In Tiberias, houses and apartments are stacked on a hill like a wedding cake overlooking the Sea of Galilee. In Cana, they are stacked more like pancakes overlooking Main Street. The streets are one lane alleys that branch out and snake up the hill, much like veins coming off an artery. Turning a corner is a 3-point turn - or more if you are not skilled. Meeting someone coming the other way means either they or I needed to go in reverse up or down the hill until we come to an intersecting vein.
Finding my lodgings was like finding a needle in a haystack. Google Maps proved useless, as all it directed me to do was turn off from the main road onto a straight road that would lead me directly to the inn. Ha. There we no street signs. There were no street names for that matter. After driving the alleys for more than an hour, I experienced my own miracle in Cana.
Refusing a ride back down the snaking hill, the man smiled, got out of the car and disappeared into the alley labyrinth. He had in fact led me to a different Inn other than the one I had reserved. As it was now near sunset and I had no idea where I was, the innkeeper greeted me, carried my bags up two flights of steps and brought me into his living room where I met his wife and son and was handed a glass of lemonade.
At first confused and a bit concerned, I realized later that the Inn I had originally booked was run by an Arab Muslim and the man who hopped in my car had taken it upon himself to lead me to an Inn run by an Arab Christian thinking I would be more comfortable. For a few dollars more than the inn I had reserved, I was greeted with warm hospitality and had a bedroom to myself - this in itself was very welcome at this stage of my sojourn.
Sitting on the patio of the Cana Guest Inn watching the sun rise this morning. The Cana Wedding Chapel was across the street and just beyond rose the towering hill of Nazareth.
Cana is now an Arab Settlement and the town’s residents are Arab Christians and Arab Muslims. At 4:00 am I was awakened by the loud speaker from the nearby mosque broadcasting morning prayers, but not until the 6:00 am call from the mosque did I rouse myself from bed. Also at 6 am each morning the bells from the Cana Wedding Chapel play Ave Maria. Needless to say, in Cana everyone is up before the sun.
I had read somewhere that Arab hospitality is unparalleled on the planet, and I thought of this statement as I sat down to a breakfast fit for a queen. Perhaps eight or nine dishes lay before me. A frittata, fresh fruit and homemade pita, hummus, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, just-out-of-the-oven sweetbread, cheeses, homemade jam, juice and tea…I am sure am forgetting something.
Sitting on the patio savoring the various flavors and bounty of my breakfast, I looked at the back of the Cana Wedding Chapel just below on the opposite street – the chapel built on the location where Jesus’ Mother used her influence to ensure flowing libations for a wedding reception and helped - knowingly or not - to launch Jesus’ ministry with His first miracle.
Or was it His first? From reading the Gospel of John, I have the sense that she was more than confident Jesus could solve the crisis within the groom’s family to keep the wine flowing. Perhaps this confidence came from small ways Jesus would solve family problems in his early years, helping crops to ripen or a broken leg to mend.
Gazing at the horizon, the city of Nazareth on a hill perhaps 10 miles away. Feeling nourished and sated by breakfast, I headed to the town where Jesus was raised.
As Cana is in a valley just beneath Nazareth, the drive there was all uphill, and took more than an hour to arrive at the old city due to the level of traffic. Nazareth is also an Arab settlement with a population of roughly 45,000 with streets and parking for perhaps 20,000. Add to this a steady influx of tourism and the traffic is just short of insane. I found a parking space right near the entrance of the old city, which I understand was nothing less than a miracle. So I had my second miracle within 24 hours.
I began with the wall on the right, gazing and taking in one mosaic and then the next. Each Mosaic had been sponsored and created by a different country. Country after country, perhaps a 100 in all, had each created a beautiful work of art depicting Jesus’ mother, Mary.
I was deeply moved by the depth of love and honoring of the Divine Mother expressed from countries around the globe. The attributes and depictions of the mosaics expressed the culture that created the image of the Mother and how they held and revered her sacred presence and radiating grace.
