Tag Archives: Galilee

Bread from Heaven

The dark green around the Lake of Galilee you see in the upper part of this Google satellite picture of Palestine says there’s good farmland there now; it was good farmland at the time of Jesus.

Herod the Great and his son Herod Antipas,  Galilee’s rulers then, appreciated the prospects  then and they created a network of roads and large cities – Tiberius, Sepphoris and Caesarea Maritima on the sea– to export goods from Galilee to the rest of the world. Could this information help us appreciate the miracle of Jesus, feeding the crowd bread and some fish?

“I am the bread of life”,  Jesus says in today’s gospel from John. I’m the source of your blessings and everything that is. God the creator works through me.  Moses asked for bread for his people journeying from Egypt.  Jesus says: “I am the bread of life.”

Jesus makes a divine claim in this miraculous sign, feeding a multitude. The crowd  wants to make him king, (John 6, 15) but the kingship they see doesn’t approach the kingship that’s his. It’s much too small. Jesus rejects their plan.

In a wonderful commentary on Jesus as the bread of life, the early theologian Origen says that Jesus calls himself bread because he is “nourishment of every kind,” not just nourishment of our bodies. He nourishes our minds and our souls; he brings life to creation itself.  When we ask “Give us this day our daily bread,” we’re asking for everything that nourishes our “true humanity, made in the image of God.”

Jesus is the bread that helps us “grow in the likeness of our creator.” (On Prayer 27,2) Sometimes– in fact most of the time–we don’t know the nourishment we or our world needs, but God does. “The true bread come down from heaven”  knows how to feed us.

“Give us this day our daily bread.”

The Mass Readings after Epiphany

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The gospel readings at Mass for the week after the Feast of the Epiphany may not seem connected to that great feast, but they are.

The Magi who come to find the King of the Jews represent the nations, the gentiles, to whom Jesus comes as Savior.  In our readings for Monday Jesus, grown in wisdom and age and grace, begins his public ministry after his baptism by John, going into Galilee, “the Galilee of the Gentiles,” Matthew’s gospel calls it. Jesus brings  light “to a people who sit in darkness.” In Galilee he first fulfills the promise made to the Magi.

Baptized by John, Jesus continues his mission, repeating the very words John used to define his ministry: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” But Jesus goes beyond John, who acknowledges “I am not the Messiah; I am sent before him.(Saturday, John 3,22-3)  Jesus calls a gentile world as well as a Jewish world to turn to God; he is the kingdom of God at hand.

Humanly speaking, it wasn’t a good time to begin such a mission. It’s “after John was arrested,” a dangerous time. Galilee, when Jesus began his mission, was ruled by Herod Antipas, who imprisoned John and then beheaded him. (Matthew 4, 12-25)

But God’s time is not our time. It probably wasn’t a good time either for the Magi to come to Bethlehem, in the days of Herod the Great. But God’s ways are not our ways. That’s important to remember. We can miss the time of grace and its opportunities when we think of time in too human a way.

God could not possibly act now? Why not?

Accounts of the miracle of the loaves and the crossing of the Sea of Galilee from Mark’s gospel are read on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. Commentators note that Mark uses the Sea of Galilee as a stormy path Jesus takes to reach the gentile world of his day. Those on the other side of the lake are given the samef Bread that he provided for the children of Israel.

It’s to “all of Galilee” that Jesus goes and “as a consequence of this his reputation traveled the length of Syria, They carried to him all those afflicted with various diseases and racked with pain: the possessed, the lunatics, the paralyzed. He cured them all.” (Matthew 4, 23-25)

Galilee is the “Galilee of the gentiles.”

Bread from Heaven

Jordan satellite
The dark green around the Lake of Galilee you see in the upper part of this Google satellite picture of Palestine says there’s good farmland there now; it was good farmland at the time of Jesus.

Herod the Great and his son Herod Antipas,  Galilee’s rulers then, appreciated the prospects  then and they created a network of roads and large cities – Tiberius, Sepphoris and Caesarea Maritima on the sea– to export goods from Galilee to the rest of the world. Could this information help us appreciate the miracle of Jesus, feeding the crowd bread and some fish?

“I am the bread of life”,  Jesus says in today’s gospel from John. I’m the source of your blessings and everything that is. God the creator works through me.  Moses asked for bread for his people journeying from Egypt.  Jesus says: “I am the bread of life.”

Jesus makes a divine claim in this miraculous sign, feeding a multitude. The crowd  wants to make him king, (John 6, 15) but the kingship they see doesn’t approach the kingship that’s his. It’s much too small. Jesus rejects their plan.

