After the sumptuous seven-course breakfast served at the inn, I took a stroll around the corner to pay a visit to the Cana Wedding Chapel where Jesus is heralded as performing his first miracle, changing water into wine. The front of the church is situated along a narrow cobbled alleyway that leads to three Catholic churches and a handful of tourist vendor shops.
After visiting the wedding chapel, I wandered up the alley. The church at the top of the alley was not open, so I wandered around the grounds and came upon the most resplendent rose bush. The flowers were a brilliant and stunning shade of red. I had to touch the leaves because I thought that perhaps they were made of velvet. The entire bush was covered with roses in full bloom, each rose perfect and beautiful in the design of how its petals unfurled.
The roses in these gardens were given as much care as the altars in the churches. They bloomed with such beauty. I found myself taking photos of roses everywhere I went.
Depictions of Mary Magdalene, and sometimes the Blessed Mother, sometimes include red roses. What is it about roses? In contrast to the arid climate and landscape, the red rose is quite striking. Coming upon one is like drinking a cool glass of water. It refreshes and uplifts.
And these roses were perfect in form, a living expression of the great beauty of creation. Through the centuries they have been used to represent the beauty of a woman and to symbolize the feminine essence. I took note that in my ‘search for Mary Magdalene’ which has unwittingly also become a search for the sacred feminine, I have found myself almost daily standing in front a rose bush, feeling a reverence, an awe and a gratefulness for its resplendent presence.
The structure and grounds of the Cana Wedding Chapel were not remarkable. Perhaps I have become ‘churched out’ – what guidebooks refer to as a common ailment that Christian pilgrims experience in touring the Holy Land. With a church erected on nearly every sacred site, I imagine I have stood in upwards of 30 churches over the course of two weeks.
What was remarkable and memorable to me about the Cana Wedding Church is the surrounding community’s dedication to its care. My hosts at the Cana Guest Inn grew up going to this church and now serve within it. They speak of it with deep pride and reverence.
People come from all over the world to be married in this church, to say they were married in the place of the Cana Wedding that Jesus, His Mother and his disciples attended. Recently, a wedding couple and their entire wedding party came from Italy and stayed at the Cana Guest Inn. The innkeepers made all their wedding arrangements and ongoingly help to coordinate the weddings of people who travel great distances to be married here.
After my walk through the Cana churches and gardens, I got in my car and drove west towards the Mediterranean and North towards Lebanon. As I traveled through Israel, I have been mindful of the proximity of neighboring countries. I heard that either six or seven countries share a border with Israel. As I drove along the Jordan River I looked across the river at the country of Jordan. On the Galilee, I stopped myself from driving further North into Golan, a place Jesus and the disciples had gone, because I would have been nearing the border to Syria. Then of course, internally, there were the Palestinian territories with military checkpoints. Daily, I have paid attention to where I am heading; the fine print at the rental car agency only further emphasized this necessity as it made it clear that any damage to the car that occurred outside the State of Israel would not be covered.
For instance, I elected to not include Bethlehem as part of my journey. As the birthplace of Jesus and The City of David, it is a place I wanted to see. But it is now a Palestinian Settlement and the military presence there is visible and ever present. (My choice to not include a trip there on my itinerary was validated as I spoke with other tourists who had gone. They said that the only time they got out of the car or bus was to visit the Church of the Nativity. They were whisked in and then out. I did speak with two young Polish women in their twenties who had taken a bus there and decided to walk around. They said that they felt discomfort walking the streets as they were the only non-Palestinians walking the streets. No one bothered them, but they felt watched and self-conscious and so didn’t stay long.) For the same reason, I did not visit Golan or Jericho.
Today, I took a slight diversion from the focus of my purpose in Israel; I was going to visit a friend who lived in a Kibbutz near the Mediterranean Sea and close to the Lebanese border. While I had been immersed in the ancient past of Israel, I was now about to visit my own ancient past. I had worked with and befriended Inbar and Rakefet, brother and sister, during the years we worked at Kripalu Center. Originally from Israel, they had returned to their homeland twenty years ago.
