I’d like to tell you of what I saw with my now-failing eyes, what I heard, what my calloused fisherman’s hands did along with That One who lived with us… I am John. From Patmos, a little verdant island lost somewhere in the Greek Sea. I’m always reminded of the son of Mary, Jesus of Nazareth, a very close friend of mine. I spent the best years of my soon-ending life by his side. Today, I will relate to you the good news he brought us so that we will all be united in one single effort and be happy in one single hope. You know, everything started in Galilee….
Galilee is the northern province of Palestine. Jews from the south despised us. They would say that we Galileans were a gossiping, dirty and boisterous people. They could be right. But they would also say that out of envy, because our land was the most beautiful in the whole country. Galilee is a vast garden, especially during spring, when the flowers cover the valley of Esdrelon; when wheat and grapes grow and olive groves and date palms bloom; when the blue and round Tiberiades lake is teeming with fish. There are important cities in Galilee: Seforis, Capernaum, Magdala… But everything began in one small village called The Flower… Well, in our Aramaic language, The Flower is what “Nazareth” means.
Susana: Mary, have you heard that Rachel’s son already left?
Mary: Yes, Susana, I heard…
Susana: When a palm tree comes out crooked, not even God can straighten it. That boy had a bad start.
Mary: And he will end up worse, Susana.
Susana: I guess, the mother is to blame. A child reared well lives well. But think about Rachel’s bad example…
Mary: No, not the bad example, Susana. The thing is, young people today just don’t know what they want. Look at my son: no permanent job, no… no future.
Susana: Don’t talk like that about Jesus. That bronze-skinned son of yours is one treasure of a young man…
Mary: What treasure? Look at him: thirty years old and… nothing… All his friends are already married and they have kids…
Susana: My dear Mary, the thing is, your son is not so easily swayed. For sure, he’s looking for a girlfriend somewhere outside Nazareth. Well, tell me, what future does Jesus have in this little town?
Mary: Yes, that’s true…
Susana: Hey, little girl, it’s now my turn with the water!
Girl: Then quit talking and hurry!
Susana: Don’t push me, girl! What a monster!… Hey, Mary, before I forget, tell your son to pass by the house because the wall is breaking down again. Don’t forget, Mary!
Mary: Yes, I’ll tell him!
Nazareth was just like that: a small rural town lost in some obscure corner of Galilee. It could only boast of twenty houses and a small synagogue. No one from that small community ever became famous. “Nothing good comes out of Nazareth”, people from Canaan would say. People in Nazareth were very poor. They walked barefoot and nobody seemed to know how to read and write. They made their houses from the caves formed into the hillsides. In one of those houses lived a widowed, but still young, country woman: her name was Mary. She lived with her only son, a burly and ruggedly handsome man, with bronze-colored face burnt by the sun, and wearing a black beard. His name was Jesus.
Mary: Lay that hammer down and come; the food is gettin’ cold… Jesus!
Jesus: Yes, mother?
Mary: Didn’t you hear me? Quit pounding; come and eat. Come on…
Jesus: Alright… Oh no!… Who ever made me think I could make these useless tools? I told that Roman I knew how to make tools… But now, this one is longer than the other.
Mary: Oh, Jesus, my son, you always poke your nose into everything! If there’s a wheat harvest, you are there… If an animal is gonna be butchered, you’re there too… Then, putting tiles and hammering at doors. Now, you even try to make tools!
Jesus: Don’t worry. We’re gonna have lentils on the table because of those tools. The Roman paid me a denarius in advance.
Mary: Poor Roman. Poor horse, especially…
Jesus: Didn’t you say the food was gettin’ cold? Come on, let’s eat! Ah… this smells good…
Mary: Come now son, say grace. And make it short.
Mary: Because it will also take a short while to finish the food. Bread and lentils, nothing more. Go on, say grace, I’m hungry.
Jesus: Well… Bless, Oh Lord, this bread and these lentils. Amen… Now, Mom, please pour me some wine because my throat is as parched as the desert.
Mary: There’s no more wine, son. Why don’t you just be content with fresh water…
Jesus: I’ll end up like a frog with a lot of fresh water…
Mary: You know, son? Nepthali’s wife is sick. She has fever again. This afternoon I’m gonna make her some soup… Poor woman, and with so many kids… Don’t you wanna eat, Jesus? Are you sick?
Jesus: Me, sick? Why do you say so?
Mary: You’re not eating anything… I find you a little strange these past few days… Come now, tell me what’s wrong.
Jesus: Nothing’s wrong with me, honest.
Mary: You’re holding something back.
Jesus: Well, I have those tools which are driving me crazy!