In a wonderful commentary on Jesus as the bread of life, the early theologian Origen says that Jesus calls himself bread because he is “nourishment of every kind,” not just nourishment of our bodies. He nourishes our minds and our souls; he brings life to creation itself.  When we ask “Give us this day our daily bread,” we’re asking for everything that nourishes our “true humanity, made in the image of God.”

Jesus is the bread that helps us “grow in the likeness of our creator.” (On Prayer 27,2) Sometimes– in fact most of the time–we don’t know the nourishment we or our world needs, but God does. “The true bread come down from heaven”  knows how to feed us.

“Give us this day our daily bread.”

The Land Where Jesus Lived

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Bethany, outside Jerusalem

“To what shall we compare the Kingdom of God,
or what parable can we use for it?”  ( Mark 4, 30) Jesus turned to the land he lived in to answer that question. It was a changeable land.  If you stand  on the roof of the Passionist house in Bethany near Jerusalem, as I did some years ago, you can still see olive trees growing beneath you. The Mount of Olives  just west of us.

Then, looking eastward to Jericho and the Dead Sea, it’s barren desert. Then, as you go from Jericho to Galilee the land turns from desert to lush farmland. A changing land.

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Jordan Valley

Jesus experienced a changing landscape as he left Nazareth for the Jordan River and then the Sea of Galilee;  it influenced the way he spoke. His parables are rich with the language of the sower and the seed. Like us, he was influenced by the place were he lived.

In a book written in the 1930s Gustaf Dalman, an expert on the geography and environment of Palestine, observed that when Jesus went from the  highlands of Nazareth, 1,100 feet above sea level to the fishing towns along the Sea of Galilee, 680 feet below sea level, he entered a different world.

For one thing, he ate better – more fish and nuts and fruits were available than in the hill town where he grew up. He looked out at the Sea of Galilee instead of the distant hills and valleys of his mountain village. He saw a great variety of birds, like the white pelicans and black cormorants that challenged the fishermen on the lake. He saw trees and plants and flowers that grew abundantly around the lake, but not around Nazareth.

Instead of the chalky limestone of Nazareth, Jesus walked on the hard black basalt around the lake. Basalt was the building material for houses and synagogues there. It made for sturdy structures, but they were dark and drab inside. They needed light. Light on a lampstand became one of his parables. (Mark 4,21)

Basalt also made for a rich soil in which everything could grow. “… here plants shoot up more exuberantly than in the limestone district. Where there are fields, they yield a produce greater than anyone has any notion of in the highlands.” (Dalman, p123)

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Farmland in Galilee

The volcanic soil on the land around the lake produced a rich harvest. Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, praised that part of Galilee for its fruitfulness, its palm trees, fruit trees, walnut trees, vines, wheat. But thistles, wild mustard, wild fennel grew quickly too and could choke anything else that was sown. The land around the Sea of Galilee was fertile then; even today it has some of the best farmland in Palestine.

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Soil near the Sea of Galilee

The weather in the low lying lands was not the same as in the mountains, warmer in winter, much hotter and humid in summer, which begins in May. “It is difficult for anyone used to living in the mountains to work by day and sleep by night…Out of doors one misses the refreshing breeze, which the mountains along the lake cut off…one is tempted to think that Jesus, who had settled there, must often have made occasion to escape from this pitiless climate to his beloved mountains.” (Dalman, p. 124)

These observations aren’t found in the gospels, of course, but they help us appreciate the world in which Jesus lived and the parables he drew from it. Jesus was influenced by where he lived, as we are.

And what about us? We’re experiencing climate change now, aren’t we? It’s going to influence our spirituality, how we see, how we live, how we react to the world around us.

Lord, help us appreciate the land we live in, and gain wisdom from it.

The Galilee of the Gentiles

We’re beginning to read from the Gospel of Matthew at Sunday Mass and we’ll read from it most Sundays till the First Sunday of Lent in early March. Today ‘s reading from Matthew is about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. (Matthew 4, 12-23)

It’s after his baptism in the Jordan; John the Baptist has been arrested and Matthew says that Jesus goes to Galilee, which he calls the “Galilee of the Gentiles,” where people “sit in darkness.” Jesus will bring them light. It’s a land “overshadowed by death.” Jesus will bring it life.

This is not just a description of the past, as if his miracles, his teachings and his great works are only for that time. Jesus lives for all time, and so we’re the Galilee he comes to now; we’re the people who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.

