Completing the Mysteries of Light

26th November, 2012
Mt Tabor, Ceasarea, Nazareth

For all photos for 26th November, click here to view them on my dropbox site. If you don’t have Dropbox, use this link to sign up and you and I will both get a bonus amount of free storage space.

We had an early start today (leaving at 7:30am) in order to fit in the whole tour from Ma’agan to Mt Tabor to Caesarea to Nazareth and back. The advantage of this is that when we arrived at the foot of Mt Tabor, we had no competition from any other tour group for the minibus taxis to the top. Other members of our group who had been here before said that they can recall waiting for up to an hour for the ride up the steep, winding mountain road. Tabor is the traditional site of the Transfiguration – the other contender is Mt Hermon, more popular among protestants, is Mount Hermon, but both the Greeks and the Catholics have long established themselves on this mountain and are not particularly interested in other theories. Oddly, “Tabor” is a common name for Lutheran Churches in Australia and elsewhere in the world, although I can never recall this being particularly associated with the Transfiguration in our story telling.

The Gospels do not give the name of the mountain. The only clue seems to be that, on one reading of the Greek text in Mark 9, it was a “mountain apart”. Of course, the text could simply mean that Jesus lead the disciples “apart”, but there are two terms – one “apart” and the other “on their own” in the Greek. Compare the NRSV translation to the ESV and you will see the essence of the translation debate. Mt Tabor is certainly “a mountain apart” from the others – it stick up all on its own above the plain. Apparently there is evidence of a town on the mountainside in Jesus’ day, which raises a problem for the “on their own” part of the story, but for the moment, at least, we are sticking with Mount Tabor as the “very high mountain” (and it is certainly that!).

The road winding up the mountain is impossible for a full sized bus to negotiate, so there are mini bus taxis at the foot of the mountain, which ferry tourists and pilgrims to the top. At the top, there is a large Barluzzi church built on the site where there was once an even larger Crusader period church. There are intricate mosaic floors in the Crusader ruins, which caused me to wonder if they might not be from an even earlier Byzantine church. I have checked this on the internet since returning to Ma’agan, and it seems my hunch is correct: the Crusader church was built upon the site of an earlier 4th-6th Century Byzantine church.

There are also excavated ruins of a Benedictine monastery on the peak, including an easily identifiable chapel. The views from Mount Tabor are panoramic, but the real attraction is Barluzzi’s church. This is by far the largest of his churches that we have visited and, I think, the most beautiful. There are two central sanctuaries, one above the other, on the centre East end, and, either side of these are two chapels, one is the Blessed Sacrament chapel and the other is dedicated to St Francis. At the back of the church, there are two “grotto” chapels, one dedicated to Elijah and one to Moses. I went into the Elijah chapel, but didn’t see the Moses one. The idea, I believe, is that these two grottos, together with the lower sanctuary dedicated to the life of Christ, are intended to represent the “three booths” that Peter suggested should be built for Jesus, Moses and Elijah.

Above the main upper altar is a great mosaic of the Transfiguration scene. Reached by stairs below it, but open to full view from the nave of the Church, is a lower sanctuary, under a deep arch that reaches from one floor to the other over the altar, with a stained glass window of peacocks and chalice design at the East end behind the altar. The window is designed so that on August 6th each year (the Feast of the Transfiguration), the sun shines through it and is reflected on a round glass plate on the floor of the nave above, and the light then shines up onto the mosaic above the upper altar. I would like to be there to see this.

The arch over the lower grotto dedicated to Christ is decorated with four mosaics depicting the birth of Jesus: the institution of the Eucharist, the sacrifice of Calvary and the resurrection. Each is done in a highly symbolic manner involving three angels, the central one seeing to take the place of Christ in at least two of the mosaics (perhaps the three angels appearing to Abraham at the Oak of Mamre was the inspiration, as in Rublev’s icon of the Trinity?). An abundance of gold was used in the mosaics, so that when the sun shines in, the whole chapel is filled with light and shining. Check out the pictures in the link above! On the floor of the lower grotto there are glass windows looking down onto the rock below.

Words cannot do this building justice. I found it extremely easy to pray in this place. Unlike other holy places where I felt that the church built over it has obscured the significance and sanctity of the place, this church can only be said to have heightened the spirituality of the location. Of course, I lighted the customary three candles and prayed for my family.

The drive to Caesarea took about an hour and half over the plain through the Valley of Jezreel. Along the way, we passed the village of Nain where Jesus raised the widow’s son, and then, at the other side, the ancient city mound of Megiddo – from whence we have the term from the book of Revelation “Armageddon”. Apparently archaeologists have discovered evidence of 26 distinct periods of settlement on this hill, but none since the Persian period in 400BC. On the opposite side of the highway as it passes Megiddo, is a high security gaol. Within the grounds of this gaol, the remains of the oldest Christian Church yet uncovered were discovered in Israel were found in 2005 (there is an older contender in Jordan), dating from the 3rd Century AD. Google “the church of the Megiddo prison” and you will find more information. It is not, of course, accessible to tourists, and even during the excavation, the labour was provided by low security prisoners. The joke Gila told us was about a conversation between two of the prisoners working on the excavation: “What are you in for?” “Me? Antiquities theft.”

