Forgive me, dear brothers and sisters, for I have sinned. Today, here, surrounded by my rich Jewish-Christian heritage, indeed enmeshed in this very “holy land” [as we are incessantly reminded], I must confess that the very best part of my whole day happened first thing this morning, when I got the news that my Bronocos beat the Steelers in overtime yesterday–way to go, Tebow!! I swear, if they beat the Patriots on Saturday [it is Saturday, right? What are the odds of finding a sports bar in Jerusalem showing American football at that hour….], I’ll “tebow” right in the middle of the Old City! We’ll see if Tebow-mania has made it to Israel yet. But enough about football… So, we started off the day with a trip to Tabgha, to the church that commemorates the miracle of the loaves & fishes. Again, it a traditional site that dates back at least to 384 CE, to our favorite pilgrim Egeria. [I must admit that I find myself wanting to learn more about this woman, she whose name is remembered when the names of so many other women have been lost; she to whom the church owes such a great debt, for having preserved the sacred memory of these places, allowing us to have greater confidence in their authenticity. Was she traveling alone? Who taught her to read & write? She must have come from a wealthy family–by the time she came to Israel, was she a wealthy widow? I don’t know her, but I think I like her already!] Anyway, she wrote that she visited a place with seven springs where Jesus fed the multitude, and she mentions a stone altar where it was said Jesus placed the food before he blessed it. That rock is still there, in the modern church, which was built over the ruins of a 5th century & a 4th century church–the ruins of the latter can still be seen; and the mosaics from the floor of the former make up part of the floor of the contemporary church. The most famous mosaic, which you see all over Israel–including on the postcards–is of two fish flanking a basket with 4 loaves. This is the mosaic right in front of the altar. “Why four loaves,” you ask? Good question. Apparently, it is so that you, the pilgrim, can envision yourself as the “fifth loaf.” Should I ever make a colossal error of addition while constructing my own mosaic, I hope that I can come up with an equally compelling justification for it. [Just kidding.] The church was pretty, but my favorite part was the small koi pond out in the courtyard. It was filled with the most beautiful koi–one white one in particular really caught my eye. They were lovely. No cats here, as you might imagine. I meant to mention yesterday that our path keeps crossing with that of Nigerian tour groups: we were told that the government actually pays for them to come, as it also pays for Nigerian Muslims to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. Isn’t that interesting? Someone also said that Israel pays for Jewish youth to come once. I don’t know the specifics of that–need to find out more. [Speaks to the power of place, right, and what “home” means.] We have seen a fair amount of tourists, as you can imagine–lots of Nigerians and Koreans in particular, but I am told it that, comparatively it hasn’t been that bad. No other Lutheran groups thus far. I have a feeling that the tour buses are going to proliferate once we get to Jerusalem. Speaking of Jerusalem, tonight is our last night in Tiberias–we head to Jerusalem tomorrow: it is a two hour bus ride, and I am charging my iPad now. As an aside [as if this whole blog were more than just a string of asides], I am reading this really great book, called “Dovekeepers,” by Alice Hoffman. It is historical fiction, about the siege of Masada, told from the fictionalized perspective of several women who survived. There really was a dovecote at Masada–I hope it is still visible today. For some reason, Masada is a site I am very eager to see–I guess it is the heights again. I love the idea of a mountain fortress. Where was I? Oh, yes, leaving Tabgha & heading to Zippori, where we saw the most amazing mosaics. One can get a clear sense of what one loves by scrolling through one’s camera at the end of the day. So, as I look back on my pictures today, I see a few pictures of churches, a few pictures of ancient rocks, and a TON of these mosaics–I think they are so beautiful, especially the ones that depict Greek mythology. So, here in Zippori, there were many different ruins from different eras/peoples: it was a Jewish city, of course, and that was the history I found most interesting–at the beginning of the 3rd century CE, Rabbi Judah Hanasi moved to Zippori, along with the Sanhedrin. He redacted the the Mishnah from here. I was so interested in this part of the site that I actually got temporarily left by the bus, because I had gone off to see the remains of the only synagogue that has been excavated. [There was a beautiful mosaic of a menorah in the synagogue, as well as a zodiac wheel]. The dean promised me that she knew I was absent & wouldn’t have let the bus drive away, but earlier, she noted that I’m on