Holy Land Day Four

Holy Land – Day Four

Mar Elias Work Morning

To beat the heat, we all got up around 6 AM and were out weeding/clearing a couple of parcels of land on the campus by 6:30 AM. It was still so humid that we gave up plenty of sweat, but we got more than half the work done before breakfast at 8:30 AM.

One of the plots of land had a small row of olive trees that the students harvest each year, so our job was to clear the “canopy” for each tree so they’d be able to drop the olives to the ground and pick them up.

mar elias olive grove day three
This is our “before” picture of the little olive tree grove, nestled into the hillside of the Mar Elias campus. You can see some of I’billin in the distance.
Here are some of our crew clearing out the “weeds.” We needed major tools and muscle for this job!
mar elias uphill to guesthouse
The grove of olive trees was about halfway up the campus. Our guesthouse was up this hill — a long walk for breakfast!

Down the drive a bit was another plot of land that had much younger trees…maybe fruit trees. And a bench. Three ladies from our team went ahead of the rest of us to start working there, only discover that a sprinkler had been on, so the area was completely muddy. There’s something we didn’t expect! These women worked SO hard and got covered in mud, but they opened up a path to the bench. We decided that was good enough.

After breakfast “Team 1” finished the olive grove and “Team 2” moved on to the prayer labyrinth that needed much TLC – weeding and sweeping, mostly. When the work was done, we all felt really proud. And ready for showers!

mar elias labyrinth.jpg
The prayer labyrinth is cleared and reopened for use!

Working alongside people really gives you the opportunity to see multiple sides of their personalities. We had the jokester, the singer, the encourager, the get-‘er-done-’er, and the task master (aka: delegator). All joking aside…everyone worked really hard!

A Holy Day – The Day of the Cross

Today was actually a school holiday, so our work was done without audience, which was nice.  (We may or may not have looked and smelled less than our best…)

The holiday is a Christian one called The Day of the Cross, and it commemorates the “finding of the cross.” The students at Mar Elias the day before couldn’t believe that as Christians we don’t observe the holiday. Not sure if we confessed that we’d actually never heard of it.

I heard two different descriptions of where the “finding of the cross” holiday originated. One version goes back to the days of Emperor Constantine, who’d made Christianity the national religion throughout the Roman Empire. He sent his mother, Helena, to the Holy Land to find as many “cross relics” as possible, and it’s said that she found pieces of the actual cross of Jesus in 326 AD. So this annual feast commemorates her great discovery.

Our guide told another version, where in 614 AD the Persians invaded the Holy Land and destroyed most of the holy places, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. They took all the holy relics, including the piece of the cross Helena had donated. Twenty years later the Persians were defeated, and the relics of the cross were returned to Jerusalem by the soldiers. Upon hearing the news, the excited people of Jerusalem lit fires to help guide the troops back home, so today people light big fires and shoot off fireworks to commemorate the cross relics’ homecoming.

Either way, the night of the Day of the Cross in I’billin was filled with fireworks, which we watched from the roof of our building, and we could see neon crosses displayed on homes across I’billin. It was fun to see the city at night and experience a little of their culture…even from a rooftop.

Sindyanna Co-op

Thursday afternoon we headed to a special place where Arab and Jewish women come together to work. Sindyanna is a co-op that is intentional to give women a way to come together and earn a living. East of I’billin in a small city, Sindyanna inhabits the top floor of a warehouse-type building.

sindyanna day four

When I walked in I was overtaken by the American feel of this shop. Pretty, bright green walls with the simple, yet beautiful (and effective) logo of the co-op painted in white. It smelled so fresh and felt so inviting.

We were ushered into a small room with seats along the walls. After watching a short film that explained what Sindyanna is, we had the opportunity to speak, via our tour guide/translator, with a Muslim woman who works in the co-op.

sindyanna woman day four

She shared that she grew up with certain assumptions and feelings about Jewish people, but it didn’t take long to realize that Jewish women have more in common with her than she would have ever dreamed. She pointed out she’d never seen a Jew before coming to Sindyanna, and now she enjoys working alongside them. She said she’d learned Hebrew in school (like at Mar Elias), and was so glad she knew the language so she could communicate with her new Jewish friends.

