Ein Karem
Our day began in Ein Karem, the hometown of John the Baptist which makes it the center of all the events surrounding his birth and Mary’s visit to his mother Elizabeth. The church of John the Baptist is another simple church which takes claim to the title by being located in the Judean hills as the Gospel states and by tradition. As Catholics we count on tradition a great deal and the holy land is actually affirming of this as time and again the traditional sites are verified by archaeology. The church focuses on the miraculous events of John’s birth to elderly and supposedly barren parents and John’s father Zachariah who thinks the angel is crazed who told him of the remarkable child to be born and is silenced until in obedience he insists the child’s name shall be John, upsetting traditional naming customs. Then his tongue is loosened and he proclaims the Benedictus – “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel who has come to his people and has set us free.” Each morning this prayer I say this prayer as part of the Liturgy of the Hours. I confess to the low mumbling of it for it suffers for its everyday roteness. The paintings, the presence has made the prayer spring to life again for me.
We were sad to learn that the Visitation did not occur in the home of Elizabeth and Zachariah, but instead up a steep mountain to another church. As we climbed up the over 100 steps, I asked aloud why Mary had done this to us. It was explained that Zachariah like many priests had two houses and to keep ritually pure, he separated himself from his wife. But walking comes with pilgrimage and if John was born in the Judean hill country, then the walking must be uphill. The church of the Visitation was worth the hike. A gem of a chapel designed by Italian architect and third order Franciscan Antonio Barluzzi, it elegantly tells the story of the encounter of the two women and is a true celebration of womanhood. It was an honor to say mass there and hear the wonderful words so deeply held in our hearts such as “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” And of course the Magnificat, “My soul proclaims the glory of the Lord.” I pray this each day as well, and it is reiterated multiple times during the Advent season, but I never tire of it. It is the song of the coming revolution Mary is carrying within her. “He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.” What a thrill to say mass there along with Fr. Tim and feel the empowered by two wonderful female sacraments of grace.
So much of the ancient and modern story of Israel is geography. As we set out on our two hour journey to Nazareth we broke free of the sharp hills of Judea in the South and entered into the wide open plains of the North which included the Plains of Meggido where Armageddon is to occur. This reflects a disastrous loss of ancient Israel. Looking for miles on those lush plains from either side of the road, one could easily imagine a setting for two great armies to clash.
Our destination was Nazareth, Jesus’ home for thirty years. My emotion took me by surprise. A modern church built after Pope Paul VI recommended it after his famous visit here in 1964, it encompasses the childhood home of the Virgin Mary. Skeptics slow down. There was likely only 50 houses in the town back then and sure enough excavations revealed 1st century AD and BC houses and pottery recovered from the first century AD to that says “Ave Maria.” A beautiful façade welcomed us with the story of the Annunciation and over the door the words, “Factum est,” or “May it be done” – Mary ringing assent to God’s astonishing plan. A wide platform forms a ring above a lower level where the cave house of Mary is venerated. A small group of pilgrims kneeled in awe before an altar with a stone inscription. I chill shivered my spine as I knelt before the powerful words “Verbum caro hic factum est” or “The word became flesh here.”
Have you ever wondered what is more important, Christmas or the Annunciation? Probably not for Christmas has taken such a large part of our consciousness and time. But if we celebrate the marvel of God being born into such vulnerability and smallness, imagine God beginning as a zygote, cells forming over nine months, parts of the Son of God still in development. Such is the subtle and amazing formation of our salvation. It began in Nazareth with an astounding divine plan; it began with a faithful yes from a girl of outsized faith; it generated, from the smallest start possible, life and light.
Of course, Nazareth is not just where Jesus was born but where he lived and worked and grew for thirty or so years. So up the block so to speak is the lovely church of St. Joseph and his home. Its simplicity is a testament to the simplicity with which they lived. Still to see they have discovered a workshop and rooms in which he lived underscores the humanity of the Christ. We know it and I preach it and we see it throughout his ministry. But it is really present in the town where for most of his life, no one outside his family believed he was anything other than completely human, even normal person, except for great piety and learning. If you want to understand how much we fail to see Jesus as a man of a place and time, a man of work, picture his hands. Are they beautiful and soft? Or are they calloused as man who had worked as a builder and carpenter for most of his life? In Nazareth we meet the Jesus who was not yet known as the Christ.