Monday, 8 December 2008

galilee (2) - nazareth

Renewal of wedding vows in Cana
Saturday 6th December. Another early start to depart for Nazareth with a stop of at Cana for a look at the wedding church. This turned into a bit of a surprise as the nun at the church asked if couples would like to renew their wedding vows. All four couples in our party, including Stephen the Dean of St. George’s and his wife Jill, decided to take advantage of the opportunity and at short notice Brother David officiated. I confess to great worry about the service when a tape of dodgy wedding music started up but any possibility of a Las Vegas experience was avoided and it was actually a very moving ceremony conducted with great sensitivity. Needless to say no water was turned to wine but it was a joyous occasion and was followed by a reflection from Stephen and a midrash on the wedding at Cana from Mary’s viewpoint presented by Jill.

There isn’t much else to see in Cana and the church was not particularly interesting so it was back on the coach and off to Nazareth.There is much debate amongst scholars as to the size of Nazareth at the time of Christ and we reflected on this as we journeyed to the town. I say town but it is now a sprawling city ranging across the hillsides and with a plush new section known as Nazareth Illit. Very different from the poverty of Bethlehem with lots of BMWs and Mercs driven by members of the various communities. To help get a feel of Nazareth around the Second Temple period we visited the Nazareth Village, a reconstruction of what the place may have looked like based on archaeological research and finds in the area. I thought it was quite effective and we finished the visit with a reading and discussion based on Luke 4:16-30, followed by a simple but very enjoyable lunch prepared at the village.

The next part of the visit I found more problematic as we headed for the site of the Annunciation to Mary. I should say sites because the Orthodox site focuses on a well inside the church of St. Gabriel’s which is adorned with rich frescos. The Catholic site is further up the hill at what is believed to be Mary’s house and this is now a huge construction called the Basilica of the Annunciation. Inside on the lower level at the heart of the church is what is said to be Mary’s house. When we arrived there was a mass taking place with wonderful singing from the pilgrim group already inside. However, this did not take away from what I considered to be one of the most hideous churches in Christendom. The church is on several levels with huge concrete supporting structures, grey and stained (these were to be covered in tiles but they ran out of money). The colour of the depictions of Mary from different parts of the world on the church walls could not hide the ugliness of the place. I am led to believe that Barluzzi had designed a church for this site but the commission was given to someone else. What a disaster and as one of the Brothers commented in his usual understated way ‘this is not a success’. The place reminded me of a Bond villain’s lair and I half expected to see Donald Pleasance sitting in a corner stroking a white cat! Next to the Basilica was another church over the site of excavations which tradition speculates could have been Joseph’s house.

Arabic mass outside Mary's House in the Basilica of the Annunciation

Just when I felt Nazareth was turning into something of a disappointment a real jewel appeared. We had the privilege of visiting the Sisters of Nazareth, a small French order of nuns who had bought a field in Nazareth to build their convent in order to develop work amongst the young girls of the area. During work on their buildings a Crusader church and burial site was discovered and further investigation led to the uncovering of what is believed to be a C1st A.D. house. Given that there were probably only forty houses in the town at that time it is not unreasonable to assume that Jesus and his family would have visited the house during their time in the area. As if that wasn’t enough a couple of the nuns then discovered a deeper vault in the site and this turned out to be a chapel with the smell of incense still in the air when the sealed room was opened. But that is not all, off this room another area was opened up to reveal a burial tomb, complete with a rolling stone and the place for two bodies. The sisters have never opened up this site for commercial purposes, though they could have made a fortune either marketing or selling the finds. Instead, they grant viewing to those with a real interest in these matters and it was a very real honour to be allowed to view the site.

C1st AD tomb under Sisters of Nazareth convent.
Now as I reflect on the visit to Nazareth it occurs to me that it is often the least ostentatious places and people that contain the real treasures of this land. I can’t get out of my mind the image of two nuns descending on rope into a darkened vault to discover such remarkable finds from antiquity. What a joy to meet the Sisters of Nazareth and to see the remarkable place they so faithfully and humbly steward. Indiana Jones eat your heart out for here is the real deal!

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