This woman was taught how to make baskets and is now a teacher for other women as they come to the co-op to work. Some women work in the warehouse, bottling and shipping the organic olive oil that Sindyanna is famous for. We learned in the video presentation that they partner with local farmers to purchase their olives, and they have two organic olive groves they have planted and now tend, as well.

As we spoke with her and asked questions, we came to understand that her family had been skeptical of her decision to work outside the home, but now that their family has seen the benefit of her income and relationships, they fully support her. She told us her daughters are very proud of her and her husband encourages her.

syndyanna jewish woman day four

The Jewish woman and man who were also there as part of the presentation spoke English, and they were able to answer questions, too, and then they taught us a little about olive oil – such as olive oil has three enemies: heat, light, and oxygen; and, if you can get olive oil to warm up in your hand, the aromas come to life and the tastes of pepper and spices become bolder. Then we practiced what he taught us. It was very good olive oil!

After that everyone purchased all kinds of goodies, especially olive oil. They also sold Zafraat, which is a spice we’d been eating at Mar Elias. I think it’s made up of hyssop, thyme, and sesame seeds. One way we’d eaten it was to sprinkle it into olive oil to dip in our bread. Yum!


Just down the road we exited the bus in a town the Arabs call Kfar Kana. We would call it Cana, the village in which Jesus and his mother attended a wedding, and Jesus changed the water to wine – his first miracle.

Honestly, we didn’t get to see much of the city itself – we hopped off the bus, crossed a very busy street, and walked down what felt like an alley but was more of a wide sidewalk. Lining the sidewalk were vendors, old buildings, and churches.

cana day four

We turned left into a Catholic Church that was built atop an old Byzantine Church, which was built on the site where the famous Cana wedding took place.

cana church day four

Inside you could see the remains of the home where the wedding had been hosted, and we saw a huge stone water jar that would have been similar to the six jars Jesus used to turn water to wine. We walked through a huge group of Polish tourists as we passed through the church. It was so fun listening to their guide talk to them!

A little known fact about Cana – remember the Roman centurion who traveled to Capernaum to ask Jesus to heal his son? And Jesus did. Just by speaking the words. Well, that son who was healed was way over in, you guessed it, Cana!

We were able to sit under a nice, shady spot to hear one of the pastors in our group offer a biblical reading from John about Jesus’ first miracle. He challenged us to see the miracle as Jesus’ way of displaying the kingdom of God in Himself and to think of how we might display God’s kingdom in ourselves to others.

cana block day four
The street across from our bus’s location.
back to bus cana day four
Beyond our bus in the foreground, you can see a few buildings of Cana. In the background, the hills are also full of homes and buildings. Do you see the black tanks on the rooftops (on the left side in foreground)? Those are for water storage and heating.

As we left Cana, I couldn’t help but think the small town looked like every other small Arab town we’d driven through. You wouldn’t know the special place of Jesus’ first miracle to visit there if you didn’t know the story. The church sitting atop this special site wasn’t out on the main road for all to see. We had to go looking for it, tucked in among all the little shops and other churches. Christ is a little like that, is He not? Always there but not making Himself overly obvious. We have to go seek Him. And when we find Him, tucked away in the depth of our hearts, we know we’ve found a treasure.


Anyone remember what Nazareth is famous for? Yup, this is where Jesus grew up. Remembering that Jesus is the Son of God, the long-awaited Messiah, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, we might expect that He would be born in Jerusalem, the city of David’s palace and Solomon’s temple for God. But, alas, not only was Jesus born in the smallest, least known city, Bethlehem, but He grew up in a lousy town, according to some experts sitting around me. Nathaniel’s famous response when he heard that Jesus was from Nazareth reflected the general view of the tiny village in Jesus’ day, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (see John 1:46).