sabbatical & therefore she doesn’t need me until September. She was confident I would have been able to find my way home in 8 months. Clearly, I need to get someone else to watch my back! Also in Zippori are Byzantine ruins [there are gorgeous mosaics in all the different Byzantine structures–several Amazons in one house, a centaur, a gorgeous one of Orpheus–surrounded by animals and therefore instantly recognizable–as well as an elaborate “Nile mosaic,” celebrating the life-giving beauty of the Nile River]; and finally, a Crusader fortress. The Crusaders set out from Zippori in 1187 to fight Saladin and his army in the Battle of Hattin. The Crusaders lost [and with a name like “Crusader”–and deeds to match–I think they deserved it]. Zippori was called “the ornament of Galilee.” From Zippori, we went to Nazareth. This was the first real “city” in which we have walked around–while only having around 150 people in Jesus’ time, Nazareth now has around 150,000 people, both Jewish & Arab. [Most of the signs were in both Hebrew & Aramaic]. Nazareth is the very first city in which I have heard the call to prayer, the adhaan–coming from a loudspeaker, not a muezzin, but still, I thrilled to hear it. In Nazareth, the most popular site, which we saw first, is the Church of the Annunciation. What I loved most were all of the different images of the Annunciation from around the world–many were mosaics, but not all: they lined the courtyard outside the church, and also the upstairs sanctuary. They were really, really beautiful: I loved the ones from the Asian countries, depicting a Japanese/Thai/Korean Mary & Jesus. I don’t know that anyone claims the church is actually built on THE SPOT where the angel Gabriel appeared, but underneath the church you can see the ruins of the old village; and of course, it was very small. So, being optimistic, you can guess that if you walk all around the church, at some point, you might stroll atop the actual location! The basilica that is there now was completed in 1968, and again, it is built over the site of three prior churches. I guess if you get it wrong early on, successive generations just keep repeating the mistake–and conversely, if you get it right, you have constructed a strong foundation on which to build for millennia to come. Anyone else think that is an apt metaphor for all kinds of endeavors and relationships? A stone’s throw away is the church of St. Joseph. This church is built over a set of caves that tradition believes were a part of Joseph’s carpentry workshop. I found this building fairly unremarkable, but what I loved were the several different artistic renderings of a young Jesus–one in particular was my favorite: it showed him standing next to his father, working at his father’s carpentry table. Mary sits on the steps watching. They both just look like parents, watching their young son master a new skill, yellow halo around his head aside. Having just written my book on the infant/young Jesus, those images were fun to see. It was actually a little poignant, too, thinking about the relationship he might have [must have?] had with Joseph: like any little boy, did he watch his father at work and ask to help? Did Joseph give him scraps of wood and let him practice measuring and cutting? I admit, I like to think they might have had that kind of time together. OK–then after a nice lunch in Nazareth [a little heavy on the meat, but that is what Luna bars are for], we drove to Megiddo, where it was a little rainy, but not too bad–and we did get a lovely rainbow out of it, which complemented the gorgeous views nicely. Again, there were a few too many rocks here for my taste–sadly, without any beautiful mosaics to mitigate the repetition–but it is interesting all the same to be up there and think about the evangelical Christian extremists who are preparing for/praying for the end of the world at “Armageddon.” We saw a “peace pole” [“May peace prevail on earth,” written in Arabic, Hebrew, and English] that had been placed there–I thought that was pretty appropriate. There is evidence of human occupation there from the 6th century BCE, and it was a flourishing Canaanite city beginning in the 4th century BCE. [Obviously, I had to write this down–I never would have remembered it, not even 5 minutes after it was told to me]. Here is a more contemporary tidbit of information: In 1918, during WWI, there was another battle at Megiddo, between General Edmund Allenby & the Ottoman Turkish forces. Allenby won, and took the title “Lord Allenby of Megiddo.” Now it is time to pack up and prepare to head to Jerusalem tomorrow. I must admit, I’m really excited to get there, and establish a base where I’ll be staying almost two more weeks–one week with the group, one week on my own. It has been great seeing and reflecting on all these places, but as I’m sure you can tell, I feel very disconnected from the 21st life in Israel. I am looking forward to being in Jerusalem, a vibrant city with living history, where there are living voices mingling with those of the dead.