We didn’t stop in Cana this morning, because there isn’t much history to see there (besides a historic Roman Catholic Church on the traditional site of the famous Wedding). As we drove through, however, our tour guide gave us a brief lesson on 1st-century Jewish weddings.
After the couple gets engaged — which involved the groom talking with the bride’s parents, not necessarily with the bride’s knowledge — the groom gets busy building and making ready their house — which (usually) involved building on an addition to his family’s house, or “insula.” Whenever the groom’s work is finished, he sets off across town to collect his bride and bring her home. The bride has no way of knowing when this will happen, so she must wait expectantly, and be ready at all times. As the groom walks, a parade is formed behind him as family and friends and onlookers join the bridal procession to celebrate the union. By the time the groom reaches the bride, the whole village is involved in the festivities! A feast would follow, and it was just such a feast that Jesus was invited to, with some of his disciples, and it was later on during this feast that his mother asked him — told him? — to somehow produce more wine, so the feast and merriment would continue longer.
This helps us better understand the parable of the ten bridesmaids that Jesus tells. In the parable, 10 bridesmaids wait for the groom to come: five were wise and watchful, keeping extra oil ready for their lamps; the other five were foolish and fickle, and did not bring oil. The five who were ready were welcomed into the feast; the five who had to go out to buy more oil missed out.
The parable of the ten bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13) features oil lamps like this one, as a symbol of watchfulness and readiness.
Lord, help us keep watch. Let the oil of your Word and the flame of your Spirit illumine our eyes and stir our hearts to wait expectantly for your return. Amen.
The grain is placed on the ground, and the sled is pulled over it to crack the hulls. The mixture is then tossed into the air with a threshing fork: the chaff blows away, and the kernel falls to the ground, to be collected and stored.
Some of these trees are hundreds of years old, and the offspring of trees that would have been growing when Jesus was raised here.
Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants (Luke 20:9-16) features a vineyard with a watchtower. It makes sense that he was remembering something he might have seen often growing up.
This hole in the roof of the olive press was a happy accident, that let us remember together the story from Luke 5:17-26, about the friends who lowered the paralytic through a hole in the roof — very much like this one — to get to Jesus.
This grindstone would have been used to grind olives into a pulp to be gathered and pressed.
The pulp from the grindstone is placed in woven baskets (pictured bottom left) to be pressed three times. The first press is done by stacking the baskets on top of each other over a carved hole in the ground (pictured upper right), so the oil runs into the underground vat. This oil is pure, because it is made without weights; it was thus holy, and given to the temple for purification and anointing.
The second-press oil is made by placing the already-pressed woven baskets under the weight of the press itself; this oil is still very clean, and suitable for cooking and cleaning and even some kinds of medicine.
The third-press oil is made by progressively adding stone weights to the press, so that the last of the oil is squeezed from the pulp. This oil contains impurities from the olive flesh and pits, and is really only suitable for burning in small ceramic lamps.
This is replica of a first-century synagogue. Our tour guide instructs us about synagogue worship, and the features of synagogue architecture.
Our tour guide recites Luke 4 for us, rehearsing the story of Jesus reading from the scroll of Isaiah.
A carpenter demonstrates a few replicas of first-century woodworking tools, including a plane and a drill. The woman is showing how wool was spun into thread, to be woven on a loom.
This morning we were in Nazareth Village, a reproduction of 1st-century Nazareth on — as close as possible — the actual site of 1st-century Nazareth. It is striking to be standing where Jesus grew up, and I suppose this is what I expected more of this trip to feel like. It helps that this place has been made to look, feel, sound, and smell, like the Nazareth that Jesus (probably maybe) grew up in.
It has also been crafted with great detail, which gave great insights into several of the parables of Jesus. Perhaps the most illuminating for me was the olive press. We were brought to one of the larger buildings, where the freshly harvested olives would have been ground on a donkey-driven mill, and the pulp then scooped into woven baskets and stacked over a vat dug in the ground to collect. Once the pure oil was gravity pressed, the baskets were then taken to the mechanical press and placed under the weight of the long, heavy beam, to be collected again in the vat. The third press is extracted as weights are progressively added to the beam; this oil is riddled with impurities from the olive pulp, and is used mostly for burning in small clay oil lamps.