Gila had said that we could have spent all day just at Caesarea, the ancient port city purpose built by King Herod the Great in honour of Augustus (whom he had failed to support in the war against Marcus Antonius) and called Caesarea Maratima to distinguish it from Caesarea Philippi (which we are visiting tomorrow). Here we had our first encounter on this trip with the Mediterranean. A big thunderstorm – with forked lightening – was coming in over the ocean just to our South. It threatened to drench us with rain, but we never had more than a light sprinkle all day.

The whole site and the modern town today is actually owned and operated by a corporation which runs Caesarea as a tourist attraction. The remains here are extensive, and many of the excavations quite recent, covering several periods – Herod’s own time, the time of the Roman Occupation (when it was used as the headquarters of the Prefect, including Pontius Pilate – the famous Pilate inscription was found here in the 1960’s, on a stone being used as a step in a staircase – who used Herod’s palace as his own residence), the Byzantine period (a tax office with a striking mosaic floor – on which is written in Greek a message encouraging people to pay their taxes! – dates from this period), and the Crusaders. The Muslims never made much use of the area, and the prominent stone mosque on the shore front dates from the early 20th Century when it was settled by Bosnian Muslims (who left after the Second World War). Then the first Jewish settlers came in at about the time the excavations began. The remains are quite extensive – and much has been rebuilt (one way of telling the rebuilt bits is that they have cut the old worn stone straight again), including the theatre which has been entirely reconstructed and is used for concerts. In terms of scale, the most extensive remains are the walls and moats of the Crusader period. On the centre sea front, right next to Herod’s palace, a barely covered hippodrome (horse racing arena) was discovered and excavated in the 1990s. The significance of the place for Christians is, of course, that this was where Cornelius, the first Gentile convert to Christianity, lived and was baptised by St Peter (Acts 10 and 11). St Paul also passed through here a number of times, as it was a major connecting port for travellers.

Lunch was at the kiosk outside the exit gates – $10 for a sandwich of cheese and tomato and cucumber and a drink. I decided it was to expensive, and spent the time smoking my pipe and reading up on Caesarea and Nazareth, our next destination. After lunch, Gila had time to take us to one last site (and what a sight!) of Caesarea – the ancient aqueduct that was used to bring water from Mt Carmel 28kms away down to the city – there was no spring or other water supply in the area (Gila called it “daring” of Herod to build the city here because of the lack of water). Gila thought that the Crusaders may have reconstructed Herod’s aqueduct for their own use when they were here. Earlier today I was saying that one day I would like to walk around the Sea of Galilee (a distance of just over 50km). I am adding the Caesarea aqueduct as possible walking tour one day…

We then travelled back towards the Sea of Galilee to Nazareth. Here is the Basilica of the Annunciation, which Gila calls “the three M church”: Mary, Modern and Multi-national. Mary of course is obvious. In this otherwise entirely modern city, the only excavations worth noting are directly below the Basilica. Here there are the remains of a 1st century house, believed to be “the house of Mary”. There is an altar in this grotto with the words “Hic verbum caro factum est” engraved upon it: “Here the word became flesh”! I took the time later to pray the Nicene Creed in front of this grotto. Whether or not you believe the tradition, it is certain that somewhere in Nazareth the angel appeared to Mary “and she conceived of the Holy Spirit”. Like the star under the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Holy Sepulchre, this is one of those churches which confronts you with the question: did this really happen here? Yet that is the thing about all events in the life of Christ – they happened somewhere here on earth, and most probably in these traditional locations. Rocks and caves often form the place of veneration, and this is a reminder that the Christian faith is not some airy-fairy story dreamed up by someone, but is really grounded in historical reality.

But this brings us to the “M is for Modern” part of Gila’s idea. The modern basilica, started in 1960 and consecrated in 1969, is built upon earlier churches, the evidence of which remains in the lower floors of the basilica (and there is a central opening which enables you from the upper modern level to look down on all the ancient churches below it). The earliest shrine was probably built here in the 4th Century, then built upon by Constantine with a church that was still there in the late 6th century. This building is thought to have been destroyed by the Muslim invaders in the 7th Century, but was rebuilt by the Crusaders in the 12th Century. This was again destroyed by the Muslim armies in the 13th Century. In 1620 the Franciscans built a new church on the spot, which was demolished in 1954 to make way for the huge modern structure that stands there today. At first we thought this might have been another Barluzzi church, but it was in fact designed by Giovanni Muzio. It uses a lot of concrete, some covered in mosaic and some left bare, which I had thought was rather out of character for a Barluzzi creation. The whole structure does not have the same theological and spiritual depth of Barluzzi’s churches and would feel a bit cold and lacking in any true depth, where it not for the existence of the lower shrines. A large mosaic of the “unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam” covers the East wall of the modern basilica, curious for the fact that it uses at least half a dozen different kinds of halo on the saints depicted.

