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Culture Clash

May 12, 2009


Tuesday, 4:23 pm local time


Nazareth looks more like a “modern” European city than anything else we’ve seen so far. The terrain is no different than, say, Arad, even though we are miles from the Negev, but all of the rocky hills here are colonized. The streets resemble Venice, or San Francisco – steep, winding, and very narrow. Four story apartment buildings seem to be the norm here.

We exit the bus a few blocks away from the Church of the Annunciation; the bus has gone about as far as it can go on the narrow roads, and so we must walk. We can see the church almost from where we are standing; its parapets tower over this section of the city. Pictures of the Pope, who visited the city earlier this week, are everywhere. The Bible verse at the bottom of most of the posters is in English and Italian: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” and, “Benedictus, che viene in nome del signore.” The pun on Benedict’s name does not go unnoticed. Samir later points out that the Arabic on the green posters very near to the Pope-posters reads something like, “But the one who does not follow the Prophet Mohammed is cursed.”

The tension in the city between the three Abrahamic faiths is evident, but in the way that such tensions are seen on college campuses: a lot of show without much there. As we walk to the Church of the Annunciation, I see big green signs displaying verses from the Qu’ran, in English, telling passersby about the supremacy of Islam and the death of all other religions. Gordon tells us they plan to build a mosque here, right in the courtyard of the Church.

Later on, we went shopping in a small store selling overpriced Christian trinkets, and the whole street outside was lined with people making their way to various shops in all languages; everyone seemed amicable, enough like a cosmopolitan city to make me feel comfortable just standing. Ronell later asked, “If they can make it work here, why can’t they make it work everywhere else?” I’m not sure they’re ‘making it work’ as much as it might seem, though. Sure, everyone on the street seemed nice enough, but Nazareth is one of Christianity’s chief cities; Christians pour millions of shekels every year into the economy, whether through religious pilgrimage or just tourism. If fighting erupts in the city, their major source of income will be disrupted, so the relative peace of Nazareth is, I think, a function of economics rather than equality.

In any case, I have to say, walking through the Church made me want to be Catholic a little bit. The Church complex actually includes two churches: the impressive Church of the Annunciation and the smaller church dedicated to St. Joseph, the much forgotten earthly father of Jesus, but it is the larger church where I felt something. The Church of the Annunciation celebrates the moment when the angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to a son, who would be Christ the Lord. The Catholics, as they do, say they found the exact place where the Annunciation took place, and so the first floor of the church is centered on a small cave, ivory white, with a small altar. We stand behind a wrought-iron gate depicting, among other things, a snake. Not sure what that’s about.

What was more impressive for me was the upper basilica. All along the walls are frescos (maybe; I’m not an artist) of the Virgin Mary, depicted by Catholics from around the world. The American Mary was raised, shining metal against a swirly colourful background; the Japanese Mary wore a kimono, as did the baby Jesus, and both had long, straight black hair and pale white skin.

One of the things that Protestants don’t do well, I think, is reverence. Sunday services are fellowship time – the Word and Sacrament are important, but the church building is really for the gathering of the people to hear the Word and Sacrament proclaimed. The Church of the Annunciation, though, creates a space that is not for me – it’s for something wholly other. I sat there in awe for a while, wondering at the story of the Annunciation, figuring out a balance between textual criticism of the events portrayed and sheer awe of the truth, trying to grasp the bigness of the space created here.

I couldn’t.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Urbane Peachey permalink
    May 28, 2009 6:41 pm

    I haven’t seen all the blogs, and I don’t have information about what everything the group did, but as a PTS alumnus (Th.M) of 1998, I am disappointed there was apparently limited exposure to the effects of the Israeli military occupation on the people of Palestine. Was there any coverage on the modern Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Just today I heard there are more than 600 Israeli checkpoints in West Bank. I lived in the Middle East for five years, 1970-1975.

    Urbane Peachey

  2. Chip Dobbs-Allsopp permalink
    June 3, 2009 10:16 am

    Dude, read the blogs and then take a trip to Israel and the West Bank. The political was definitely a dimension thoroughly engaged from a broad range of perspectives. As you know in visiting this part of the world you’d have to make a concerted effort to avoid politics. We made no such effort.

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