I just buried a cousin of mine last week. He was a few years ahead of me and I learned a lot from him in life, but in these last few months he taught me and his children and a good many other about the “art of dying.”

Not much said about that art these days. I doubt the subject can be found in the “How To” section in the bookstores. It used to be a subject for spiritual writers centuries ago, but not any more. Might be a good one to look at today.

Here’s the homily I preached for my cousin Bill last Saturday.

Lord of the Sabbath

Jesus and his opponents often clash over the Sabbath, as they do in today’s reading from Luke’s gospel.(Luke 6,1-5) Jesus’ disciples take some grain as they walk through the fields in Galilee. “Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” some Pharisees ask. All four gospels cite incidents like this. The question of the Sabbath was raised repeatedly in Jesus’ ministry.

We may think the question is about a Jewish law, but it’s really about God. How would God act if someone was hungry, or thirsty, or in need? That’s not a bad question to ask ourselves as we look out into our world. What would God do for the people we see in need? How would God look at those who belong to a different race or culture or nationality than we do? How would God act towards those who harm others or live unjust lives?

The Sabbath is God’s day, a day to remember who he is and what he has done. It’s not a day that restricts how we live, but a day that expands our vision to God’s vision. It’s a day to help us live other days of our lives. On the Sabbath, God gives us hope.

No wonder Jesus spoke of himself as “Lord of the Sabbath,” for he reveals the God we want to know. Too bad so many think of him as someone who restricts the way we live. It’s just the opposite. He teaches how live and offers a hope beyond any we could conceive.

The Transfiguration of Jesus

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Today’s Feast of the Transfiguration was celebrated as far back as the 4th century by the Syrian church. Then, it spread to other eastern churches, and finally in the 15th century came into our Roman liturgy, probably through western pilgrims to the Holy Land who visited the great mountain shrine of the Transfiguration in Galilee and brought the feast back to Europe. Some of our feasts have come to us like this– from pilgrims to the Holy Land.

All three synoptic gospels have the account of Jesus ascending the mountain with Peter, James and John after he has announced his passion and death. He’s transfigured before them. His face is changed in appearance,“dazzling like the sun,” Matthew’s gospel says. “His clothes are dazzling white;” the other gospels say, reflecting a body we can’t look at directly. It happens “while he was praying,” Luke says, who always sees prayer opening up the mysteries of God.

The mountain in the scriptures is a favorite place where God reveals himself. It’s where you can take in everything, everywhere. Later this week in our readings from Deuteronomy (4,32-40), Moses tells the children of Israel to remember that God’s voice came from the heavens and spoke to them from the mountain of Horeb and led them by a cloud to a land that was their heritage.

Now, God speaks from the Mount of Transfiguration. A cloud envelopes Jesus and his disciples. “This is my chosen Son; listen to him,” God says. “Keep this mystery in mind,” Peter says in his letter; it’s “like a lamp shining in a dark place, until the first streaks of dawn appear and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

Our liturgy today tells us that Jesus “revealed his glory to his disciples to strengthen them for the scandal of the cross,” that’s the dark place God wishes to lighten. “His glory shone in a body like our own, to show that the Church, which is his body, would one day share his glory,” our liturgy says. So our bodies share this mystery with him.

Moses and Elijah are there speaking to him, Luke says, “about his passage, which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem.” The passage from Egypt to the Promised Land will take place now through the mystery of his passion and resurrection.

The disciples fall silent after experiencing this mystery. They can’t explain it, even if they wanted to. So they fall back on the familiar stories of Moses and Elijah who spoke to God face to face. The mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mystery we anticipate, we cannot explain. Later, his disciples will say simply: “We have seen the Lord. He is risen, as he said.”

Seeing Your Galilee

Most of our readings for this part of Lent in the liturgy are from the “Sermon on the Mount” from the gospel of Matthew, which begins “When Jesus saw the crowds he went up the mountain and after he sat down his disciples came to him and he began to speak, and taught them…” Mt. 5, 1-2

Jesus takes his disciples up a mountain, a place where they can see beyond what they may see in their everyday world. In his time a mountain in Galilee looked down on a land of great beauty,  blessed by God.

During lent we’re called to look at our life where beauty might be hidden, or perhaps we just don’t see it. In lent Jesus takes us up a mountain, the Mount of Beatitudes and the Mount of Calvary, and teaches us to see and understand life before us.

