Day Six: Strength and Beauty
Posted February 2, 2012on:
Today was miserably chilly and pouring rain all day. The thunderstorm blew in around 4:00 a.m., and we saw whitecaps on the Sea of Galilee when we looked out the window in the morning. I was surprised by my own reaction to the weather. I expected to feel disappointed that we could not see the sweeping vistas, or catch a glimpse of Mount Tabor, or take pictures of the ruins. That would normally be my response. On this journey, however, I feel like everything is such a gift. Every moment, every site, every experience is pure gift, so I am not complaining about what isn’t there. In addition, we have been hearing so much about the water crisis in the region that I have begun to celebrate every raindrop, like the locals do.
In the morning, we drove through Cana and before visiting Sepphoris. In Cana and Nazareth, the holy sites are in the midst of thriving modern cities, but Sepphoris is only ruins of the ancient Roman city built in the first century. The modern Zippori is set down the hill. In Sepphoris, we saw amazing mosaics preserved for 2000 years, the Roman cardo (colonnaded street), a Crusader citadel, and a theater. We also got very wet.
Our next stop was Nazareth, home to the Church of the Annunciation. The Church of the Annunciation is built atop the traditional (since Byzantine times) site of Mary’s grotto, the cave home in which she would have received the announcement from the angel Gabriel that she was about to bear God’s son, while yet a virgin. I have long struggled with this story, wrestling with a host of theological and sociological questions. I still have more questions than answers about Mary, her virginity, God’s paternity, and what the whole thing says about womanhood and women’s sexuality. I am uninspired by the angelic, weepy images of Mary I usually see. So I did not expect to like or connect with a church dedicated to enshrining that story as though it were historical fact, rather than faithful storytelling.
The Mary I met at the Church of the Annunciation was a Mary I could understand and admire. Before we went inside the church to see Mary’s grotto, we toured the excavated cave area outside the church. We saw a typical cave home in Nazareth around the time of Jesus. It was tiny, but had several smaller spaces within it—an upper area for sleeping, a back area for the animals at night, and a front area for cooking.
Peasant life in the first century would have been tough. Nazareth was a tiny town, no more than 400 residents. Mary’s daily life would have involved making trips to the town well (now a mosque, closed to non-Muslims) to tote water, cooking over an open fire, caring for animals, making clothing and raising children. Seeing that cave house, so primitive and humble, replaced my image of the watery-eyed waif in the blue gossamer gown with a hearty, muscular peasant woman who lived among the harsh realities of life and tried to make a way for herself and for her family.
The current Church of the Annunciation was built in 1969, atop the ruins of a smaller Franciscan church, a Crusader church and a Byzantine church. The Roman Catholic church, in the building process, solicited donations of art (and money) from around the world. Countries around the globe sent their own artistic renderings of Mary to display at this holy site. Inside the sanctuary and all along the outside wall enclosing the church campus are beautiful, colorful portraits of Mary showing the traditions and devotions of her followers of every race and nation.
I was moved by the ways Mary had travelled, and how her story had clearly moved the hearts of women and men around the world—not just in this era, but for centuries. In the mosaics and other artwork around the Church of the Assumption, Mary did not look at all like she does in European Renaissance art. She looked like members of every race and tribe on the planet. She looked Japanese, and African, and Filipino, and Portuguese, and Indian, and Mexican, and many, many more. I came to understand the cult of Mary in a new way. Jesus as Christ was too remote, to removed from humanity for us to relate to him. Mary is like us, human and fragile, yet faithful and strong. She is our best selves, the part of us that says “yes” to whatever God asks us, the part that ponders things in her heart, the part that preaches the justice of the Magnificat, the part that weeps at the violence of the world.
Of all the images of Mary, the one that drew me into a place of prayer was the one from the United States. Others in our group did not care for her shiny face and harsh edges, and dubbed her “The Iron Maiden.” But I loved the Iron Maiden because she looked like no Mary I’d ever seen. She was powerful and radiant, moving out of the flat picture we want to paint of her. Her strength and determination and fierceness moved me to worship. My relationship with Mary will never be the same.