The feminine presence of Indonesia’s mosaic was a revelation of grace and elegance. A flowing white veil was framed her head and she was surrounded by water and adorned with shells.
The Korean Divine Mother was depicted as a Korean woman, black hair pulled back into a bun held with a pin. Somewhat stocky, she wore a simple blue top and cotton-like skirt and held a Korean boy dressed in the colors of the Rainbow.
China’s mosaic was of a Chinese Woman, slender and refined. With a robe of silk, she stood in the clouds.
Spain’s was a Black Madonna. As Queen of Queens, in elegant gold and white royal robes, wearing a golden crown, a scepter in hand, she stood on top of the world that rested atop a Spanish city.
Croatia had Mary floating above their country radiating like the sun, showing how they held her as the light and redemption for their people.
Within the walls of this courtyard lived the many faces of the Divine Mother. I savored my walk around the courtyard spending time with each mosaic. The detail of each mosaic spoke not only to the artistry but the depth of love and reverence for her presence on the planet.
I could go on and on, but comments on 100 mosaics is a bit excessive and would exhaust me and perhaps those reading who are journeying along with me. So I will finish my impressions of the mosaics by saying that in the Basilica there are a dozen or so giant mosaics, perhaps six times larger than the one’s that line the courtyard. Here is where the contribution from the USA was found.
I was aghast. This was not a loving presence but an angel of death. Her face dark and haunting. Her breasts voluminous, sagging and larger than her head. Her body covered in a robe of metal, she rose up within the flames of Armageddon. There was no beauty, no femininity, no grace or comfort that I could sense- nothing that inspired or moved me to anything but shock. I wondered if the Catholic leadership in America knew that this was our country’s contribution. While I am sure it was very expensive to commission, I am confident there would be an outpouring of public contributions to have a different one created. I know the U.S. would want one that stands out, represents a perhaps more modern interpretation, but this was ghastly! (A photo of the mosaic at the bottom - let me know if I have been too harsh in my assessment of the U.S. contribution.)
On the ground floor of the Basilica of the Annunciation is a stone grotto believed to be where Mary was visited by the Angel Gabriel. A rod iron fence in front of it, you can gaze into the grotto that holds a small altar. A group of Hindu pilgrims where there when I arrived. Kneeling down in front of it, they were singing a beautiful hymn that echoed throughout the church. Standing in front of it, I suddenly imagined the angel appearing to a young Mary.
Many of the holy sites I visited did not evoke an experience of what made the object sacred, but here outside the gates of this grotto, clearly built many centuries later, I felt something. Perhaps the devotion and reverence paid to this site by millions of people over the last centuries have made it holy, and perhaps there is something more to this place. In any case, I found myself suddenly contemplating and experiencing the surprise and awe that a young girl may have felt in response to the sudden appearance and prophetic words of the angel Gabriel.
The whole time I was at the Basilica I thought of my own Mother and how much she would enjoy this church, these mosaics and the presence of the Blessed Mother that has comforted and held all humanity and this church that evokes a beautiful experience of devotion and love.
As I wandered up the cobblestone street from the Basilica, I came upon The Mary of Nazareth International Center. Stepping through its doors, I discovered the archeological ruins of a portion of ancient Nazareth, a beautiful garden and café, and someone to greet me and answer my questions.
There was a video of Mary’s life available. What language did I wish to hear it in? English, I said. It is one of 10 languages the movie is offered in. For the movie, I took an elevator to the top floor and entered a room designed and created to look like an ancient amphitheater. I sat on a stone bench to watch a beautifully made video on Mary’s young life.
After this, I was ushered into the next room that had been created to look like an underground room that could have served as Joseph’s work space. So lovingly created, I was taken by the sincerity and devotion that went into creating this space and then watched a second video about Jesus’ family life and growing up in Nazareth. There were three other rooms, all constructed to give one the feel of being in an ancient time and each offering a 15-minute movie on an aspect of Jesus’ life seen through the eyes of his Mother. Just lovely.
