Day 5: Jesus of Nazareth, the Incarnation

If there was one place with no mystery, no Holy Spirit, no depth, at least compared to the rest of the Holy Land, it is the current day Nazareth. We got there immediately after Bethlehem, for lunch, and there is no grand arrival, no deliverance of any expectation. Instead,  it is but a Middle Eastern town.

To get to the site of Jesus’ home, you again have to go up a small hill. In this case, the hill is obviously focused on pilgrims and early 20th century Kodak sign gives the cue that many pilgrims come here. It feels like one of the oldest things I see.

The Basilica of the Annunciation is interesting but not powerful. It is Vatican II, and there is no patina, save an abandoned neoclassical house overlooking the entrance courtyard. I expect patina in the Holy Land. The Basilica covers a number of early churches; in going down into the center of the building you can see the stones as part of the architecture. Most of the countries of the world have contributed mosaics of their interpretations of Mother Mary and Child. Fr. Andrew Mayes, who is taking our group on its pilgrimage, kids that it reminds him of a Miss World content with all its emphasis on beautiful images of women from around the world.

Most of the panels are representational of a typical costume; the Japanese Mary looks like a Japanese woman, etc. The American one, however, is dark and rugged and is a sculpture relief, rather than mosaic. Discordant. Dissonant. Sharp. Caricatured. Mother Mary is in anguish in the U.S., and you can’t easily make out baby Jesus. There is no joy in it, just an artistic academic exercise.

It is perhaps right that Nazareth is so normal. As my Bishop Dabney Smith said after I came home about the normality of the situation, it’s the incarnation. Christ in the world is all about, well Christ being in the world. Incarnate.

The Nicene Creed I saw so often in my Book of Common Prayer is now real:

For us and for our salvation
        he came down from heaven:
    by the power of the Holy Spirit
        he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
        and was made man.


Day 5: Morning in Bethlehem

BETHLEHEM – My day will begin with Bethlehem. To get there from Jerusalem, you have to go into Palestinian territory.  But first, you pass the suburbs of Jerusalem. The suburbs are well, American. It feels like a very clean, pristine, tree-minimized Westchester County suburb as you go through on a tour bus. It looks western, more a colony of the U.S. than history’s most influential city.

I was prepared for Bethlehem to disappoint, as the myth is so great. The first thing you pass is the gate in the wall between Israel and the territories. We are told, not scarily so, not to take pictures as we pass through the gate to the Palestinian territory. What is odd about it is how close it is to Jerusalem. While not unkempt, it does not have the feel of visual sophistication found in Jerusalem’s Israeli suburbs.

The Gospels talk about the old Bethlehem. It comes alive in the glorious King James Book of Matthew:

 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

I wanted to always see that star, that perfect Bethlehem. We all do. It is imprinted on our brains, from every good moment of childhood.

Our guide Bishara Koury knows Arabic, English and Hebrew, and is the sort to get along with everyone. He gets off the bus, encouraging us to move quickly, as guards never like a vehicle to stay too long at an entrance, for obvious reasons. We go right up to the entrance, guarded and run by Palestinians, who keep the peace between Syriac, Greek, Armenian and Catholic factions. A guide takes us straight to the Grotto of the Nativity, and we push a few aside to get in. Not in a bad way, as the guard does the job pleasantly. I see the silver star marker where Jesus was born, and kneel down and put my hand inside the star, as so many others do. I remember the star from Holy Land USA in Orlando, as there is a fake Grotto right of Interstate 4 near Universal Studios and Sea World.

I fully expected something mystical to happen there. I am not sure what could have happened, but whatever I hoped, did not. Instead, it was simply historic and incarnate. The Church of the Nativity, really, is more of a history of Christianity than a mystical site. The church was built around the time of the Council of Nicea, so already we can see the built manifestation of the church, only a few hundred years after Christ. It is obvious that Christ still had a major effect that short time after His era.

The Rev. Andrew Mayes, who is our course director, takes us down to the tomb of St. Gerome, who died in 420. St. Gerome is no longer there, but the site is revered because of Gerome’s large body of work and a figure of writing in church history almost as well known as Augustine of Hippo.

So much has happened there, from Crusaders to the first crowning of the King of Jerusalem, Baldwin I of France, in 1100, as part of the second crusade. Baldwin was “the right arm of his people, the terror and adversary of his enemies.”

