

An English visitor to Tiberias towards the end of the 19th century offers an interesting glimpse of this Jewish city at the time:

“The Jews are very numerous in Tiberias,  it and Safed being, after Jerusalem and Hebron, the two holiest towns; for the Messiah is one day, they believe, to rise from the waters of the lake and land at Tiberias, and Safed is to be the seat of his throne.

“Prayer must be repeated at Tiberias at least twice a week, to keep the world from being destroyed. The worship in the synagogue seems to be in some respects peculiar, since the congregation seek to intensify different parts of the service by mimetic enforcement of its words.  Thus, when the Rabbi recites the passage, “Praise the Lord with the sound of the trumpet,” they imitate the sound of the trumpet through their closed fists; when a tempest is mentioned , they puff and blow to represent a storm; and when the cries of the righteous in distress are spoken of in the Lesson, they all set up a loud screaming.

“The Israelites of Tiberias are chiefly from Russian Poland, and do not speak German. Poor, thin, and filthy, they are certainly far from attractive;  but the women are neatly dressed, many of them in white and look much better than the men. “  Cunningham Geikie, The Holy Land and the Bible,Vol 2, New York, 1890 p 543

Tiberias today little resembles the city the visitor describes then.