Friday, 30 December 2011


A brief visit to Jericho got us thinking about those times when Jesus would have visited that city - and also its place in the broader history of the people of Israel.  As we visited the remains of the walls we thought of that time when the walls came tumbling down and the role that Joshua had in the history of the city.

It was in Jericho that Jesus encountered Zacchaeus - and we were shown some ancient sycamore trees that served as a strong reminder of that story. 

Jericho is, more or less, at the edge of the wilderness and it struck me as a place where you were either arriving at or leaving from all the facilities that would be needed by any traveller.  There was a fountain with water pots, indicating the presence and importance of water.

Jericho spoke to me of God's enduring care and love.  Just as Zacchaeus found what he needed there, just as Joshua was able to lead the people to a place of safety, so God's love is present and available to us.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

River Jordan

On our way to Galilee we stopped off at the River Jordan to see the baptismal site, the place where, approximately, John baptised Jesus - just a fairly narrow strip of river separating Israel and Jordan.  It is well supplied with infra structure to keep it safe these days and - on the Jordanian side, a range of churches, and even a mosque.  Each main denomination has been given a piece of land to build a church, part of a marking of this place belonging to us all.  It must have been different in John and Jesus' day, but it was not too difficult to imagine John there in the water, encouraging his listeners to step forward and symbolically demonstrate their repentance for all their wrongs.

We were able to dip our hands in the water and we had a brief, but very moving, service of renewal of our baptismal vows.  What a wonderful place to be to take the opportunity to remember God's grace and our Christian commitment. 

It was also a significant opportunity to remember the importance of water.  There were some monks filling up water carriers as this operates as their water source.  Admittedly, they didn't have to lift the containers on to their head and walk back to the monastery - they loaded them on to a truck.  Water is crucial to our human survival - and so its use in the sacraments that signifies our entry to the church is indicative of so much, life itself, as well as cleansing.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011


When we visited Cana it was pouring with rain.  Hopefully, the weather was rather different at the time of the story that has made this place so famous - though, in fact, Cana has moved - lock, stock and barrel - so the location is not precisely the same in any case.

However, that does not prevent there from being an attractive church to commemorate Jesus' first miracle and, just across the path, a souvenir shop that features tastings of Cana of Galilee wine - which was very sweet.  However, this visit was an opportunity to reflect on the impact that Jesus made in so many different ways.  Jesus was - and is - concerned with everyday things, the things that matter to us, and helps us respond to the situations in which we find ourselves.

When Jesus turned the water into wine at that wedding, that must have made a real difference to the lives of the families and friends at that particular social occasion.  It is important to remember, as we were frequently reminded during our trip, that we are not just dealing with a historical Jesus but relating to a living one.  It is not that he was in these places.  He is in these places!

Tuesday, 27 December 2011


It was very interesting to visit Capernaum and to be able to focus on this as being the place where Jesus spent a lot of his time and did a lot of his teaching and performed a lot of his miracles. We were able to see some of the ruins, including the ruin of the Synagogue that will have been the one that Jesus taught in. We were reminded that to start praying in a Synagogue you need ten men - you can’t start the prayer without that but Jesus said “that where two or three are gathered”.  There is no gender requirement and a much lower number - he says where there are two or three “I am there”.  God is of course ‘I am’ and we might compare Paul’s comment that we are all one in Christ Jesus.

As we looked at the Capernaum ruins we could imagine such incidents as the man being lowered down through the roof in order to get close to Jesus.  The houses were clearly very small and it would not take many people to fill them up.  There were also the remains of an adjacent army barracks, a reminder of the proximity of the occupying forces, with all its negative and positive connotations.  The Capernaum synagogue was sponsored by the Roman centurion whose servant Jesus healed, a story that reminds us of the inter-action that would be necessary between different communities, no matter what they thought of each other.  Capernaum was also where Simon Peter's mother-in-law lived and this may well have been his base, adjacent, as it is, to the lake.  Capernaum would have been an ordinary villages that played host to some extraordinary events.  That's what happens when God engages with humanity.

Saturday, 24 December 2011


Kursi has been a place of pilgrimage since the 5th century, as it is regarded as the place where Jesus met and healed the demoniac, sending the demons out of the demoniac and into a herd of pigs which then cast themselves over the cliff.

