It’s been said that the Holy Land is the fifth Gospel-that in walking its streets and tracing its terrain you have a chance to see the biblical story with fresh eyes and hear it with fresh ears. During this Advent season, we will visit four locations in the Holy Land, one per week. Then we will reflect each day on the events that took place in that location and their meaning for our lives.
This week we will visit Nazareth, the hometown of Mary and later of Jesus. To get there, we’ll travel through the nearby town of Sepphoris, from which you can make out the tiny village of Nazareth to the south. Sepphoris had existed for hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus. There were several main streets in Sepphoris with shops on either side.
Scholars believe that Nazareth was named after the Hebrew word netzer. The word can mean either the branch of a tree or a shoot that comes up from the stump of a tree. In the Book of Isaiah, the prophet said that God would raise up a leader, a shoot, a branch that would give new life to the people of Israel. Of course, Christians understand that leader to be Jesus. Little did the founders of Nazareth know that one of their own children would be the shoot that God would raise up!
The town of Nazareth was looked upon with some disdain. We hear that disdain in John 1:46, thirty years after the birth of Jesus, when Philip told Nathanael that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. Nathanael replied, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
The site that Christians visit as Mary’s childhood home in Nazareth-at least the lower level of it-is a cave. Seeing this modest dwelling reminds us that when choosing the mother of the Messiah, God went to a tiny village considered insignificant by most, likely named after the hope of a Messiah, and invited a young woman of very humble means to bear the Christ. It was in this cave, tradition says, that Gabriel came to Mary and announced that she was with child. It was here, in this place, that the Word became flesh in Mary’s womb.
Mary lived in a little, out-of-the-way town. She was uneducated and probably came from a poor family who may well have been servants in Sepphoris, a larger town near Nazareth. She was likely about thirteen years old. As she stood by the spring of Nazareth, listening to the sound of water bubbling forth from the rock, she was no better prepared for the visit of an angel than any of us might be. You can imagine that after hearing the words of Gabriel, she tried desperately to take it all in. Yet, with head spinning filled with questions, uncertain of what it all meant, Mary said yes. Her response to the angel was simple and profound. She said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
As we begin our journey through the story of Jesus’ birth, my hope and prayer for you is that each week you will come to learn more about who God is, who we’re called to be, and who the child was who would be born to Mary. This week especially, ponder the way God chooses unlikely characters to bring about great purposes.