Well, today Nazareth is the largest Arab city in Israel. It’s the first city I’ve seen on this trip that has such obvious old and new paradox – you look left and see something that’s 1000s of years old, then look right and see a brand new McDonalds! It happens all over the place in this country, but I never get used to it! And I think I don’t want to – it’s part of the awe-inspiring experience here.

nazareth mcdonalds day four

As we drove in, it surprised me a little that, as our guide pointed out a significant feature in Nazareth, we had to look down to see it. We were higher up, looking down into a valley of sorts. Well, actually, I’m told it’s more of a hollow. And this hidden hollow among the hills of Galilee would’ve provided a great place for Jesus to grow up – off the beaten path, small, and protected. It offered Him a place to “increase in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” (see Luke 2:52).

That “feature” our guide pointed out to us was the Basilica of the Annunciation. And it did stand out with its tall, domed top. It was fun to see it later close-up.

In Nazareth we church-hopped, seeing four different churches in a short time-span. Each was beautiful, inside and out. And each had a cool story.

First, we saw the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, which would feel a lot like a Catholic church were we to attend a service. Our guide happened to be Greek Orthodox, and he told us that they (Greek Orthodox) celebrate the same feasts and have similar chants (no music) as the Catholics.

He shared that part of the Greek Orthodox way of thinking is that Mary, as a woman, would have been out getting water at the well (as that was a woman’s job back in the day), so that would be a likely place for Gabriel, the angel, to catch her by herself. And this particular church is built on top of the ONLY fresh spring in Nazareth, which means it’s very likely the spot where Gabriel would have announced (hence, “Annunciation”) to Mary that she was to have a baby, the Messiah.

greek ortho church naz day four

The church itself is absolutely beautiful and highly ornate. Every space had some sort of painting, ornamentation, or decoration. The iconostas (our new word for the day) is the wall that separates the worshipers from what they call the Holy of Holies, like the space in the original temple. The iconostas in every Greek Orthodox Church will have a door at the center that only priests can enter, and only men can be priests – that means no woman has or ever will enter this space.

Try to picture the iconostas as a wooden wall that spans the width of the pulpit and altar area. Its panels form frame-like structures around beautiful artwork that is very symmetrical. There are four of icons in the same locations in every Greek Orthodox Church: the Lord will always be to the right of that center door, and to the right of the Lord is John the Baptist. To the left of the door is Mary, who will always be portrayed with Baby Jesus (never alone), and to the left of Mary is a picture of the saint of that particular church. Our guide told us that they don’t describe the creation of the iconostas as “painting” but as “writing” because in the early days icons were the method used to teach the Bible.

From there we took about a 15-minute walk through part of Nazareth on our way to the center of old-town Nazareth, like where the market and synagogue would have been. As I look back on it, this 15-minute walk was one of my favorite things we did on the trip, and I think it’s because we got off the beaten path and saw where people live and shop. Nothing much touristy about it. Yea! Here’s a little bit of what we saw on our walk:

naz walk day four

nazareth alley day four

key nazareth day four
We turned a corner and came upon this painted wall. At first glance, I thought, “How nice. This is well done.” But upon further inspection, I started to see a lot of symbolism, much of which would come to mean more to me in the coming days.
nazareth wall day four
As I continued down the sidewalk to look at more of this wall, I paused to read. Here was a memorial, commemorating the very event Father Chacour’s book had documented. A certain reverence settled over me, and I started to see the city and people around me with humility.

nazareth market day four

In fact, where we went to next was very much in the heart of the current market and was called The Synagogue Church. Funny enough, this was a Christian church marking the site of the Nazareth synagogue where Jesus and his family would have attended every week, hence we get the name Synagogue Church. It’s a Crusader Church building now owned by the Melkite Catholic Church – does that sound familiar? Yes, that’s the church Father Chacour is part of.

nazareth synagogue church day four

Standing outside this small church, another pastor in our group read to us from Luke 4, which is the story of Jesus coming out of the wilderness after his forty days of fasting. And He headed home to Nazareth. There He visited the synagogue “as was his custom,” which was when Jesus took the scroll of Isaiah 61 and read aloud to everyone the prophecy, then told them it was fulfilled that day in Him.