This is an interesting site out in the countryside with the ruins of a monastery there today. There was a little chapel on what was presumably the site of the cave where this person had lived. When we visited this site we were led in a reflection asking the question as to whether, just possibly, the prodigal son was the demoniac. This is pure speculation but is it just possible that the prodigal’s father asked Jesus to go looking for his son and, if so, this shows the lengths to which Jesus would go in order to look for someone. The link between the two stories is possibly the pigs, and it is certainly true that Jesus went out of his way to encounter this man.. Jesus found the demoniac who recognised him. How interesting that the demons often recognised Jesus before everyone else did. Jesus then asked the question “what is your name?” and the response came “my name is Legion”. This man has actually lost his name, has lost his identity, but Jesus restores him. It is an interesting question as to what a pig farmer was doing in a Jewish country - was this man smuggling hams across Galilee for those who would buy them? We don’t know, but possibly so!

At the end of the story the demoniac wants to stay with Jesus, but Jesus tells him to go home. The question arises as to where did Jesus get his stories Was, for example, the story of the prodigal son drawn from a real-life situation? Whether or not it has anything to do with the parable, Jesus certainly came a long way to find this man.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Mount of Beatitudes

Two weeks ago today we went first to the Mount of Beatitudes, the traditional site from which Jesus taught the disciples and others the Sermon on the Mount. We had an interesting reflection on this in which we were encouraged us to look, firstly, at the word but then, secondly, to look at the metaphor behind the word. Thirdly we should look at the morality of what is being said and, fourthly, we need to go and live it. We were focussed particularly on the first beatitude, ‘blessed are the poor in spirit’, asking the question “who are the poor in spirit?” Perhaps it means that blessed are those who know how much they need God. Jesus often spoke of Abraham and we might suggest that Abraham is the classic example of one who recognised their need of God. We can also see water as a symbol of need. We need water in order to survive. The Biblical message is ‘to leave and to go’ and Abraham is certainly the big example of that.

It was good to be up on the mountain and to look down and across and imagine the people there, listening to Jesus and being inspired by his challenging words – and to hear something of that same challenge from those same words today.

Thursday, 22 December 2011


Arriving in Nazareth, as we walked up the hill, we were immediately met by a sign outside the mosque declaring Islam to be the one true faith. This served as a reminder of the contemporary challenges to inter-faith dialogue. We were told, on other occasions, that the Holy Land has good relationships and regular meetings between Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders. There are many good engagements undertaken with great integrity, but all the major faiths have those who want nothing to do with anyone else. It also served as a reminder of the challenges which Jesus faced in his earthly ministry, not least when he came to Nazareth.

According to Luke, Jesus was brought up in Nazareth – though Matthew suggests that his hometown was actually Bethlehem. Walking through contemporary Nazareth, with its stalls and shops, selling the same kind of fruit and vegetables that would have been around in Jesus’ time, but also the electrical adaptors and pre-Christmas Santas of the 21st century, it was not too difficult to imagine Jesus and his family and Jesus and his disciples, walking an earlier version of these streets, looking for the things that they needed and encountering friends and acquaintances. For all of us most of life is lived in an ordinary context, our context for the moment. The question is as to how we engage with our extraordinary God in our particular context.

We all need to consider our particular calling which may, from time to time, vary. It was fascinating to look in to three 21st century carpenters’ workshops and remember how Jesus worked on the wood with his father Joseph. You might think that Jesus would have rushed into the preaching, teaching and healing ministry, that was his main calling, but that needed to wait for the right time. Patience is a good lesson to learn. There are times when we need to wait and prepare ourselves. We may not always understand God’s timing, but we can know that it is right.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Shepherds' Field

A little way out of Bethlehem we went to visit the field where the shepherds were watching their sheep when they saw that dazzling light and heard that angelic choir. Well, actually we saw a field somewhere around where that might have been. There are, at least, three fields that make the claim to be the one, a Greek Orthodox one, a Roman Catholic one, and a YMCA one. It was the YMCA one we visited. Nobody can be sure just where the shepherds’ field was, but then that doesn’t really matter.

What matters is that there was a shepherds’ field, that were shepherds, and that they had this amazing experience. The field we visited had some large caves and it would seem that the shepherds may well have ushered the sheep into the caves at night as a means of keeping them safe, different from the picture I have had, but there you are. And then there were burn marks on one of the large rocks at one of the entrances. It is not suggested that these marks go back to Jesus’ time, but I could well imagine the shepherds there at the entrance, keeping the sheep penned in and safe for the night, chatting and cooking something to eat, when suddenly that heavenly choir appeared – Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth. They must have been scared stiff – but are told, don’t be afraid, and are despatched to Bethlehem, maybe five or seven miles away, to be the first visitors to a very special baby.