The connection was made for us that, just like olives are pressed three times, so also Jesus was “pressed” three times in the garden of Gethsemane, on the Mount of Olives.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
~ Isaiah 53:5
Just as the oil from the first press is pure, and used in temple rites of purification; and the oil from the second press is clean, and used in preparing foods and medicines; and the oil from the third press, while impure, is still useful for burning for light and heat, the blood and sweat poured out in the prayers of Jesus are useful and beneficial for our purification, nourishment, and comfort, poured out for us. Thanks be to God!
This place, and the ministry that manages it, left quite an impression. What an amazing witness in this place!
Sepphoris, the Roman capital of Galilee, is not featured in any New Testament stories, but it is significant for students of the life of Jesus. Because it was built during the early years of Jesus’ life, scholars guess that Jesus’ father, Joseph, being a carpenter (which probably meant mason, or daylaborer, more than someone who builds with wood), would likely have been involved in the construction of Sepphoris. From that guess, therefore, we can also guess that Jesus himself would have been involved as well, as Joseph’s apprentice. Fascinating.
To go from Nazareth Village, with its dust paths and small huts, to Sepphoris, where the streets were paved with ornate tile mosaics, would have been quite a shock for Jesus.
The plaque describing this mosaic read: “The Centaurs, or those who round up bulls, originate in Greek mythology, and are half man and half horse. The Centaur depicted here is holding a shield or a dish with the Greek inscription: ‘Helpful God’.”
This panoramic mosaic depicts several different hunting stories. These grand mosaics were found in a public building with many rooms.
The detail found in these mosaics is amazing, and the work done to restore and preserve them must be painstaking.
A Greek inscription, in tile mosaic, on the street.
This mosaic is found in the Temple of Dionysus, Greek god of fertility and wine (and all that both imply). The mosaic includes many panels depicting stories from the life of Dionysus.
A part of the frame surrounding the Dionysus panels, we saw in this beautiful mosaic that Jesus may have seen great works of art, such as this. 1st-century Galilee was not necessarily as backwoods or uncultured as we sometimes assume.
The Roman theater at Sepphoris. It could be asked, “Did Jesus go to the theater?” Again, no textual proof, but where else would he have developed his understanding of “hypocrites” (Matthew 6:2, 5), which is Greek for “stage-actors”? Fun to wonder.
Some of the mosaics in the public building looked like ornate carpets.
Turkey schwarma for lunch today. Delicious!
Sepphoris, the Greco-Roman capital of the region of Galilee, is only four miles from Nazareth, but for the differences found between these two places, they’re in different worlds. If you’re not familiar with this name, don’t be alarmed. This city is not featured in any New Testament story, which begs the question: “Why study this site?”. While it was not featured, and there is no textual proof that Jesus was here, this city was in Jesus’ backyard growing up. What is more, there is historic proof that new building projects were commissioned during Jesus’ lifetime suggests to scholars that Joseph, recorded to be a carpenter (which scholars read to more likely mean a mason or even a daylaborer, considering the regional abundance of stone and rarity of usable lumber), may have perhaps been involved in some of the construction of Sepphoris. From that extra-textual leap, we can even imagine young Jesus, Joseph’s son and apprentice, tagging along to learn and help with the expansive projects.
It is interesting to consider, and imagine, and wonder. I wonder if Jesus, who already had a profound understanding of God’s Law by this time, was asked to work on tile mosaics of bizarre myths of centaurs and amazons and Dionysus. I wonder if Jesus took a break from the work to see one of the Greek tragedies at the theater, and what he would have thought of such portrayals of gods as fickle and vindictive. I wonder if Joseph tried to shield Jesus from the Greek myths and Roman military culture, to preserve some sense of Jewish identity for the boy. I wonder.
Lord, you have revealed yourself to us through the eyes and words of your disciples, sent to go and tell the good news that the kingdom of God is near. Through the stories handed down to us, we know you in your sufferings, and in your triumphal resurrection. Whatever else happened while you were on earth is a question mark, but we pray to you and put our trust in you as our Lord and Savior. Thank you. Amen.
Mount of the Beatitudes
Unfortunately, this church was closed when we arrived. It was by far the most beautiful church I saw while we were in Israel, and I was so disappointed to miss it. A Wikipedia search showed that it was built very recently (by Israel’s standards), in the 1930’s, and its 8-sided design reflects the 8 Beatitudes. It is built on the site of the ruins of a 4th-century church and monastery.