I leave, not so much charmed by the place, but confirmed by the place. The story in Bethlehem is not Jesus. Well it is; of course Jesus is the reason for Bethlehem. But what makes it compelling, after that, is the Christ presence after his resurrection. It is an other feeling, one of connection to the long, unbroken chain of Christians who have venerated the place, and held it as special. At one moment, as the noises of all the tourists milling about filled my head, I had to think of those early Christians coming to an alien, dangerous land, without the benefit of a Delta 747 and a Mercedes tour bus. For a second, I was part of the narrative of those who built Christianity. Or better yet, they, as Christians, were at one with me.

Below, some photos:

Streetscape in Bethlehem
Actually, this looks like what you’d expect in Bethlehem.
Another streetscape.
Closed restaurant, odd name, ugly sign.
A street sign, in excellent taste.
View across manger square. Many Christmas nights on TV have come from here.
The accommodation of pilgrims is an important part of the church in the Holy Land; its a business and a mission.
Inside the Church of the Nativity, the Christmas balls and hanging lamps give it a feeling of being “other” from our traditional Christmas, yet connected to it.
Mosaics, as i recall, date from the time of Constantine.
Not all the sisters at the church follow the rules on iPhones.
The Church of St. Catherine, which is above or near the tomb of St. Gerome, who translated the Bible into Latin and is entombed below.
Jay Crouse and The Rev. Dr. Andrew Mayes down in the tomb of St. Gerome.
Panis Vitae is Latin for Bread of Life.
Thankfully the ages have been preserved at the Church of the Nativity; each generation as built on the next.
I love the Jerusalem Cross here in a roof sign, with bougainvillea about.
Rather glad I missed this. Didactic social justice doesn’t seem necessary when you experience the real church.
View of the wall separating the territory.
Pro-Palestinian graffiti in Bethlehem.
At the tomb of St. Gerome.
Palestinian guards at the Church. They are very friendly, and have a true sense of mission in protecting the place.
Another view of the wall between Palestinian territory and Israel.
Bishara greeting one of the local Palestinians in charge of the place.

Day 5: On Checkpoints and Borders

BETHLEHEM, PALESTINE – The Basilica or Church of the Nativity is many different chapels all layered on top of each other, as so much is in the Holy Land. The site is revered as the cave where Christ was born, but it has gained layers of history over 2,000 years because of the many pilgrims who have visited it.

To get in, we were waved through by the Palestinian crossing guards. In Bethlehem, they seem friendly and protective of tourists and pilgrims, and when we go through, we do not even have to completely stop; we just are waved through.

Entering Palestine, the streets in Bethlehem are not pretty. While there numerous 19th and early 20 century buildings that give a sense of old Ottoman and British Mandate Palestine, most of the streets are lined with shops and apartments of little note.

Christmas decorations are still up; perhaps they still have some lights at night for tourists, but the idea of Bethlehem of our childhood version of the Bible is way off. The town is mostly Muslim, and the security and indeed the temple is run by the government. Some in the west see increasing intolerance of Christians in the Middle East, but in this situation, the churches that govern the basilica allow Muslims to run it. Of course, it helps that the pilgrims are critically important to the economy.

As in other areas in the Holy Land, wherever you go, because of the small streets and the police, you need to get off the bus quickly. Buses are not allowed to linger in front of buildings, for obvious reasons.

Manger Square is just a block off the main street; you walk up a modest hill. Most noticeable is a time clock which is a countdown to Christmas, giving it a Times Square sort of feel, albeit in miniature. It is not as I had seen on TV, but what is?

The church dates beginning in 327 from Constantine’s time, and when you go there you are traveling more to that era, than to Christ’s. It was also the site of coronations of Crusader kings. It is really a series of churches rather than just one; the main basilica is Orthodox, though the roof timber came from Edward IV of England in the 1400s.

When you go in, you have to go into a small door’ it’s a filled in arch; the lore is that it was done so wagons could not get in. The church is full of chandeliers, many with red Christmas balls hanging from the bottoms. In a real-world twist, many of the light bulbs across the church are fluorescent, and give off an odd glow.

To actually visit the site of Christ’s birth, you have to go down steps and touch your hand on a small stone where he was born. Of course the exact spot can’t be determined but that is immaterial, as the pilgrims of 2,000 years have added a physical and prayerful patina to the stone.

We got our turn a bit unfairly, but I took the opportunity. The Palestinian guard took us through, even pushing through other pilgrims to make sure we had a chance at seeing it and touching the spot.