Inbar offered to show me the town, but feeling a bit sated with sightseeing I opted to relax at a café table near the water where Inbar and I then proceeded to reminisce and reconnect. He made fun of my love of schwarma, indicating that it is what tourists eat. Ah well. I still love it.
In keeping with the intent of this blog, I will say a few things about what my afternoon at the café gave me.
First, Inbar’s Mother was born in Migdal, Mary Magdalene’s hometown. He visited Migdal often in his childhood and talked about the Migdal that he knew. Being Jewish, he knew nothing of Mary Magdalene. He commented that he has not gone back in some time because it is no longer how he remembers it. He said the Galilee used to be so striking and now that the water level is so much lower, it has affected his appreciation and joy of the place.
I asked him how he and his family experienced the tensions of the Mideast, especially since these countries are within a few hours’ drive (Syria, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan…) He said they didn’t feel the issues and tensions of these countries as much as the one’s happening within their own country. I said, ah with the Palestinians. And he said, no that he is more effected by the tensions and divisions between the Jewish people themselves. As he spoke of the nature of these tensions, I thought of what we are experiencing in the states between Democrats and Republicans. There was a similarity between Israelis and Americans in how our countries are being divided in how people are viewing the problems and the changes that need to happen.
He was perplexed about why I would come to Israel and why I would go see all these historic sites because after all my people do not come from Israel. As a Jew, his ancestry is tied to Israel and it makes sense for a Jewish person to take the time and money to do this. But as I am a European, an American, he didn't understand the allure his country had for me.
25 years ago he had helped me memorize my lines for my one-woman Passion play when I first began to perform it. He followed along in the script as I said the lines. At one point he interrupted me and said, “Who is this Jesus, Mary, Martha? These are not Hebrew names. They cannot have been from Israel. I grew up there. I have never heard of them being in places like Nazareth, Galilee, Jerusalem. How can this be?”
His question got me thinking, just as the one 25 years ago had. 25 years ago I had to do a little research to discover that in Israel during Jesus' life, Mary would have been called Miriam and Jesus, Jeshua. When the gospels were first written, they were in Greek and the names were changed to be more familiar and recognizable to their readership.
The question he posed this afternoon was an unspoken question that I had received a number of times since I arrived in Israel. I had roomed with a number of Jewish pilgrims. For them, this was a coming home. These places had something to do with their family, their ancestral history. They, too, did not understand how a European would feel the same way and assumed I was on vacation to have fun.
To answer his question, I said: I did not grow up hearing stories of Ireland or Norway, where my ancestors are from. My Mother occasionally would talk of her childhood. But primarily, at least once a week I would hear a story of Israel. And these stories were interwoven with faith, spirituality and my the roots of my tradition. Stories of Capernum and Jerusalem and Nazareth were the stories I was raised with. Israel was the historical location spoken most about– the one I learned about.
I had studied with Lutheran missionaries in primary school, attended Catholic catechism classes in the evening, attended a Lutheran service each Thursday and a Catholic mass every Sunday. My childhood was infused with stories that took place in Israel and so I thought it was about time I experienced it for myself.
My answer surprised and satisfied him. It satisfied because it made sense to him. It was the truth and he could appreciate the truth. It surprised him because how odd that someone of European descent would be raised on stories of Israel and that these stories were an integral part of their childhood memories and experience.
I was aware at this point that I had been to all the large bodies of water in Israel: The Dead Sea, The Galilee, The Jordan River and now the Mediterranean.
The water was a prominent character in Jesus’ ministry. If there wasn't a shoreline handy he would be found talking with people at wells. Even at the wedding at Cana he is standing with several jars of water. Within a desert country, water takes on an added prominence, an added glamour. As Jesus spoke of Himself as the “Living Water”, he did so in the presence of the living waters of Israel. The people understood that water meant life; and within this context, they understood that Jesus was the water that could quench their soul's longing and provide eternal life.
Water, roses, wine, weddings - each feel like expressions of the divine feminine that provides beauty, sustenance and community. Today I had been surrounded by the simple pleasures of life found in Israel and felt nourished and uplifted as the sun was sinking in the sky and I found my way back to the inn.