Mary: Don’t lie. Look, I know something’s wrong because that Benjamin went to Jordan to see the prophet. And you are rarin’ to go too, am I right?
Jesus: You guessed right. I didn’t wanna tell you so that you wouldn’t get sad.
Mary: No, I won’t be sad. But I’m just worried. There’s lot of bandits along the way.
Jesus: Well, there isn’t much they can get out of me, if you’re worried about that…
Mary: Look, Jesus, before I forget: Susana wanted me to tell you to drop by her house because the wall in her house is falling apart….
Life in Nazareth was routinary: eat, work and sleep. The women enjoyed chatting and gossiping among themselves as they fetched water from the well. The children were used to running away from the classes that the old and blind rabbi would organize for them and they would go instead stealing fruits nearby. The menfolk would rather be at the small square adjoining the synagogue, waiting, as usual, for stingy Ananias to hire them for a planting or harvesting job. When there was no work available, they preferred to pass the time playing dice and placing bets they didn’t have money for. Or they would think of some way to earn a living, just like Jesus would do…
Jesus: Hey, Susana, this wall is now stronger than the walls of Jerusalem.
Susana: You’re finished? Oh, you’re wonderful… Come, bring this hen to your mother…
Jesus: Thanks, Susana. Bye!
Susana: Bye, Jesus. Say hello to Mary for me!
In the evening, everyone would retire into their respective homes, warm themselves by the stone furnaces, drink some soup and lie down atop the straw mats that served as their bed…
Jesus: Susana paid me with this hen. Now we’ve got something for tomorrow.
Mary: Tie it to this pole. Then, let’s have dinner. It’s getting late… Say grace, my son…
Jesus: But mother, these are the same lentils left over from lunch!
Mary: And so?
Jesus: Well, they’ve already been blessed!
Mary: How long will you be away…?
Jesus: I dunno…
Mary: But my son, why do you have to go to a place so far away? What good would you get over there?
Jesus: Nothing… But everybody wants to see and listen to John the prophet. I also wanna go… Besides, didn’t you tell me that he was a close kin of yours?
Mary: Yes, Isabel was my aunt. But in Galilee, you know that we are all related to each other.
Jesus: Well, I wanna meet that cousin! He is already a somebody now. I heard that people travel all the way from Jerusalem just to be baptized by him. They also say that John talks, shouts and spits fire from his mouth.
Mary: Careful or you’ll get burned… That is dangerous.
Jesus: What is dangerous?
Mary: What John is doing, agitating the people. Let him keep on talking and he’ll end up with his head chopped off like anyone claiming to be a prophet.
Jesus: I wish there were a thousand men like John, a thousand gutsy men who would tell people the truth.
Mary: Then there would be a thousand heads chopped off and a thousand mothers grieving for their sons. Remember the massacre in Sephoris. We almost suffered something similar.
Jesus: Age seems to have made a chicken out of you.
Mary: First, I’m no chicken. And second… neither am I that old… Come now, eat… Seriously Jesus… why do you really wanna go there?
Jesus: I’ll be back soon, promise.
Mary: I don’t think so. You get there, you start kiddin’ around, you become a friend of all those crazy people you meet and you don’t wanna leave them.
Jesus: Mother, I wanna go… I don’t know how to say it to you, but I just don’t like the way things are goin’ here. Fix a door today, install three bricks tomorrow, earn four dinari crushing grapes… Then afterwards, what?
Mary: I was heading in that direction. Then, what? That was what I wanted to say. What is it that you want, Jesus? A year passes by, another year ends and you haven’t yet decided what to do.
Jesus: I also want to do something so that things might change. Or don’t you see it? The Romans are oppressing us, people are getting hungrier all the time, the taxes are higher each time… And to top it all, the priests in Jerusalem are condoning all these abuses… Then, what? Shouldn’t we young Israelites join hands?
Mary: Yes, my son, I understand it now. But what can we poor people do? Listen: Forget those dreams and face reality. You’re already thirty. Now is the time to put your feet on the ground. I’m already alone… How I wish your father were still around… Oh, my good Joseph, may he rest in peace. Jesus, my son, where would I end up if something happens to you?
Jesus: Precisely just as I said. You have become a coward with the passing of time. Well then, weren’t you the one who always said: God will put down the proud and lift the humble ones; God will feed the hungry and leave the rich ones with empty hands.
Mary: Yes, Jesus, I know I said that, and I believe in that. Everyday I pray to the Lord to enable us poor people to get rid of this misery.
Jesus: Mother, praying isn’t enough. One has to take risks. One has to do something like John is doing.
Mary: So, you’ve really made up your mind. You wanna go to Jordan and join those revolutionary radicals. I won’t be surprised if one day they will tell me: Mary, your son has become a prophet. He’s roamin’ around and preaching too.