In looking back on it a day later, I see that the smooth spot of stone sort of reminds me of Luray Caverns in Virginia where a broken stalagmite has been smoothed over, and is in the color of two fried eggs, sunny side up. For generations, travelers have touched the egg.

But this “egg” is far more important, and when I touched it, nothing happened immediately. But on thinking of what I had done, and doing the same as millions of pilgrims for 2,000 years, I just got a blast of peace. It may be imagined, but it was a blast.

Day 5: The Roman City of Sefforis, Near Nazareth

Day 4: Following John Romer into Dead Sea Scroll History

IMG_4578QUMRAN, DEAD SEA – Again and again, I face the reality of the world against my perceptions. These can be great matters (faith vs. scripture vs. interpretation vs. geography) or more prosaic expectations from Ancient History 101 textbooks.IMG_4578

A quick review of Dead Sea 101. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found by Bedouin Muhammed Edh-Dhib and others after World War II, and in subsequent years more scrolls were found and the Qumran town unearthed. It was arguably one of the greatest architectural finds in history, and it all happened in our time. At any time during the process of their discovery, the scrolls, now mostly at the Israeli Museum, could have been destroyed or lost, or forgotten yet again.

IMG_4582The history book image of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Qumran is of dry, stone caves tucked in mountains, out in the wild Judean desert far away from Jerusalem. Yet what is there does not match up; it is a tourist site, easily reached by motor coach from Jerusalem.

The Qumran caves are in a well-groomed, well-planned, well-preserved, well-protected, well-interpreted, well-landscaped and well-maintained Israeli National Park near, well, the Dead Sea, in the Judean Desert. It is not an “exciting” place, and there is little to actually “see” but some ruins and caves.IMG_4583 In photos, one sees the caves, but when you get there, you see the tourist infrastructure first.

But there is nothing that can be done about that. It would be impossible and unfair and silly to have the site of one of the greatest archaeological finds hidden for only a few, with no bathrooms and tourists run amok.  When I look at the caves, they are completely barren, and as long as I do not turn around, they look timeless. And when the hot, dry breezes gust up ever so slightly,  I get the sensation of Holy Land “timelessness” I am seeking. I do not think it is conjured, though I do think it is helped by the presence of our group leader, The Rev. Dr. Andrew Mayes, who points out the details of which cave was which.

Mayes’ Holy Land? Challenging Questions from the Biblical Landscape, published by Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, is all about finding the “holy” in a modern Holy Land. As we walk about about, Mayes continues to not only tell us the history, but to ask us what it means.

This rescues me from the grip of my typical tourist mindset, which is to sort of “conjure” my time in a place until I feel the “right” feeling. Here at Qumran, because it is so different than my reality, I just start to look at it for today and the moment, beginning with the gorgeous yellow bougainvillea at the entrance.

So much of this all seems Providential, how they were found, and how these sites are prepared so that the faithful can see and understand what happened here, not only 2,000 years ago, but in the 1940s, when that Bedouin went snooping about and decided to see what these papers were worth back in the city.

The astonishing thing of Qumran is that a few scraps of parchment and papyrus and copper survived 2,000 years, and inform our current understanding of the Bible. That’s the draw of Qumran. Here, we can see the fragility of what we call “civilization” and how it survived, even in the hands of an uneducated Muslim.

Today, the Scrolls are carefully preserved in Jerusalem (with some in Jordan), and have been digitized. But they are one raucous war away from destruction.

Still, Who and Why?

IMG_4572While there is evidence of early settlement, the main era of the place is the early Judeo-Christian era. The dominant theory is that it was a home to the Essene Jewish sect, which had a scriptorium on the site, which is visible. There are other theories out on Wikipedia; there is no need for me to go into them all as I am not qualified to judge. Readers need to investigate all, and judge for themselves.

Archaeologist John Romer’s Testament (video below) includes a 1988 segment on the Dead Sea Scrolls. His theory is that the documents were taken for preservation to Qumran when Jerusalem fell to the Romans.

That is quite a romantic theory, and one that makes sense to me, though it would seem to reason that, a, there would be many sects of Jews in the desert after the fall of Rome in the desert, and b, if Jerusalem was under attack, Jews would have taken their history with them and hid it somewhere. After all, when you have to evacuate for a hurricane or fire (or end of a civilization!), the main thing you take, after  your children, are your scrap books and legal documents.

We can all argue about different theories, but what is readily apparent is that the Bible is not some conjured up document in the Vatican. It is history.