Awhile ago, I visited Galilee. Our guide Joseph had an extraordinary appreciation for that part of the Holy Land. In fact, he had a small farm near the Sea of Galilee and constantly remarked on all the things that grew in that blessed land around the sea.

Jesus had the same appreciation for that land, I’m sure. And he used images from the land and the sea to teach about God and his mysteries. I made a short video of Galilee with my friend Mauro and I’m going to use it on Saturday evening during a presentation of the parable of the Sower at St. Mary’s Parish in Colts Neck, NJ.

Here it is.

Here’s a homily for today too.

Following Jesus Christ: Oct 4, 2011

Tonight we look at the resurrection story from the Gospel of Matthew, a mystery at the center of our faith. As St.Paul said, “If Christ is not risen, your faith is in vain.”

The gospels not only proclaim the resurrection of Jesus from the dead but see this central mystery of our faith shaping the way we live and think. Each gospel also presents this mystery to the church of its time. If we look carefully, we can see its relevance for the church of our time too. That’s true particularly of the Gospel of Matthew.

What was the Jewish-Christian church in Palestine or Syria like about 80 AD  when Matthew wrote? The followers of Jesus, mostly Jewish-Christians,  were facing hard times. They were being confronted by a resurgent Judaism led by the Pharisees. At the same time, gentiles were accepting the message of Jesus and seeking baptism.  As it faced a large influx of  strangers and attacks from its own people, this predominantly Jewish- Christian church was to be radically changed.

Recall that the temple and the city of Jerusalem had been completely destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, which caused many Jews led by the Pharisees to flee into Galilee and Syria and there begin to build up Judaism again. They saw the followers of Jesus, numerous in those regions, as a fringe group standing in the way of Jewish restoration, so a confrontation began. Jewish-Christians were being driven out of the synagogues in Galilee and a campaign was begun to discredit the Christian movement. Signs of that confrontation are evident in the chapters of Matthew’s Gospel.

This gospel responds to the situation by reminding Christians then that God’s plan is present even when things are uncertain. The Passion of Jesus is their guidebook. Did not Jesus live faithfully through the awful confusion of his arrest, his brutal treatment and his unfair death?  So, like him, should they face uncertainty and hardship. God brought him to new life; God would bring them to new life too.

The story of the Jewish guards at the tomb, unique to Matthew’s gospel, is an example of the Christian response to a story circulating at that time denying that Jesus rose from the dead, but claiming instead that his body was stolen by his followers.

You can see Matthew’s gospel, and all the gospels for that matter, insisting  that Jesus really died;  he experienced death in all its harsh reality. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he cries out after a long silence on Calvary. He was buried, then he rose again. Pilate and his soldiers become important, credible witnesses to his death and burial.

Jesus also really rose from the dead, Matthew’s gospel insists. Even as he died, the earth quakes, rocks are split and tombs we are opened.  An angel clothed like light sits triumphantly on the stone rolled away from an empty tomb. Death has been conquered.

What’s particularly interesting about Matthew’s resurrection account, however, is that  Jesus appears to his disciples, not in Jerusalem or at the tomb outside the city, but on a mountain in Galilee.  From there, he sends his disciples into the whole world to preach the gospel, baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

It’s true that, as the women run from the tomb to tell the disciples,  Jesus briefly appears and they “took hold of his feet and worshipped him.” (Matthew 28,9) But they’re off quickly to tell his disciples to go to Galilee “and there they will see me.”

A neutral observer on the scene in Galilee and Syria in those days might reasonably judge the followers of Jesus of Nazareth to be in bad straits. They were losing in their confrontation with their Jewish opponents and were being pushed out of their synagogues and their homeland.   In the following centuries, Christianity hardly survives in Galilee, where Jesus began his ministry. After the fall of Jerusalem it becomes a Jewish stronghold.

But that’s not the story Matthew tells. The Risen Jesus appears on a mountain in Galilee urging his followers to a new global mission.  A new step is to be taken to bring about the kingdom of God.

The eleven* disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.

When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.

Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

Go, therefore,* and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit,

teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28,16-20)

Matthew doesn’t forget that the Risen Christ emerged from the tomb in Jerusalem, but he sees him bringing new life and direction to his struggling church and his struggling followers in Galilee. The Risen Lord is where his followers are, leading them on. He leads them into the future, uncertain as it is. He commands them to leave Galilee which now, instead of a place where his church seems to be dying, is a place of hope and new beginnings. From a mountain he points to a beautiful unknown.