Leaving Nazareth was no picnic. In hindsight, I was ever so pleased the mosque loudspeaker had awoken me early; I did not know the traffic that would continue to balloon as the sun rose higher and the day got into full swing. Only a couple miles to drive to get out of the city and more than an hour later I was on the open road!
My day, dedicated to Jesus’ Mother, had me heading slightly North to another ancient settlement: Sephora. It lay on an adjacent towering hill. As Zippora was the name of Mose’s wife, I was heartened to feel how this location, from the beginning, was dedicated to the living memory and presence of the matriarchs who embodied the sacred presence of the divine feminine.
The archeological site is an Israeli National Park and along the banks of the hill are remains of the ancient settlement where Jesus' Mother Mary lived as a girl, a Roman city, and remains of the Muslim and Crusader occupation. Like most of Israel, it has been conquered, destroyed and rebuilt multiple times. The sheer presence of warfare, destruction and rotations of domination and submission are pervasive at this site and all across Israel. To contemplate the violent, tumultuous history of this small country is distressing and awe-inspiring. I was struck how one small place could be the center of so much focused desire, worship and aggression.
After walking through the stone remains of the Roman city and making my way further up the hill past a forest of cactus in bloom, I walked through a Roman building dedicated to Dionysus, God of drunkenness, sexuality and ecstasy. Then I walked up the steep steps of the tower built by the Crusaders. Perched atop the hill of Sephora, it commanded a 360-degree view of the surrounding hills, valleys and landscape of the countryside. The valley below stretched from the Mediterranean all the way to the Sea of Galilee and provided the main thoroughfare for travelers from antiquity to today. This tower provided a strategic outlook for Crusader and Muslim military. As Jesus and the disciples walked the road through the valley, named Field of Corn, they picked and ate the corn that grew aplenty in the valley.
Descending, I came to the other side of the hill where the Jewish ancient city had been excavated. I imagined a young Mary strolling through the long grass, lying in a bed of wild flowers, cradled in a lush landscape, then coming to rest on a spot on the hill to contemplate all of Northern Israel, which must have occurred to her as the whole world. I am reminded of a statue of Mary I had just seen in the Basilica of the Annunciation – as if swiftly moving, she is buoyant, almost running, her skirts swirling about her, her body delighting in free movement and a look of grace and joy spread across her face. Here in Sephora, I felt how Mary would have been raised: able to delight in life and nature in a location that fed and inspired her to bouts of skipping, laughing and play.
Water, as in all locations in Israel, was a primary concern for this village and to get fresh water the residents would have needed daily to go to the bottom of the hill to collect the water. There were deep underground cisterns at the bottom of the hill, fed by the runoff from the hill. They were also designed and constructed to collect water from seven different springs that flowed beneath the ground. Again, a Herculean effort was conceived and carried out to have water available.
When Herod the Great died, around the time Jesus was born, his son Herod Antipas assumed the throne. He decided to rule from Galilee, first setting up his place of residence in Sephora around 4 AD. I would imagine that the move of Herod to this city dramatically changed the culture and life of its residents and might have driven Mary’s family to seek a life in the neighboring town of Nazareth.
From here, Herod oversaw the building of a new city and his great palace in Tiberias where he took up residence in 19 AD. The fisherman and farmers along the sea of Galilee had to have felt its impact. An influx of royalty, Romans, foreign visitors and foreign cultures would have affected their daily lives. While much of the influence was probably an unwelcome intrusion, I imagine these coastline villages experienced increased prosperity as international visitors and the wealthy Jewish class of Tiberias would pass by village markets in places like Migdala and Capernum, and would stop to purchase fish, crafts and woven fabrics.
After a full morning in Nazareth and a long afternoon wandering about Sephora, the day had been a feast of the Divine Mother, her love and eternal presence. Sated and filled with the experiences of the day, I made my way back to the Inn at Cana, perched atop a pancake of dwellings and was greeted by the loudspeaker of the mosque announcing prayers for all to hear.