Location! Location! Location! What’s true about the significance of place in terms of real estate rings doubly so when it comes to the Holy Land, both in historical and Scriptural terms. Our first stop today was a visit to the storied Caesarea Maritima, the palatial showplace playground of King Herod built in the first century AD. Positioned on the shores of the azure-blue Mediterranean less than an hour north of present-day Tel Aviv, Caesarea Maritima possesses an undeniable elegance even in its present, partially excavated condition.
After a too-early morning (6:30 am) wake-up call and breakfast buffet, we piled our bags onto and under the bus and headed toward our destination, less than an hour north of Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city. Today was Sunday, not a holiday, but a workday here. I kept having to remind myself of that fact as I noticed the roads choked with traffic—all of it heading toward the center of this bustling city of 1.7 million inhabitants. Along our way, we drove through thriving new neighborhoods with their upscale apartment complexes lining the waterfront. As we passed several bus stops, I could not help but notice clusters of armed and uniformed Israeli young people doing their compulsory military service—a reminder that security concerns are never far beneath the surface here, even in the midst of evident prosperity.
As we drove northward along the coast, Amer, our guide, recited the story of the encounter between Peter and Cornelius in the Acts of the Apostles (chapter 10:1-31). Once we arrived at the sprawling archeological site, it was not at all difficult to make the connection between the Scriptural account and the physical reality before us. Even in their present condition, the amphitheater, hippodrome, coliseum, and palace all testified both to the glory of Rome and its hubris. A copy of a stone tablet bearing the name of Pontius Pilate provided an astounding non-Scriptural corroboration to the actual historically verifiable existence of the Roman official who condemned Jesus to death. Further, our own route from Joppa (Tel Aviv) to Caesear not only made the Scriptures come alive for us, it also made them plausible on the physical plane. I found myself saying: “It all really happened. And it happened here.”
That sense of plausible presence became clear to us as well as we approached the inland city of Nazareth in Galilee, the traditional boyhood home of Jesus. En route, we stopped at the shrine of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the industrial port city of Haifa. The shrine features a small chapel built over a cave where the Old Testament prophet Elijah allegedly lived. Here, by tradition, childless couples have come for centuries to pray for help. Large stone tablets grace the walls of the sanctuary in memory of Carmelite saints such as John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. And the throngs of visitors from all over the world attest to the continuing appeal of Carmel to pilgrims. We passed groups from Indonesia, Brazil, and Italy, but there were clutches of Arab Christians and Muslims as well who had come here to pray.
Our lunch stop was at a family-owned buffet featuring falafels (chick-pea ‘meatballs’) with an exotic array of condiments. Fr. Larry provided dessert in the form of delicious boxes of Turkish Delight from Istanbul. Continuing eastward along the inland route to Nazareth, we passed through the village of Cana (yes, as in ‘The Marriage Feast of….” ) It was uncanny to see road signs nonchalantly indicating the route toward this and other biblical place names that have persistently endured in the Holy Land over two full millennia.
Nazareth today, we were told, is a thriving hilltop city with a population of 85,000, nearly 40% of whom are Christians of various denominations. At its center, with its signature lighthouse roof, stands the contemporary Basilica of the Annunciation, a Franciscan church and our guide’s own parish. As we plugged in our headsets, we strolled the basilica’s courtyard to look at mosaic representations of the titles and apparitions attributed to the Virgin Mary around the world.
Inside the cavernous contemporary space (capacity 3500), we literally descended into the grotto chapel where tradition holds that Mary was visited by the Angel Gabriel and gave her definitive ‘yes” to God’s request that she become the mother of Jesus. On the top level of the church, we celebrated Eucharist with the readings of the feast of the Annunciation, and hurried out the doors as families prepared the sanctuary for the wedding to take place immediately afterwards.
After a brief visit to the church and shrine of the workshop of St. Joseph (“He was a workman, more likely a stonemason, but not a carpenter!” our guide insisted, pointing to the corruption of the Koine Greek term “tekton” which, for centuries, has led artists in the West to depict Joseph sawing away at his workbench. “Jesus worked hard alongside Joseph,” Amer continued. “ He was an accomplished laborer and craftsman who needed his physical strength as well to endure the rigors of His ministry.” That made perfect sense to me.
After posing for a group photo, we boarded our bus toward our hotel at the seaside town of Tiberius along the shores of Galilee, listening for a second time to the reading from Luke (chapter 1: 26-38) recounting the Annunciation. Once again, connecting the story with historical/ archaeological artifacts we had seen today, we as believers could say “It really happened and it happened here.” Not unlike the words inscribed in the Basilica of the Annunciation itself: “Here the Word was made Flesh.”//