The Scriptural Holy Land, today most generally known as the Republic of Israel, was, in the time of Christ, easily divided into three portions. Judea, on the south bordering Egypt, was quite solidly Jewish, boasting the noted Biblical cities of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Jericho and enduring a much barren wilderness. Samaria was the province just north of Judea with a similar climate and but with a less severe geography and supporting a quite culturally different population. Samaritans were considered “half-breeds’ by traditional Jews since over the centuries these people had intermarried with their Babylonian, Assyrian, Persian and Greek conquerors. Shechem was the area’s most notable city.
The northernmost province of Israel is Galilee, well-known to Bible readers for the often mentioned cities of Nazareth, Cana and Capernaum. Much New Testament activity takes place along the Sea of Galilee. Jesus was a Galilean, not by birth, but certainly by heritage and time spent in the locale. Both Mary and Joseph made their home in Galilee. Galilee is a strikingly verdant region of the Holy Land. St. John could well write, “Now there was much grass in that place,” when recounting the miracle of the loaves. But Galilee could never quite overcome the notion that the region was the sticks and its citizens were hicks. Urbanized Judea could boast the Temple, the priesthood, the sacrifices and the annual pilgrimages. Other than abundant crops and plentiful fish, Galilee knew little glory. Recall the cynical words of Nathaniel, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
The prophet Isaiah testifies to Galilee’s ill repute when he writes about Galilee, “First the Lord degraded the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali; but in the end he has glorified the seaward road, the land west of the Jordan, the District of the Gentiles.” Foreign armies, notably Syrians, had settled in Galilee after their conquests and the region was sometimes referenced as “Galilee of the Gentiles.” But the Jewish population had not intermarried with the foreign visitors as happened in Samaria. The Galilean Jewish community was quite vibrant, led indeed by the Pharisees who were not priests, but rather Scripture scholars, answering more to their local Galilean synagogues rather than Jerusalem’s grand Temple.
Isaiah foresaw the vindication of Galilee’s faithful through the attentive ministry of Christ who would spend most of his three years of preaching and miracle working in this northern region, rarely visiting inhospitable Judea. Isaiah wrote, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone. You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing, as they rejoice before you as at the harvest, as people make merry when dividing spoils.” St. Matthew would quote these verses of Isaiah in the Gospel passage to be read this coming Sunday.
Although bred in centrally located Nazareth, Christ made his adult headquarters along the lakeside Galilean city of Capernaum. Eleven of the twelve Apostles were rustic Galileans; only Judas was a city-dweller.
As St. Matthew observes, Jesus was truly at home in Galilee: “He went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people.” Yet Galilee’s importance in the life of the Savior was not just a matter of familiarity or convenience. Jesus’ attachment to this northern province, to this “Galilee of the Gentiles,” was a powerful statement about the universality of salvation. Christ’s message and, more importantly, the saving graces of his Passion, Death and Resurrection were intended for all peoples, not only Jesus’ fellow Jews.
Christ was not on earth simply to reinvigorate Judaism. The Temple, the sacrifices, the Jewish priesthood, the holy days and the synagogue had served their purpose. And while God would never renege on His promises to the Jewish people as Vatican II clearly asserts, the Galilean ministry of Jesus radically broadened the Gospel’s appeal toward all peoples everywhere. In the spirit of the recent feast of the Epiphany, Eastern Magi, Cana’s wedding guests, the Baptist’s repentant sinners, and now the people of Galilee were happily being offered the opportunity to encounter Jesus in person. Guided by church doctrine, religious ritual and moral guidance, the true Christian personally and wholeheartedly meets and embraces Jesus Christ as Messiah, Savior, and Lord. Christianity is not a matter of geography or nationality. Christianity is a matter of Good News for peoples everywhere.
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