Tag Archives: Israel

Today would be a good day to be in Nazareth

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.

 

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Feet and pathways … groundedness and walking in the lands of the Bible

Looking back through the photos from my recent time in Israel and Palestine, alongside the Walls and Windows, I was struck by the number of photos I took of my feet and of pathways I was walking on. This is not uncommon. Many of those I traveled with did the same.

There is something about walking in the lands of the Bible that causes people to look down often and to marvel as they do so.

“My feet are standing where Jesus stood.”

“I am walking where Abraham walked.”

“This path is one Paul would have used many times.”

For me, this is tied to one of the key benefits of the study purpose of the trip we did. It provides a sense of ‘groundedness’ to the biblical text. It highlights that the story we read and live out of is a story that took place  in real time and real space. It enables us to picture the contexts of it in concrete ways.

There is a connection to history and story through a sense of place. And a reminder that God continues to meet us within our own real place and time.

This is something I think many from other cultures, including that of the Aboriginal peoples of my home land, understand much better than I do. The connection that walking the land brings to history, identity, story, family, belonging, and being.

I’ve also been struck by the idea of walking as a means of making sense of the world. During my PhD studies I read a book that introduced me to the idea of the foot as a ‘sensory organ’ in the Old Testament. It has resonated in my own life and in my church community in multiple ways.

It’s something that I’ve noticed about the way I travel. I find it important to walk a place when I arrive to get a sense of it.

It’s also something I’ve appreciated more since moving to the city, spending less time in my car and more time on foot around my neighbourhood.

And it’s a truth in how I understand my faith, seen in the call of Jesus to follow him and in the common phrasing of the New Testament letters to walk in his ways.

And of course it is connected to the Psalms I studied and the image of pilgrimage,  which I am convinced is more than a metaphor but the lived experience of the people of God.

And it is the explanation for the tattoo I got last year on my foot, the Hebrew words of Psalm 121:8, which says “The LORD guards your coming out and your going in” or as our tour guide in Israel read colloquially, “The LORD guides your steps.”

What does it mean for you to consider how your feet and the land you walk on grounds your experience and makes sense of the world today?

Walls and Windows: an initial reflection

I spent most of April in Israel and the West Bank, perhaps my favourite part of the world, and also one of the places I find the most confronting, confusing, challenging and heartbreaking. There is so much I want to share but so much I am still processing and so much I don’t understand. So much that I want those who live there to be able to share for themselves. It’s difficult when people ask for highlights to try to summarise what stood out. But looking through my photos from this trip, I was struck by the preponderance of these two images: walls and windows. Perhaps exploring them will capture something of all that I am reflecting on.

Walls represent barriers, boundaries, and demarcations. They stand for keeping people in and keeping people out. They often divide. Each one tells many stories, all with at least two sides.

Windows represent visibility, perspective and viewing. They are there not so much to be looked at as to be looked through.  Each one invites reflection, and the opportunity to look at things from a new angle.

Ancient city walls

Walls have been part of human history for millennia. This gate, built by the Canaanites in the second millennium BCE, is what remains of the oldest wall I saw, one which it is probable people like Abraham would have passed through.

It’s at a site called Tel Dan, where there are also these ‘newer’ Israelite city walls – dating to the 9th century BCE.

At Megiddo, excavations lay bare the layers of various city walls built over thousands of years in this city which was destroyed and rebuilt 25 times.

At the entrance to the city are the walls of the fortified city King Solomon built.

At Masada, the remains of walls built to protect a desert mountain fortress still stand.

And inside the ruins of Herod’s palace, parts of the walls of an opulent bathhouse can be glimpsed.

Jerusalem Walls

The Old City of Jerusalem can certainly be called a city of walls – it is surrounded by them and contains within it one of the most famous walls in the world. The current walls around the city were built in the Ottoman period, dating to around 1540 CE. In places like this, you can also see the remains of much earlier walls.

The city’s main northern entrance is the impressive Damascus Gate, built on top of a gate dating back to Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century CE.

On the other side of the city, the Zion Gate bears bullet marks from the 1948 Israeli War of Independence.

Within the Old City are remnants of much older walls, including the broad wall built by Hezekiah in the 8th century BCE.

And inside the newly excavated Kishle, remains of a wall built during the Hasmonean period of Jewish independence in the 2nd century BCE.

And of course, in the heart of Jerusalem are the remaining parts of walls of the Temple built by King Herod in the first century BCE. This is the Temple Jesus visited, taught at and pronounced judgment upon.

