Living Stones (Holy Land Pilgrimage, Dispatch 2)

“Did Nazareth exist in the first century?”

Even as a seminary-trained priest, I have always assumed that the scriptures were accurate when they said that Nazareth was St. Mary’s hometown, but I learned today that scholars debate this point: If Nazareth existed prior to the birth of Christ, why is it not mentioned in the Old Testament? If Nazareth was the place where Jesus spent his formative years, why is it never mentioned in the writings attributed to St. Paul? Why did Josephus, who wrote in the first century, refer to the towns surrounding Nazareth, but never to Nazareth itself?

Fortunately, after raising a very provocative question, our professor resolved it with recent archaeological findings to confirm that Nazareth was here in the age of Christ. Nevertheless, it was likely a community of fewer than 300 people, all working class. I have always known that God chose an unexpected place to announce the birth of his son – “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” I learned today that he chose a town that wasn’t even on the map, and this knowledge makes the story even richer for me.

We spent the bulk of our day today in Nazareth – a town that did and does exist! – about two hours north of our home base in Jerusalem. Nazareth remains a very gritty city, but the atmosphere here is quite different from Jerusalem: There is no barbed wire here, no security wall separating Israelis and Palestinians, no soldiers on the street corners with their automatic weapons. There is an ambient level of violence in Jerusalem, but a moderate level of peace seems to abide here.

The road from Jerusalem to Nazareth is anything but peaceful. Most of the way, the road marks the boundary between the State of Israel and the region known as the Palestinian Territories. There were no Palestinian license plates on the road that we took, because only Israeli vehicles are permitted to use it. The “security fence” is tall and foreboding, fifteen feet of solid concrete with barbed wire on top and guard towers every few miles.  Along the way, we passed several prisons that used protective walls to keep people in and several Israeli settlements that used walls to keep people out. We drove the middle way – the via media, as it were – between two conflicted nations and arrived in a town where the people of these nations seem to have found a way to interact with each other peacefully.

The Christian community accounts for only about two percent of the population of Israel. It has very little political power, but has chosen to commit itself to the hard work of reconciliation. It builds schools where any child can be educated, hospitals where any person can be treated, and spaces for conversation in which any voice can be heard. The Rector of the Christ Church, Nazareth, put it well: “We are a minority within a minority, but we are here.”

Local Christians refer to themselves as living stones, and I am very fond of the term. The history of this place is defined by the stones and ruins that mark its past. The future of this place will be defined by the people that call this place home today.

I am glad that Nazareth is here, that it exists both in Jesus’ day and in ours. I am glad that its living stones have found a way to live differently even when they are surrounded by tension and violence. I am glad that Nazareth is a place where unexpected things happen – in the past, in the present, and most-assuredly in the future.

Posted by The Reverend Sandy Webb at 9:52 PM
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