Jesus: Me, a prophet? Don’t worry about that. Words more useless than these tools would come out of me. No, I’m not cut out for that… Now, let’s finish these lentils because tomorrow, we will have chicken…
A few days later, Jesus rose early, folded his old tunic, grabbed a dry branch to serve as a cane and went on his way to the Jordan River where John the prophet was.
Jesus’ origins were as humble, poor and rustic as Nazareth was then, an unknown speck in the land of Israel, a land mentioned not even once in the Old Testament. “It” started there (Acts 10:37). From there came the one who announced that good news which was excitedly heard by the poor in Israel.
The narrative begins with the same words which John, Jesus’ friend, begins his first letter to the Christian communities: “What I saw with my eyes….” They were the apostles, witnesses to the life and Passion of Jesus that they brought forth to our time through their writings and through the communities that created the Good News. Two thousand years ago, it echoed all over Israel.
During Jesus’ time, Nazareth – “flower” in Hebrew – was a small village in the interior of Galilee where some twenty families lived. It being a village founded on a hill, the people used the openings on the slopes to build their dwellings. There was extreme poverty. “Properties” of those families were not more than a pair of straw mats, some clay containers where they could store grain and oil, as well as food for some animals.
The Galileans (who lived up north) were considered by the Israelites of the south (Judea) as a quarrelsome people, with little respect for religious laws and traditions. The region was a lair of activist guerillas who regularly organized revolts against the Romans. Nazareth did not boast of anything, and being a notorious village, it was an unlikely place for the Messiah to come from (Jn 1:46).
In modern times, owing to Christian history, Nazareth has become the capital of Galilee, where some 30,000 people live, most of them Christian Arabs. The biggest building in modern Nazareth is the Basilica of the Annunciation which Paul VI inaugurated in 1964. What used to be the “walls” (rear part of the cave) of the house where the family of Mary, mother of Jesus, dwelt are preserved inside. An inscription dating back to the beginning of the second century was discovered there. It reads: “Xe Maria” (God save you, Mary!). It gives credence to the historical authenticity of the place. The well, to which Mary and her neighbors would daily go to fetch water, and which has always supplied water to the village, has been preserved. The source is located inside a small Greek Christian Orthodox church. Moreover, one can see the remains of what was once the cemetery in Nazareth during Jesus’ time and where, no doubt, his ancestors were buried.
Mary was around forty-five-years old when Jesus began to announce the Good News. Like all rural women, she would be, at that age, a woman spent by hard work, yet full of common wisdom regarding the usual sorrows and joys in life. Her hands would have been calloused, she would have been modestly-dressed, and like all women of her class in Israel, she would have been illiterate. She was a poor woman who, like the faithful people belonging to “Yahweh’s poor,” had placed all her faith in God. Like all mothers, she worried about her son running into danger, “entering politics.”
It was a tradition in Israel that men and women alike married young. That Jesus was still unmarried at thirty, was somewhat shocking to his neighbors as well as to his own mother. Singlehood, virginity or celibacy, the way they are understood these days by those who practice them, were not values esteemed in the society Jesus lived in.
Susana, Mary’s friend, is one person whose name is recorded by the Gospel of Luke when it talks about the women who accompanied Jesus when he preached in the villages and towns of his country (Lk 8:3). Community relationships in a small town were marked with strong bonds and everyone was practically a member of the family, or at least, people knew everyone’s life and problems quite well.
Jesus’ profession, like Joseph’s, has been limited traditionally to being a carpenter. However, the original word used by Mark means more like a “handy man” (Mk 6:3). Jesus would work on wood as he would make tools and fix doors. He would also plant and harvest as a daily wage earner. For our culture, his social condition would be more like that of an underemployed.
“Moreno” (bronze-skinned) is the fond nickname given to Jesus in this narrative. Jesus’ semitic origins suggest a dark brown complexion, and some features which, like those of Arab extraction, would have little to do with the images that make him appear as a fair-complexioned, blond-haired and blue-eyed person.
Mary is a widow at this point in Jesus’ life. There are no data to prove this, but Christian tradition has assumed her widowhood. Her being a widow makes her more cautious, more “cowardly.” Likewise, she would be closer to her son.
Jesus went hungry and sweated by working. He had friends, he cried, laughed and got tired like all of us. Not different from us, he also sought his place under the sun and entertained doubts regarding his own destiny, surrounded as he then was by weakness (Heb 5:3). John’s prophetic preaching was a calling for him, a decisive moment during his search for a place in the sun. He slowly discovered his vocation, the same way as it happens to many individuals who, in their giving up everything to God and to their brothers and sisters, deepen their commitment and become what God wants them to be.