The Herodian stones are massive and impressive, up to 13 metres in length.

The closest part of the wall to where the Temple was forms a centre of Jewish worship and patriotism in the Old City, commonly called the Wailing Wall. Thousands gathered to received the priestly blessing during Passover.

Thousands more came to celebrate national pride on the country’s Independence Eve.

Spending time at the wall to welcome in the Sabbath is a pretty amazing opportunity to see something of the celebration and joy that Jewish worship can encompass – in a multitude of different ways all at the same time.

The plaza in front of the wall is divided by a different kind of wall, separating men from women, leaving mothers to stand on chairs craning to look over as their sons undergo their coming of age ceremonies.

One of my favourite Jerusalem walks is up on top of the Old City walls, where it is usually quiet and you can look down into the city upon all these things and ponder the stories they tell and the values they signify.

And you can also look outside the old city and in the distance catch a glimpse of the most modern of the major walls in this land … the Separation Wall.

The Separation Wall

Israel started building this wall in 2002. It is actually only a wall when it surrounds towns. For most of its length it is two barbed wire fences with an exclusion zone in between.

The Israelis say this is a security barrier to protect them against terrorists.

Many Palestinians call it a racial barrier or apartheid wall.

In 2004, the International Court of Justice found that the wall violates international law and in response the United Nations passed a resolution 150-6 (with 10 abstentions) condemning it and calling on both sides to meet the obligations they had already agreed to under the ‘roadmap’ to peace. I find it difficult to comprehend that my country was one of the six.

Politics aside, it’s hard to overestimate the psychological effect  growing up inside a wall like this has on children.

Frustrations and heartbreak are expressed by locals and visitors alike in graffiti and art all along the wall.

Famously, UK artist Banksy has painted various iconic images of subversive peace on it.

He also founded this establishment that bills itself as “the hotel with the worst view in the world.”

Inside is a small museum examining various perspectives on the impact of the wall.

Most mornings, those workers who have the right permits line up in this corral to cross the wall from Bethlehem into Jerusalem. Unless of course it has been closed for some reason – which seems to only be for those who live and work here, not tourists. Even when it is open to all, crossing a checkpoint with ease when most around you are questioned and searched is certainly a humbling experience.

Near the wall are a number of ‘refugee camps’ – but quite unlike what that name might suggest to many. Established just after 1948 and still under UN agency control, Aida camp, for example, is a rabbit warren of streets and apartment blocks home to five and a half thousand people in an area of 0.1km2.

Its residents use parts of the wall as memorials to children killed in fighting with wall security forces.

It is hard to see hope here. Surely there must be a better way forward. This kind of wall grieves me and I believe it grieves my Father. The founder of the Bethlehem Icon School painted this beautiful commission on the wall, a symbol of grief from this town’s most famous mother.

Windows

I have no solution to offer to this mess. And it wouldn’t be my place to offer one anyway. All I can do is share what I have seen, heard, and felt. But if there are any glimmers of hope I see in this place it is from the people I met who live there and are seeking to find and walk in ways of reconciliation, restoration, and peace. To me, in this place of walls, they are like windows.

I think of this window in Jerusalem from a church called Dominus Flevit, meaning the Lord wept. It looks over the Temple mount and remembers the place where Jesus paused to weep over this city. It causes me to ask where He is pausing and weeping today.

Or this window in Nazareth picturing Mary receiving the most surprising news of God coming in a completely unexpected way. It causes me to hope that just because we can’t think of a way forward doesn’t mean there isn’t one. God can still bring Peace in unexpected ways.

Most frequently, I found myself struck by many of the modern, abstract stained glass windows we saw in various churches in this land.

And the way each one reflects light in its own unique, often surprising, way.

From Nazareth to Bethlehem, Jerusalem to Galilee, I found myself drawn to the ways they let in and refract the sunlight.

The same sunlight, yet each has its unique beauty depending on its shape, colours and position.

To me that is a beautiful metaphor of what it means to be people of peace. People of light. People of faith.

And I met people like that in this land. People whom I continue to pray will find unexpectedly beautiful ways to shine light in the darkness.

A particular favourite of mine are these windows in a church at Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee. They are made of very thinly sliced alabaster. I am attracted to their incredible beauty, but I’m also intrigued by their very existence.

Windows made of stone. Who imagined that possible? And is it therefore possible that there might be a generation in this place who are able to imagine the impossible and even somehow turn walls into windows?