The Holy Land – Christmas day on the 9th Of November
Yesterday was Christmas day for me, we reached Bethlehem. The city takes its name from the fertile land that once made this now politically walled city, a bread basket. For Bethlehem means ‘House of Bread’ Like the shepherds and kings who paid homage to the Lord, every pilgrim to the Church must out of default bend low as the enter the Church.
Over the centuries, the entrance to Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity has twice been made smaller. The purpose in the last case was to keep marauders from entering the basilica on horseback. It’s now referred to as the “Door of Humility,” because visitors must bend down to enter and so we did.
Your guides will tell you that this is the first Church in the world but that is certainly not true as Armenia by then,had become the first country to establish Christianity as its state religion way back as 310 AD.
In 325 AD the Roman pagan Emperor, Constantine converted to Christianity and with him the entire Roman world. A religion persecuted for three centuries was now free to propagate its faith under royal patronage. By the year 327 he sent his mother Helena on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and it is to her that is attributed the recovery of many relics and sites in the Holy Land
PRETENCE V/S PIETY: ‘The Widows Mite’ by James Tissot (1886 – 1894)
Jacques Joseph Tissot, later anglicized as James Tissot, was born in 1836 near the busy port of Nantes, France to a prosperous draper. At the age of 17, he embarked upon his artistic mission which spanned three successful periods. In the first phase in Paris (1859-1870), he enjoyed great success as a high-society painter. He lived among rich aristocrats near the Arc De Triomphe in Paris. His leisured, well-secured life was soon skewered by the struggles of the French Revolution.
The fall of the Second Empire in 1870 and the bloody Franco Prussian war in 1871 compelled him to flee to London. Here, from 1871 to 1882, his career soared for the second time. However his successful eleven year sojourn ended in an emotional disaster. In 1882, his dearly loved mistress, Kathleen Newton died of consumption.
While working on a series of paintings themed, ‘The Woman of Paris’, James Tissot visited the Church of St. Sulpice in order to sketch the portrait of a choir singer. Here he encountered God in a vision as he saw Christ tending to the broken-hearted and the down trodden. This was his route to Damascus; his Metanoia! The encounter renewed his faith and shifted his artistic focus.
He took off on a research trip to Holy Land, beginning his ten year campaign to illustrate the New Testament. The result was ‘The Life of Christ’ popularly also known as ‘the Tissot Bible.’ It is a monumental series of 350 water coloured imagery displaying profuse observations with lucid realism.
There are three Seas (salt water) in the Holy the Land often referred to in jest as the Red, Med (Mediterranean) and the Dead. As a nation, one third of Israel’s land mass is nothing more than a desert. To such a land God provided a fresh water river, fed by three springs in the North which empties into the Lake of Galilee. The river Jordan flows first into the Lake of Galilee (the water is fresh, so technically it’s not a Sea as it has often come to be called) which then flows into the dead Sea in the South.
The Lake of Galilee also called the Lake Tiberius (named after the city that was built by Herod Antipas after his patron the Roman Emperor) is twenty one kilometres long and 13 kilometres wide. To its East rises the Golan Heights which could funnel strong winds through the mountains that touch a height of 9232 feet causing a perfect storm in minutes. Don’t be fooled by this idyllically looking mass of water body. The Bible records some nasty storms here.
Our hotel was situated on the Western banks of the Lake of Galilee in the city Tiberius. Just imagine your self-waking up and gazing at the Lake where four miracles of Jesus were performed; two on shore and two on the lake. I imagined my self being tossed in the middle of the night on the boat in pitch darkness, fear of death encompassing me, crying out for help while I battled the storm like Peter and the disciples.
Where was the Lord in my suffering? Mathew 14:22 onwards tells us that while the disciples were battling the waves that were against them, Jesus was watching over them from the very mountains that surround the lake; He was praying for them. The Lord may not be in our boat always while we are in the storm but He is certainly watching and praying for us.
The city of Nazareth is one chaotic city with just one main road running through it. Named after ( now) St Paul VI who visited the town in 1964 this city is nestled close to the Sea of Galilee. In the city of Nazareth is the Church of the Annunciation built over the home of Mary and the place of the annunciation. This is also the home of Joseph and Jesus who lived here for many years.
Early sources on Nazareth’s history are scarce, but Eusebius says Nazareth was a small Jewish town in the Roman and Byzantine periods. Evidence of Jewish converts to Christianity in Nazareth is provided by the historian Africanus in the 3rd century and pilgrimages to Nazareth are first attested as early as the late 4th century. More recently, archeological digs have found several caves ( used as homes even by Mary and Joseph) within which were found human skeletons going back to 2500 BC to the Canaanite period.
Within the complex of this Church, no more than a hundred odd meters and separated by the Franciscan monastery, is the Church of St. Joseph. It is here that Joseph lived and ran his carpentry workshop. After his marriage to Mary, this would have be the marital home of Mary and Joseph.
The Greek word ‘tekton’, meaning “builder or artisan,” was used to describe Joseph. He most likely worked with both wood and stone. Furthermore, Joseph most likely walked 50 minutes to work every day from Nazareth to Tzippori, a local Roman city that was being rebuilt at the time.
Verbum care factum est et habitavit in nobis, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). With these words splashed across the Church of the Annunciation our pilgrimage in Israel began. We had crossed the border from Jordan to Israel via the King Hussein Bridge (Allenby) Terminal, which runs over the very narrow Jordan River.
The current Church is a two-story building constructed in 1969 over the site of an earlier Byzantine-era Church going back to the 4th or 5th century. Prior to this, the first shrine was probably built sometime in the middle of the 4th century and comprised of an altar in the cave in which Mary lived. A larger structure was commissioned by Emperor Constantine, who had directed his mother, Saint Helena, to found churches commemorating important events in Jesus Christ’s life. The Church of the Annunciation was founded around the same time as the Church of the Nativity (Bethlehem) and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Jerusalem).
Fr. Warner D'Souza is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Bombay. He has served in the parishes of St Michael's, Mahim, St Paul's, Dadar East, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Bandra and at present is the priest in charge of St Jude Church, Malad East. He is also the Director of the Archdiocesan Heritage Museum and is the co-ordinator of the Committee for the Promotion and Preservation of the Artistic and Historic Patrimony of the Church.