It has such a richness in its name - Nazareth, the village where Jesus grew up. But Nazareth in 2009 is a far different place than it was 2,000 years ago. It is a place that mixes holy sites with some of the hard realities of contemporary Israel.
There are the well known holy sites, like the Church of the Annunciation, commemorating the story of Gabriel, God' messenger, telling her that she would conceive a son who would be God's ultimate revelation to humanity.
But just down the street is the convent of the Sisters of Nazareth, a French order of Catholic nuns who came to this city in 1855 to teach Palestinian girls. About 30 years later, in 1884, a worker cleaning a cistern discovered the underground remnants of what has been identified as a first century Nazareth home and burial crypt.
Sr. Marguerite, who guided us through the passages beneath the convent, told us there were about 40 homes in Nazareth in the first century. While there is no evidence that this was the home of Joseph and Mary and their son, Jesus, their home would have been similar to this one. And since the families were pretty well interconnected, it is reasonable to assume that Jesus at least visited this home.
Off to one side, deeper in the earth, is a tomb honored over the years as "the tomb of the righteous one." Again, there is no evidence who that might be, but the speculation of course runs toward Joseph, Mary's husband, known as "a righteous man." (Matthew 1:19) Sr. Marguerite was careful not to make any claims in that direction, but the twinkle in her eyes offered the tantalizing possibility.
We darted through a rare rainstorm up the hill to Nazareth Village, a modern re-creation of a first century Jewish village. But the real story of Nazareth came over an authentic lunch -- lentil soup, cabbage salad, apples with date dip -- we shared with Gosayna Karam, a staff member at Nazareth Village. Both she and her husband grew up in Nazareth, they were married in a grand ceremony in the Church of the Annunciation and they are raising their four children there. But she spent part of her life growing up in Australia and their first three children were born in the San Francisco area.
She talked about the mixed blessings of life for Palestinians in Nazareth. She values the closeness of family ties, which means that even when someone is unemployed, they are cared for by their extended family. There are no homeless people here, she said. The Israeli health care system covers everyone, even those without jobs, Arabs and Jews equally.
But the education system - that is another story. Schools receive four times the amount of government aid for a Jewish child as for an Arab child. The curriculum is dictated by the government and ignores any sense of Palestinian history. While Gosayna appreciates that her children are learning four languages -- Arab, Hebrew, English and French -- she is dismayed by the teaching style that emphasized facts but not learning. She lamented classes of 40 children all expected to look straight ahead, teachers who yelled rather than encouraged, homework for even young children that stretches into four hours a night.
Nazareth is a predominantly Arab village -- now with a Muslim majority, but still with a significant Christian presence. A new city just up the hill - Nazareth Illite -- is a Jewish city with far better facilities provided by the government. But at least here, the existence of Palestinians is acknowledged. When we talked about our visit to Biram, the Palestinian village that has virtually been obliterated from Israeli consciousness, she told of many other Palestinian villages that are no longer acknowledged by the Israeli government, which means no more building permits, no electricity, no running water. She said that Palestinian aid organizations work to help residents there.
Such is the story of Nazareth. The tourists come to visit holy sites. Doing the work Jesus talked about -- embracing all across social and political boundaries, caring for those in need -- goes on in less visible places.
It's not all that different from what Jesus did in those relatively obscure years he lived in Nazareth, doing the work of God even when he was not being noticed.