That remarkable day in the synagogue, Jesus was telling His listeners (and us) what He’s about and asking them (and us!) what we will do about it. He left the synagogue and headed to Capernaum, another Galilean city where Peter had a home and Jesus stayed frequently. All over the city of Capernaum today are signs that read “Jesus’ city,” but ironically, in Jesus’ day the people of Capernaum were not moved or changed by His actions and words. As a result, Jesus spoke a curse over the city as He left. (More on Capernaum later).

The third church we visited was the Basilica of the Annunciation. You might recognize the word “annunciation” from the first church we saw in Nazareth, and that’s because this church is on the site thought to be the holy family’s home – where Jesus would have lived in his growing up years. And because of that fact, this church believes it could be the site where the angel, Gabriel, announced to Mary her chosen-ness. At least we do know that somewhere in Nazareth this divine conversation occurred, and we visited two places where it could have occurred.

nazareth basillica church day four

The Basilica itself is very large – this was the church our guide had pointed out to us as we drove into Nazareth earlier – and it stands out as much up close as it did from a distance.

Inside, the thing that stood out about this church to me were all the artistic renderings of Mary on the walls, nicely done in the same sized panels around the sanctuary. Each “Mary” was created by an artist from a different country – France, Canada, and even America. Each country’s version was unique and reflected well its country’s customs and looks. I was enthralled looking at each of them. It was an up-close-and-personal lesson in ethnocentricism – each likeness of Mary looking like the people of the country who created it.

mary panels nazareth day four

Then we went downstairs to see the Holy Family’s dwelling, which had a cave-like quality about it. We can’t forget that everything here is either made of stone or was hewn from stone. It was interesting to imagine that Mary, Joseph, and their children would have lived here.

The fourth church we toured was St. Joseph’s Church. Finally, Joseph got some recognition!  We learned that Joseph’s occupation in Greek is called a “teknon,” which means he worked with his hands and implies he was a jack-of-all-trades. This would mean he was probably a carpenter and a stone mason and maybe even a few other trades. The church itself is built over some ruins that would have been a workshop of some sort and included stone silos, which would have stored grains. It’s asserted that these could have been Joseph’s workshop and storage silos, but of course there’s no way to know for sure.

If you start to find yourself feeling frustrated about churches always saying that “this could have been the site of…” but not being able to say for sure, well, you’re not alone. But what I’ve learned after being here is that without the churches having “venerated” these sacred sites (in other words, have been built upon and made holy), then the ruins and places wouldn’t have survived all the wars and invasions and destructions over the thousands of years. So as we enter these places, it is with a grateful heart that we recognize them as a means of seeing what life was like in biblical times.

We ended our afternoon in Nazareth on a short walk from the last church, passing a few more shops that were becoming more and more familiar to us.

nazareth street day four

Our guide took us to a quaint little shop that literally shared a wall with the Basilica. Here we sat on the back patio enjoying refreshing cups of fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice and lemonade. Surreal.

naz pomegranate drinks day four

As we left our refreshing respite, it seemed we’d only taken a few steps when before us lay a busy, urban street, lined with stores not so unfamiliar to us, the American tourists. I continue to marvel at the juxtaposition of the old and new here.

On the bus I found myself a little sad. Our final night in Mar Elias came all too quickly.

back to mar elias day three

I had this calm assurance that we were on the path God had set for us, but I also knew we’d only scratched the surface of seeing all the places and meeting all the people we could have in this part of Israel.

back to our rooms mar elias day three
This is the view of our “guest house” as we’d walk up the hill. Notice the murals in the foreground. Many schools and centers for kids encourage art for Palestinian students as a way of expressing their faith, pain, and hope. We would see much more of this in coming days.

Back at Mar Elias, we enjoyed a dinner of fine homemade Arab cuisine, packed, and slept. Morning always comes quickly here!

Published by Shelley Linn Johnson

Lover of The Word. And words. Cultivator of curiosity about all things Christ. Lifelong learner who likes inviting others along for the journey. Recovering perfectionist who has only recently realized that rhythms are so much better than stress-inducing must-do's.

One thought on “Holy Land Day Four

  1. Amazing! Very educational for me. Never knew any of this! Love your story!! I wanna go experience all of this! 😁

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