The YouTube version of Testament has Romer’s theory, and includes an evocative black and white Warner Pathe newsreel of the restoration process. It’s 13 minutes long, but well worth watching. While watching again, I wish I had Romer’s stylish Indy Jones Egyptologist hat, which looks to be a bit of theater, except when I realize Romer IS an Egyptologist.

Day 4: Like Ivory, I Float

We must visit the Dead Sea by going to a kibbutz; along the way there are many marketing billboards as spas have tried to market resorts along the giant lake. The problem is that the water keeps dropping, and so the beach gets larger and larger and muddier and muddier. Quite the opposite problem as most U.S. beachside resorts that are fighting erosion.

Unlike a U.S. lakeside shoreline, there are few public access points. You need to pay.

There at the resort are a good few hundred or so tourists of all ages, each wanting that moment of floating in the Dead Sea. Getting that moment is not easy; as the Dead Sea level has dropped, the shore has become wider and wider. On the advice of group leader Jay Crouse, I have bought wading shoes; that way you can get out to the water easily. While we are in a sandy desert, the area at the lake is awful black mud, as unattractive as the clay-ish mud that lines the banks of the estuaries of Virginia.

Getting in is something you do slowly; the lake bottom is not even, and while it does not drop off, I do not want to go in all of a sudden, so I slowly wade down, feeling for the cracks. I wade out far enough to submerse myself. Funny, as I am writing this, I cannot recall if my head went all the way under, but I think it did, though the warning of no splashing is important, as the sting is great.

The Dead Sea is greasy. That’s the only way to describe the feeling of the highly saline water that makes up the Dead Sea. You just get in, and it feels like it is gliding over you.

I get enough mud to cake on myself, keeping it on for a few minutes as if I am in some fancy spa treatment. I get out, wash off and eat ice cream at the stand. It’s a rather festive place. We get back on the bus.

I have floated in the Dead Sea.

Day 4: Dead Sea of Luis Marden, in Kodachrome No More

I have brought along from the U.S. three 1960s editions of National Geographic that feature the Holy Land.

The one I am looking at on the bus to the Dead Sea is the December 1964 edition which has three features on the Holy Land, one by King Hussein of Jordan, another by Bertha Spafford Vester, the daughter of Chicago evangelist Horatio Spafford and a third feature and photo essay on Jordan by the renowned National Geographic photographer and writer Luis Marden. The late Marden was a sort of Renaissance man photographer/writer who found the HMS Bounty, among dozens of other discoveries. His medium was the Leica and Kodachrome, and he formed the image of the Holy Land for millions around the world through his iconic photos.

I am sure many of you know these particular editions and photos well, as the magazine tends to live on in grandparent houses; editions on the Holy Land even longer because of the subject.

Now that I am finally here, I bring the magazines along to the Dead Sea, to do my own sort of sleuthing, a sort of cheap, bus-seat version of the search for the Afghani girl who graced the cover of National Geographic and was the subject of a search to find out what had become of her. I am hoping to match the images from 1964, when this country was Jordan, to what is here today.

As we are driving along the road, our guide points out an old, abandoned Jordanian resort hotel. Because the Dead Sea is so starved, the lake level has dropped, and what was the shore is at least a mile away from this bombed out, empty shell hotel, so valueless that no one has even bothered to tear it down.

Then, I remember that there is a similar building in the edition. The photograph is of a couple floating in the water in front of the resort. The photo is by Marden, who took so many notable National Geographic photos around the world. (Other photos in the magazines are by my favorite Geographic photographer, Thomas Nebbia.)

The photo, below, by Marden has two women floating in the Dead Sea, reading a National Geographic, I think. It’s of course Kodachrome, and beautiful, and idyllic, and a disappeared time and place. Today, the sky is gray and the water is nowhere near. But you can at least buy the print online, or see all of Marden’s work by putting his name and the word “Jordan” in the link HERE.

Dead Sea Jordanian Hotel Ruins


Day 4: An Hour in the Wilderness, Not 40 Days


WADI QELT, ISRAEL – It is not quiet in the Judean Desert. You can hear every footstep, every breath, every bit of breeze, every housefly. There are no blowing trees, no rushing waters, no animals, only a bit of scrub in a place that is so dry you don’t understand how it grows.

Jesus spent 40 days in this West Bank desert, and I have an hour. So says the passage, with similar versions found in Luke, Matthew and Mark:

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. (Luke 4)

Of course, we don’t exactly know where Jesus went, and in some of the versions, Jesus was taken atop the Temple by Satan for a time. I am just trying to think about that. As impractical as that seems, the rest of the geography makes sense, as he left the nearby Jordan River and headed into the wilderness.