Now we come to the “M is for Multinational” part of Gila’s description. There is an awful lot of original artwork in this basilica, all of a high quality. The doors, for instance, depict scenes from the biblical history leading up to the conception of Jesus. A smaller example, which I photographed, is a simple etching on a small glass window overlooking the courtyard of Joseph at his carpenter’s bench. But the real attraction in the basilica (besides the grotto of the house of Mary) is the huge collection of mosaic pictures of Mary, donated by all the various nations of the world, both inside the Church and outside in the cloister, in a manner like the Cloister of the Pater Noster in Jerusalem. The Australian one is on the north wall.

The acoustics in this building are very good, and I took the opportunity to pray the Angelus and sing a Latin Gregorian Ave Maria at the lower grotto. We celebrated mass in the church, and were given the upper main modern altar at which to do so. Disconcertingly, the altar was microphoned so that the mass was amplified throughout the Basilica, despite the fact that it was in fact a “private” group mass. Given that the amplified call to prayer of the local muezzin went off while we were in the Basilica (and the local rivalry between the Christian and Muslim community, demonstrated by a recent plan of the Muslims to build a large mosque in front of the Basilica and banners and posters quoting anti-Christian verses from the Koran), some members of the group wondered if this was not a way of making a Christian “noise” in competition with the Muslim presence.

Both John Paul II and Benedict visited this church on their pilgrimages to the Holy Land in 2000 and 2009 respectively (making this the second place at least where we crossed paths – the first being at the Holel in Amman). Gila told us that the Israelis were highly concerned for Benedict’s safety when he was here, and even suggested that he would be safer if he visited Haifa instead of Nazareth (which showed how much they understood of the Christian significance of this place!).

I lighted my three customary candles in the Church of the Annunciation, before wandering around outside to look more closely at the other aspects of the area. I took the opportunity to take out my copy of Kairos and be photographed sitting under the statue of Mary reading it for the “Where’s Kairos?” feature in our venerable Archdiocesan rag. (Hullo to all the staff at Kairos/Catholic Communications reading this). I then discovered a separate “Church of St Joseph” at the other end of the complex and entered to pray for myself that I might have the grace to be a good father to Maddy and Mia and for all fathers (St Joseph is my confirmation saint). There were no candles to be lighted, so I made a donation in the church.

We were supposed to meet a local leader of the Christian community in Nazareth, but for some reason this didn’t happen. Which is a pity, because I wanted to give him my copy of Kairos in which was reported the exchange between the Nazareth Parish Primary School in Beaumaris and the Catholic School in Nazareth itself.

The last port of call was a visit to the town of Cana. Again, this is the traditional site of the first miracle – there are contenders, of course, but since there is evidence below the modern church of a fifth century church, I take it that this is as good a place as any. The town today is still called Cana in any case. Here, in this church where many couples come to renew their wedding vows, I lighted only two candles, for Cathy and myself, and prayed for Jesus’ blessing in our marriage as he blessed the wedding couple in Cana with his presence. One of the tourist souvenirs is “Cana Wine” – which we sampled afterwards in a little store directly across from the church. This stuff gives Galilean wine a bad name – we have in fact been drinking an excellent drop from the Golan Heights for dinner each night, made by a winery called “Galil”.

It was dark by the time we came back to the bus, and we travelled back to the Kibbutz arriving at about 5:30pm. Our washing, which has been hanging out for two whole days, and still was not dry (something very strange about the atmosphere around here seems to prevent it from drying) so I enquired about a clothes dryer. Yes, there was such a thing on the property, but we needed to go over to the Kibbutz proper to use it. Fr Peter and I packed our clothes into plastic bags, took a handful of change, and were driven in a golf buggy around to the laundry. Here 5 shekels gave us 20 minutes use of a huge dryer which had our clothes dried in no time. Other members of the group were glad of this news, and after dinner, I took them around to the laundry so they could do their own drying.

Tomorrow is our last day in Israel. As we were bussing home tonight, I was praying the Mysteries of Light on the Rosary and realised that in the last few days I had visited the location of all these mysteries: the Baptism in the Jordan, the wedding at Cana, the preaching of the Gospel by Jesus in Galilee, the Transfiguration and the institution of the Eucharist. I had been told by one of my Anima students that the visit would affect the way I prayed the Rosary, and he was quite right. It is so much more immediate having visited these locations.

Drive home and arrived at about 5:40pm.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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