Jesus is not a simply a figure of the past; the Risen Jesus constantly calls his followers onward and accompanies them to a wider mission. His call is by no means obvious, though. Matthew alludes to the chronic uncertainty of Jesus’ disciples: “When they saw him they worshipped, but they doubted.”

Matthew’s Gospel could have been written for our church today. The Risen Jesus makes our church– to most observers a church in crisis and severe decline–  a place of hope and new beginnings. He gives us “resurrection thinking” – the ability to look into the ruins and see beyond them.

Just as his disciples learned to see not death but resurrection in what happened during Jesus’ last hours , so we need to immerse ourselves in these mysteries to gain eyes that really see.

Jesus in the Temple

Where did Jesus teach and pray and live when he was in Jerusalem? That’s hard to figure out today because the city was thoroughly destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, and since then earthquakes, wars, political and religious forces have hammered away at the old city.

Jerusalem destroyed: 70 AD

Archeologists try their best to reconstruct ancient Jerusalem and they’ve produced a wonderful model of the city from about the time of Jesus, which can be seen today at the city’s Israel Museum.  As the model indicates, the Second Temple built by Herod the Great dominated the city then. Jesus must have taught and prayed in this splendid place–still being built during his lifetime– as he came to celebrate the Jewish feasts.

His activity here triggered his condemnation to death.

Can we say more precisely where he taught and when he began teaching there? Luke’s gospel offers the interesting story that his parents, after missing him on one of their usual visits to the Holy City,  “found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” (Luke 2,46) This probably took place in the Court of the Gentiles, the extensive space that surrounded the temple itself, which we can see in the model. We can surmise that, as observant Jews, his family brought him to Jerusalem for the major feasts.

The name, Court of the Gentiles, indicates an area open to all, even though the temple building itself was open only to the Jews. In the Court of the Gentiles,  young Jewish children like Jesus and adults looking for a greater understanding of their faith were able to listen and ask questions of the Jewish teachers. At the same time, even those who did not share the Jewish faith were welcome here,  namely,  non-Jews, gentiles, who could speak to Jewish teachers, inquire about the Jewish faith and even pray to the unknown God.

The Court of the Gentiles was an important part of the temple area; it proclaimed Jewish openness to the world.  The psalms and the prophets spoke of the God of all nations and looked to the day when all peoples would be counted among the children of Abraham:

“In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house

will be established as the highest mountain

and raised above the hills.

All nations shall stream toward it;

many peoples will come and say:

‘Come, let us climb the Lord’s mountain to the house of the God of Jacob,

that he may instruct us in his ways

and we may walk in his paths.” Isaiah 2,1-5

The Court of the Gentiles was the place where Jesus proclaimed a new age that would fulfill these promises.  As he grew “in wisdom and age and grace” Jesus continued to go to the temple with his family from Galilee to celebrate the Jewish feasts, still “listening to the teachers and asking them questions.”

But after his baptism by John, Jesus’ visits to the temple changed. During the feasts he made extraordinary claims about himself and his mission, as John’s Gospel records.  His claims, along with healings he worked in Jerusalem– his cures of  the man born blind and of the paralyzed man, above all his raising of Lazarus from the dead– alarmed the temple authorities.

The gospels all record the disturbing incident that took place in the temple during the final stages of his ministry. According to Mark’s gospel: “He entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold  and those who bought, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he taught and said to them, “Is it not written, “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations?’ But you have made it a den of thieves.” (Mark 11,15-17, Matthew 21,1017; Luke 19, 45-46; John 2,13-17)

Not only was the Court of the Gentiles a place for teaching and prayer, it was also a place for exchanging money, getting advice from priests about where and how to pray and make your offerings,  buying food and animals for sacrifice. In a prophetic gesture, Jesus upset this traditional apparatus and called for renewing the temple so that it could fulfill its destiny as “a house of prayer for all the nations.”

The Gentiles would no longer be excluded from experiencing the Divine Presence;  Jesus signified he came to break down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile and reconcile both to God through his death. He himself would be the new temple and the sacrifice of reconciliation for all peoples.

No wonder that a major accusation made against him later at his trial before the Jewish leaders was based on what witnesses claimed were his threats to destroy the temple. “We heard him say ‘I will destroy this temple made from human hands and I will build another not made by human hands.” (Mark 14,58)

Some picture Jesus as a hapless Galilean peasant caught in a government net to catch and destroy potential revolutionaries, like Barabbas. Jesus went to his death for more reasons than that. His activity in the temple is an important part of his life and mission, and it led to his death.