This place looks like as forlorn a place as there can be. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are essentially Mediterranean; this place is Middle Eastern. Postcard Middle Eastern, in fact, as there are Bedouin nearby who have their camels ready for travelers like me.

I am on a scenic highway overlook called Wadi Qelt; wadi is the Arabic word for valley, and the path below is a popular hiking trail. It is on the road back from the Dead Sea to Jerusalem. The overlook is like any in the U.S., a simple roadside scenic overlook, with a place to park, a  place to sit and a place to walk around, admire the view and take photos.IMG_4597

As the Rev. Rick Marsden prepares a Holy Eucharist, I am trying to too quickly put myself in the Desert of Christ, where to the right is Jericho and to my left is the road to Jerusalem. I still don’t know which direction is which, what is up or down.

A group of Bedouin teen boys is on the hill too, following a bit closely. Is it a non-Western conception of personal space? Apparently not. Bishara Khoury, of the St. George’s staff, speaks to the group of kids and teen boys who come to sell their wares. He tells them in Arabic to stay away until we finish our Eucharist, and after our service, we will look at their wares. While they back off, they hover, nevertheless, impolitely. Bishara tells me to move my camera close so it does not get stolen when I read the Gospel. “Naughty boys,” he says to me. “They are very naughty boys.”

I appreciate the physical protection of Bishara, and his use of the word “naughty”  as it takes the edge off the situation. Naughty implies forgiveness, of a heart that is good, but someone gone astray. It’s an old-school British-ism, and a clever way to convey a message that there is evil here, but is evil you can deal with, evil that could be changed if there were a better solution for the kids.IMG_4599

In the book This Side of Peace by one-time Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi, she uses the term “naughty” as well. She, like Bishara, is a Palestinian Anglican Christian, married at St. George’s, and from the same world. She writes in the book that during childhood, she used the word “naughty uncles” to refer to misbehaving soldiers. The term, she says, had been something passed down through the years in the Palestinian Christian community.IMG_4601

To me, it also implied a people who have been busy trying to bridge to worlds that they are both a part of, and distant from, placating Arabs, their neighbors and family; Jews, their neighbors and bosses and and European and Western Christians, their brothers.

We finish Eucharist, and we all head up the and around the hill to pray silently. To be honest, I want to hear from the Lord. I don’t want to hear the buzzing of flies, though I know the birds do need something to eat so I am glad something lives around here in this dryness. As dry and plant-less as it is (save the little flower below), I wonder what do ants eat in the desert?IMG_4605

I walk up the hill, higher than the overlook. Just behind me is the real world, an oasis settler house stuck off on its own, with kids playing on bikes and Big Wheels, surrounded by a few newly planted date palms. This desert will not always be so desolate.

The Lord is not talking to me; the Lord does not “speak” just because you demand it at a certain time. Not that I expected it. Instead, perhaps, the quiet feels like a preparation for a place for Him to enter.





Day 2: The Road to Jerusalem

Israel Highway Tel Aviv to Jerusalem


ROUTE 1, ISRAEL, MAY 5, 2013 – Driving from Ben Gurion to Jerusalem is about 45 minutes, and includes passing over the “Green line” original border of Israel. If you look at it from above, you are sort of passing over a kind of “nubbin” that was originally Jordan, but after the 1967 war, became Israel.

Giv'at Ze'evHighway 1 is a traditional superhighway, with divided lanes and limited access. Americans who look closely at the construction will see a road built to very high standards, much higher than U.S. Interstates; the lighting, fencing and drainage are built like a city street. Much of the road goes along ancient routes. From Ben Gurion, you go on a what were former Roman, Ottoman and British roads.

During weekdays, the road is crowded, and Route 443 is the winding alternative, though the Palestinian access the road is limited, and it has checkpoints.

In spite of the modernity of the road itself, the past is never far away. Thankfully, I see the occasional camel, and observe that much of the scenery is still open space, a wonder because of the amount of population that goes between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. You pass old war relics, as this road was critical in the Israeli Army’s ability to take Jerusalem. And you see barriers, realizing that the Palestinian West Bank areas are to your east.

On the way are Israeli West Bank “settlements” that sometimes make the news, including Giv’at Ze’ev, a hilltop town built in 1982. The news media call them “settlements” but that word is used because it is politically coded word; a more accurate description for us Americans would be a development.