Good evening my dear friends! I am trying to get caught up so I offer to you a second post that covers our adventures from today. My phone had a few more issues, so I am missing some photos from the beginning of the day, but I worked it out so we should be good to go for tomorrow…fingers crossed.
From the two sites we visited today I think that our theme is identity. We not only explored more about Jesus’ identity but we were challenged to reflect on our own identity.
The theme of identity actually began the night before. Yesterday, we had a chance to rest after a long hot day in and around Galilee. Then at 6:00pm we had an appointment to meet with the rector of Christ Church in Nazareth, Fr Nael Abu Rahmoun. We met him three years ago, so I was delighted that we had the opportunity to meet with him again. His message for us last night was about identity.
He identifies himself in four ways; Arab, Palestinian, Christian, and Israeli. Each marks a specific aspect of his identity, and each part must be considered as part of the whole. He cannot separate them or leave one out. This becomes even more important in a land where identity matters; both how we self-identify and how others identify us.
For Fr. Nael, he is an Arab. He speaks Arabic, he grew up surrounded by Arabic culture, and his family can trace their lineage to the Arab people of this land who settled in this area long before there was Islam or even Christianity. He believes that his family might have been Jewish before becoming Christian. This is ethnicity.
He is also Palestinian. His parents were born before the creation of the state of Israel, so since the time of the Romans this land was called Palestine. His parents are Palestinian. He considered himself Palestinian. It is his nationality and that cannot be taken away from him; only he can choose to let go of his nationality.
Fr. Nael is Christian. He is often asked whether he converted to Christianity, as if implying that he and his family was Muslim. So he tells them that his family converted at Pentecost when Arabs were one of the fifteen nationalities present when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples. He and his family are still carrying the Good News of Jesus Christ in an unbroken chain that stretches from the disciples to today. They are the living stones of Nazareth.
Finally, he is Israeli. He is an Israeli citizen with full voting rights due to the fact that he was born in Israeli controlled Galilee, but he is not happy that he is Israeli because he does not feel like he is fully equal to other Israeli citizens.
This is a land where identity matters. Who you are, who your family is, where you were born all matter. Depending on those markers of identity one can or can’t cross boarders, one can or can’t vote, one is looked upon with suspicion and fear. Those are identity markers that one has no control over. Fr. Nael has no choice but to be Arab, Palestinian, and Israeli. He does have a choice about being a Christian, or Muslim, or Jewish. Yet, when God has a call on your heart, we don’t have a choice and you must follow where God is leading you.
For Fr. Nael it is not so much how he feels about his identity, but how he uses his identity to promote peace and justice. Like a good Anglican he finds himself right in the middle, with vested interests on all sides. He can connect with Muslims because he speaks Arabic and grew up in that culture. He can connect with Palestinians because he is Palestinian. He can connect with the other Christian denominations in the Holy Land because he is Christian. He can connect with Jews because he is Israeli. He believes he is called to be an agent of God’s mercy and love by acting as a connecting point between two very opposite and often conflicting sides.
This theme of identity that started last night continued on through today as we visited two sites that sheds light on Jesus’ identity. After getting to sleep in a whole hour later than normal, we were back on the bus by 7:30am to head to Sepphoris or Zippori, the capital of Galilee in the time of Jesus under Herod Antipas “the Fox.”
Sepphoris was a village and an archeological site located in the central Galilee region of Israel, and only 3 miles north-northwest of Nazareth. It lies 286 m above sea level and overlooks the Beit Netofa Valley. Herod Antipas built this into his capital because of its strategic location in Galilee and because it gave him the high ground from which he could see far into the surrounding valleys. He hoped that his capital would be the ornament of the Galilee.
The site holds a rich and diverse historical and architectural legacy that includes Hellenistic, Jewish, Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, Crusader, Arabic and Ottoman influences. In Late Antiquity, it was believed to be the birthplace of Mary, mother of Jesus, and the village where Saints Anna and Joachim are often said to have resided, where today a 5th-century basilica is excavated at the site honoring the birth of Mary. Notable structures at the site include a Roman theater, two early Christian churches, a Crusader fort renovated by Zahir al-Umar in the 18th century, and over sixty different mosaics dating from the third to the sixth century CE. Following the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132–135, Sepphoris was one of the centers in Galilee where rabbinical families from Judea relocated and where the Mishnah was finalized. Remains of a synagogue dated to the first half of the fifth century were discovered on the northern side of town.
