It’s hard to believe 5 months have flown by since we were in Israel. Today I’m wishing I could head back for the day to one of my favourite towns. Nazareth is most famous as the place where Jesus and His family lived and it is great to ground some of the stories of His life in this place. It’s also just a really lovely place to hang out, observe and share life in today.
What have I loved about Nazareth?
Like many places, it is the combination of geography, history, and culture, that weaves the story and invitation of this place.
Nazareth is located in Galilee, in a natural ‘bowl’ surrounded by hills. This great view of the city is found from Mt Precipice, believed by some to be the place where the people of the town wanted to throw Jesus off a cliff after his sermon in their synagogue.
The mountain looks out over the Jezreel Valley, the most fertile part of Galilee, and standing there makes me feel like I’m standing in the middle of a map.
In the city itself is a maze of donkey-track streets going up and down, round and about, what I have found to be a great place to wander and a tricky place to drive!
I love seeing the beauty of houses from different eras built side by side, standing as testimony to the many lives and stories in this place over generations.
Nazareth today is a large town with a largely Arab population, about 1/3 Christian and 2/3 Muslim. Near the central old market is the beautiful old White Mosque.
Even older again is the so-called Synagogue Church, a simple room built atop crusader ruins to remember and evoke the church where Jesus preached.
And even simpler (and older) again are the caves located underground where it is believed Christians hid during Roman persecution.
The layers of history are also seen at the Catholic Church of the Annunciation. The large church was built in the 1960s.
Inside is a church within a church, with an 18th century altar.
This is located inside the grotto, an ancient church where 5th century mosaics have been located.
Outside, excavations underneath the church have discovered the remains of the village from Roman times.
In the bustling town today people live and shop and socialise in the footsteps of this history. Take this carpenter’s workshop for example, its owner following in the traditional profession of the town’s most famous resident and His father.
Or the renowned Elbabour spice shop, milling and grinding local produce for over 100 years.
When travelling without the larger group, I’ve had the privilege of staying in the beautiful Fauzi Azar Inn.
The staff and volunteers of this guesthouse have a heart for the local community and were engaged in numerous projects including this youth drop in centre with its juxtaposition of modern facilities in an ancient location.
What have I learned from Nazareth?
There are two experiences in Nazareth that I have found educational in complicated and unexpected ways. The first is Nazareth Village, an open-air museum built to reconstruct and reenact life in Jesus’ time.
I have mixed feelings about this place.
It is certainly helpful for bringing the biblical story to life …
… and evoking imagination about a different time and place.
But it is run by non-locals and has a distinctly Western flavour.
And, I think it is fair to say, it can feel a little bit kitsch.
The other place I continue to ponder is the Church of the Annunciation itself. It contains some of the most beautiful modern stained glass windows I have ever seen, which shaped some of my reflections in a previous post.
But it is also decorated by mosaics from around the world depicting the annunciation story.
Each one depicts the story from their own national perspective.
On one hand I do like the idea of drawing our own connections to the significant stories of our faith.
On the other hand, it feels like perhaps we are re-creating Mary and Jesus in our own image.
I have used these photos in some of my biblical studies classes to raise this question.
And of course inevitably someone asks about the Australian artwork, which I have to admit I personally find one of the more difficult to engage with.
I think in the end my favourite is the one from Nazareth itself, both because of its simplicity and because of its authenticity to the story’s location within history, geography, and culture.
It reminds me again that there is still much to learn from the people who make Nazareth their home today. Apparently the bulk of visitors to this city do a day trip to see a combination of these main sites but don’t actually stay in the town. If that’s true, they are missing out. The generosity and hospitality of the local people here, despite significant political and social challenges, is inspiring and challenging. I hope to spend more time among them if I can.