Shepherds did not fit the bill of those likely to be chosen for such a task – but that didn’t matter to God. Are we willing to recognise God’s unlikely choices? And are we ready to recognise the surprises that God has in store for us?

Monday, 19 December 2011


What a joy to visit Bethlehem just ahead of Christmas! I was there twelve days ago. Just like that first Christmas, as Luke tells it to us, there were lots of visitors in town – only these visitors were not there on business, needing to register themselves for the census that was being undertaken. These visitors were pilgrims, wanting to see the place where Jesus was born, marked now, not by a stable or any other form of domestic or farm building, but by a church. This is an interesting church, not just because of what it marks, but because there has been a church on this site from very early times, and we were able to see something of the indicators as to how it had been adapted and added on to down through the ages.

We were able to imagine a very tired Mary arriving in Bethlehem, desperately wanting to find somewhere to rest and then, almost immediately, discovering that the baby was on its way. We have sanitised the story and made a pretty picture of it, but giving birth in a draughty and, almost certainly, messy stable, cannot have been something anyone would have wanted for their child and themselves.

Being in Bethlehem and thinking back some two thousand or so years was very interesting. There were lots of folk wanting to see the place where Jesus was born. We only queued up some ten minutes or so, but I am told it can take an awful lot longer. Why are there so many twenty-first century pilgrims who want to encounter this spot, when it was just a few shepherds in the first century? One of the things to learn is not to be in a hurry, and to realise that God’s time is always best. People were selling all sorts of things, but mainly souvenirs. I suspect there were lots of people selling things in Jesus’ time too, but they would more likely be food and the basic necessities of life. What do we spend our money on? That is always an interesting question to ask. What are the priorities for us? And perhaps we are helped to work that out when we pause to ponder where it is that God would have us be, what it is that God would have us do?

At Bethlehem that first Christmas, that great thing that we often refer to as the incarnation took place. What does that mean for us here and now?

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Ein Kerem

I have just returned from twelve days in the Holy Land. In fact, I just got back late on Friday evening. It has been both interesting and exciting to spend part of Advent visiting many of the places where Jesus lived and taught.

One of the first places we visited was Ein Kerem, the beautiful village where John the Baptist was born and grew up. Ein Kerem is quite hilly with beautiful views across the valley. Someone living there in John’s time would probably have been relatively well off. When we got there, we went first to a spring known as Mary’s spring – and there we were reminded of the importance of wells and springs in Jesus’ day, both for the water they supplied, but also because they were a gathering place for the women. Just as today we might meet in the school playground or the supermarket, they met at the well and there exchanged the news and the gossip. Today we have so many means of communication, texting, emails, all the social networking, as well as the telephone and the letter. It was not so then – and it was important that they took the opportunities that were there to share news. Have you heard … ? Did you know ….? I always think it interesting to reflect on what is the news that we pass on. It is so easy to spread rumour and gossip, but what we are called to do is spread the Good News, the Gospel. Go and tell. I wonder what are the things that we are going and telling. What is it that we want to share?

From the spring we climbed a steep hill to the Church of the Visitation. The Church of the Visitation was completed in 1955 to a design by Antonio Barluzzi. It was built to commemorate Mary’s visit to Elizabeth - there they were, both expecting babies, and both, it might be assumed, should not have been in that state. Why did Mary go to visit Elizabeth? Was it because she wanted to share her good news? Or might it just be that Mary was sent there to get her out of the way for a bit? How scandalous that she was unmarried and pregnant! And Elizabeth wasn’t much better. She was probably the source of gossip too. She was married all right, but you shouldn’t be having babies at her age. As Calvin Miller says: “Elizabeth must have found her joyous old-age pregnancy the brunt of community gossip”, adding, “She stood with one foot in the grave and the other in the neonatal ward.” How do we respond to the scandal of the Gospel? What do we do with those awkward things that come our way?

Mary, of course, responded by writing a fantastic song, the one that we now know as the Magnificat – and on a wall in the grounds of the church was written, as gifts from many nations, the Magnificat on plaques in many different languages. There it was in Greek, in Hebrew, in Arabic. It was in Spanish and French, Swahili and English and many more. The Magnificat has many important things to say to us about God’s care for the disadvantaged. Are we ready to listen? Are we ready to hear the message of liberation?