Sepphoris is important to helping us construct Jesus’ identity in part because as the largest city closest to Nazareth, Joseph and Jesus would have likely plied their trade in the city. Nazareth being just a small village with around 100 families, there was likely no real work for them there. Traditionally we think of Joseph and Jesus as carpenters but it is more likely that they were master craftsmen and laborers who would work alongside the slaves and other craftsmen who were helping to build Herod Antipas’ new capital. It is possible that Jesus had relatives in the capital, so perhaps he came to spend time with family and friends in the area. It is not unreasonable to believe that Jesus would have been familiar with the city, especially since it had a synagogue. He also may have learned Greek from the traders and other craftsmen that passed through the city located on the popular trade route, the Via Maris, or way of the sea.
Seeing the ruins of Sepphoris give us some idea of what life was like in the 1st Century and how Jesus may have spent his time between the infancy narratives and his baptism and ministry. The other reason to visit this site is that it has a well-preserved triclinium room, or the formal dining room, where Romans and others of the time would lounge on mattresses to nibble on different foods and wash it down with plenty of wine. This room gives us some idea of what the last supper might have looked like, especially when we consider the description from John’s Gospel:
After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me.”
His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant. One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, “Ask him which one he means.”
Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?”
Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him. John 13:22-27 (NRSV)
From this passage we can infer that Jesus and his disciples were lounging together in a triclinium.
After seeing the many ruins of Sepphoris we journeyed north into the Golan Heights; a disputed land that Israel seized from Syria after the Six Day War. There are miles of land that are filled with land mines and as we drove through the area Iyad pointed out different Syrian and Palestinian villages that were destroyed or depopulated as a result of the wars. There Israeli villages and towns that are growing and though the border was within eyesight I felt perfectly safe.
We had lunch in a small village in the Golan Heights that is run by a family that belong to small religious group the Druze; whose closest religious relatives would be Islam.
The Druze are an Arabic-speaking ethnoreligious group originating in Western Asia who self-identify as unitarians. Jethro of Midian is considered an ancestor of all people from the Jabal ad-Duruz (Mountain of the Druze) region, where we were today. The Druze faith is an esoteric monotheistic religion based on the teachings of several Ismaili figures who were influenced by Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. The Druze faith incorporates elements of Ismailism, Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, Pythagoreanism and other philosophies and beliefs, creating a distinct secretive theology that is passed on through initiation. They have a distinct way of dressing and interacting with others. There can also be religious and non-religious Druze; for example the son of the owner is not religious whereas his father is and doesn’t like pictures being taken of him.
From there we were a short ride away from Caesarea Philippi, which is now a national park. This site is an important part of Jesus’ identity because it is the site of Peter’s Confession of Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God. Caesarea Philippi was an ancient Roman city located at the southwestern base of Mount Hermon. It was adjacent to a spring, grotto, and related shrines dedicated to the Greek god Pan. At the time of Jesus there were several different temples and many shrines to different gods. It was an example of the polytheistic nature of Rome, and in which was at conflict with the monotheistic faith of Judaism.
Peter’s Confession occurs in all three synoptic gospels, though with some variation. Matthew and Mark name Caesarea Philippi directly, while Luke only mentions that Jesus and the disciples went away to pray. In Mark this story immediately precedes the Transfiguration in which Jesus reveals his true identity as both fully human and fully divine; with both Elijah and Moses being present and thus Jesus being the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. For Mark the transfiguration is the hinge point in his narrative when Jesus sets his sights towards Jerusalem and begins making his way to the Cross. So this site along with the Transfiguration are important elements to Mark’s gospel as he lays out who Jesus is for his followers. Mark gives no indication that Jesus visited the site, but a passing reference to the gates of hell in Matthew’s account suggests that Jesus and his disciples indeed made it to the temples and shrines in the area where animals were ritually sacrificed in a burning fire. With this image of all the debauchery and false worship as the backdrop for Peter’s Confession Jesus is telling his disciples and indeed us, that God will prevail over the forces that seek to lead us astray.
Having heard Fr. Nael speak on personal identity and after spending the day reflecting on Jesus’ identity, it begs the question, who do we say Christ is and perhaps equally important, who do we say that we are? How do we identify ourselves?
Many of us seek out our identity within ourselves or through the validation from others; drawing our self-worth from external and material markers. Yes, these things do define us, but our true selves, the self that God calls us to is not found within ourselves but in Christ alone. Throughout his letters Paul encourages us to empty ourselves so that we might be filled with the Spirit, the spirit that is God, that is Jesus, and in which we find freedom from the world around us. Through surrendering we find freedom; by emptying ourselves we come to be filled by God and we can discover our true selves, the self God created us to be and the self God continuously calls us back to when we stray.
So, who do you that Jesus is to you? Who do you say that you are? How do you mark your identity?