Day 4 (Part 1) – Nazareth

Text and images on this page are from our 2014 pilgrimage. Click on the pictures to see them in larger format.

I love to wake up early in the morning when we’re staying in Tiberias, especially when we’re close to the lake. In my post last July about Henry Van Dyke’s travels to the Holy Land, I quoted his poetic description of camping alongside the Sea of Galilee. Though we were staying in a modern hotel instead of tents, his words beautifully capture the essence of our first morning there:

In the freshness of the early morning the sunrise pours across the lake into our tents. There is a light, cool breeze blowing from the north, rippling the clear, green water, (of a hue like the stone called aqua marina), with a thousand flaws and wrinkles, which catch the flashing light and reflect the deep blue sky, and change beneath the shadow of floating clouds to innumerable colours of lapis lazuli, and violet, and purple, and peacock blue.

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After a hearty Israeli breakfast, our group headed up the hill and west to the city of Nazareth, Jesus’ boyhood home and the place where he preached his first recorded sermon. Nazareth in Jesus’ day was a small village — depending on which scholar you believe anywhere from under 100 to a couple thousand residents. So it can be quite jarring to make your way through the bustle of the modern city, complete with its crowds of people on the sidewalks (about 80,000, not including tourists) and all manner of vehicles on the extremely crowded, nightmare-for-parking streets.

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Nazareth is also where Jesus’ mother, Mary, was living when the angel Gabriel greeted her and announced the coming birth of her son. There are two churches that claim the honor of commemorating that special angelic visit: the Church of St. Gabriel (Greek Orthodox), a church with roots to Crusader times that was built over the site of an ancient village well, and the Basilica of the Annunciation (Franciscan), which we visited.

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Perched on one of the highest points in Nazareth, the Basilica dominates the city skyline and is the largest Christian edifice in the Middle East. It’s also stunningly beautiful, both inside and out. We entered through the lower courtyard, which gives entry to the lower floor of the church. The courtyard is chock full of multicolored mosaics of the Virgin Mary that have been donated by almost four dozen countries. Each one has a unique depiction of Mary (and sometimes the baby Jesus) that reflects the ethnic and cultural characteristics of the sponsoring country. One near the street, for example, includes the colorful folk costumes of Ukraine. (To see all the mosaics from both the lower courtyard and inside the church click here.)

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The courtyard is spacious and peaceful, a perfect spot to pause, read Scripture and reflect on the good news of Jesus’ predicted birth. And other parts of it are just as lovely as the mosaics; the decorations on the facade and the figures on the three massive metal entry doors all tell the story of God’s plan for salvation from Adam and Eve to the cross, emtpy tomb and beyond.

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The lower church is built over the remains of older buildings that date back to the Byzantine (330-1453 AD) and Crusader (1099-1291 AD) periods. The simple, almost stark, architecture and dim lighting help pilgrims to focus their attention on the sunken altar area, which leads down even further to the Grotto of the Annunciation. We waited in line with several dozen other pilgrims to get a quick glimpse of the Grotto, which was purportedly the home of Mary when Gabriel delivered his startling message. The small altar in the Grotto reads “Verbum Caro Hic Factum Est” – “here the Word was made flesh.”

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The upper church is much more ornate with an impressive cupola ceiling, more art work honoring the Virgin Mary, and a gilt touched mural over the high altar. Even though it was full of worshipers, they were quietly respectful. What a great setting to sit, pray and think about Mary’s faithfulness and trust in God!

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The Church of St. Joseph is next door to the Basilica across the upper terrace, but it’s smaller and plainer and draws less of a crowd. According to tradition, it is built over the Roman-era cave that was the home and carpenter shop of Joseph and the Holy Family. As with the Basilica, there are remains from earlier worship centers that go back to Byzantine times, including a mosaic-decorated baptismal pool in one of the rock cavities of the lower area. This church and the Basilica were good reminders of the historically significant Christian presence in this town where Jesus grew from boy to man.

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What a contrast it was afterward to be confronted by several Muslim men on the walk back down to the bus. They were proselytizing and offering free copies of the Koran to the tourist groups leaving the Christian area. Though not as aggressive as some of the vendors we’d already encountered on the trip, they loudly argued that the Christian understanding of God in Three Persons (Trinity) didn’t make logical sense and wasn’t really “One God” as we claim. One of our guys engaged them in brief conversation, but it was clear that neither was going to convince the other of “the error of his ways.” This experience was also a “first” for one of our pilgrimages.

Our next stop for the morning was at Nazareth Village, which I am going to write about in a separate post. So let me end this one with a description of our last site in Nazareth — Mt. Precipice, which was also new to this tour. According to the gospel account in Luke 4, Jesus’ inaugural sermon in his local synagogue caused such a stir that his neighbors tried to kill him by throwing him off the brow of a hill. Sometimes it’s much the same today — the gospel message is least welcome in the neighborhood where it all started.

Though archeological remains nearby point to a Christian presence on the mount from Byzantine times, it’s doubtful that the site is exact because of its distance from what would have been the town of Jesus. Still, since it’s the highest ridge in the area you get a magnificent view of the Jezreel Valley and the mountains of Samaria.

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Click here to see more of our group pictures from Day Four – Nazareth, Cana and Capernaum – Part 1.

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