What a hot, dusty, sunny place to listen to a sermon. No shade, no soft grass, no cool sea breezes. In a sweaty instant, I have had to completely re-imagine this story. We were tasked to go with our families to read Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount, and hear it in the place it was spoken. It’s hard work to listen in the heat on the hard ground.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
~ The Beatitudes, Matthew 5:3-12
A strange opening to a sermon. Strange to hear blessings on a barren hilltop. Strange to hear who is blessed in this upside-down kingdom: the poor, the mourners, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers, the persecuted. Not who we usually consider blessed. But Jesus welcomes and invites and blesses precisely those people who would be sitting on this hill.
Lord, train my eyes to see the outcast, and my lips to bless them. Embrace me in your arms of love, that I may do the same to those whom society considers of no value, so that they may discover their ultimate worth in your kingdom. Amen.
Church of the Multiplication
This mosaic is a bit hard to see in photos, but you can make out 2 fish, one on either side, and a bowl or basket of loaves. What you can’t quite see is that the basket contains only 4 loaves. If you know, or re-read, the passage about Jesus feeding the 5000 (Mark 6:32-44), you’ll remember that there are 5 loaves, not 4. We were asked, “Where is the 5th loaf?” The answer was as surprising as it was instructive: every Sunday morning, when the bread is broken during the communion liturgy, there are 5 loaves present, and the miracle of the miraculous multiplication is made new when God provides a feast for his people.
This is the traditional site (pretty accurate, but no real proof) of a very familiar story:
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
~ Matthew 14:13-21
Whether you believe that five loaves and two fish could — by the providential power of God — fed five thousand people, or that somehow this first offering was matched by everyone else’s picnic baskets, or whatever happened, is not the point. Our group did not fixate on the historicity of this story, but on its theological significance for God’s people. A small meal became a superabundant feast in Jesus’ hands, as he took and blessed and broke and gave. Every time we celebrate communion, the same thing happens. The bread and cup are taken, blessed, broken/poured, and given, and a small meal (snack, really) becomes a spiritual feast.
This connection was made for us at the church’s altar. Below the simple communion table, there is a tile mosaic of two fish, and a basket or plate with four loaves. We were asked, “Where is the fifth loaf?”. The fifth loaf is the bread for communion each Sunday, and the miracle is reenacted for the people of God.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15)
This is the traditional site for the post-resurrection breakfast on the beach in John 21, where Peter is reinstated after denying Jesus three times. Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?”. Jesus gives Peter an opportunity to be reconciled and restored.
And [Peter] said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” (John 21:17b)
But to be in right relationship with Jesus means that Peter — and we, too — has work to do.
Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
If we love Jesus, we love those he loves. This is not easy work. What Jesus says next is sometimes read during the ordinations of pastors as they are robed:
“Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (John 21:18)
If we love Jesus, and we love those he loved, then we will go to new and uncomfortable — even dangerous — places in his name. If this is daunting, and scary, the next words of Jesus should be a comfort.
After this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:19)
We are never asked to go to these places without Jesus. Even in the so-called “Great Commission”, Jesus tells the disciples, “I am with you always.” By the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, our Lord still leads us yet. May we have ears to hear his voice, and eyes to see him leading us on.
These millstones were found so frequently in this area that it is now thought that this area may have been where they were made and sold. In Matthew 18:6, Jesus says, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” It would be better! This millstone is huge! A terrifying warning.
Our next stop, just down the road, is Peter’s hometown, Capernaum. We arrived moments before the site was closing, which was unfortunate, but we were able to walk around the preserved ruins of the synagogue, and see the foundations of the insula, the houses of families. There is a fascinating glass-floored church built over the foundations of an early church, that was built over the foundations of what is traditionally thought to be Peter’s house. Not much time here, and no really new information, but very exciting to see nonetheless. Capernaum is featured in several gospel stories. It was here that Jesus taught in the synagogue and cast out evil spirits, healed Peter’s mother-in-law, and healed and freed many others; it was here that the four men lowered their paralytic friend through the roof to be healed while Jesus was teaching; it was here that Jesus began his ministry!
Our last stop for the day was at the banks of the Jordan River. I did not take very attractive pictures here, sorry. The Jordan River is featured in both Old and New Testaments, but we stopped here to remember Jesus’ baptism.
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.
And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
~ Matthew 3:13-17
Here at this place, the river where Jesus was baptized, we remembered our own baptisms into our Lord Jesus Christ, lowered into his death and raised into his life. Thanks be to God for his grace and mercy!
Phew! A big post for a big day. Enjoy!