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Published October 19, 2013, 05:08 PM

Walking the Jesus Trail: Paths from Nazareth to Sea of Galilee inspire reflection

NAZARETH, Israel - We climbed the narrow streets of Jesus’ boyhood home in Nazareth and looked out from a steep ridge. Did he really walk here?

By: Stewart Herman, Special to The Forum, INFORUM

NAZARETH, Israel - We climbed the narrow streets of Jesus’ boyhood home in Nazareth and looked out from a steep ridge. Did he really walk here?

A broad valley winds northeast toward the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus anchored his ministry. Less than three miles away, we saw Sepphoris (now Zippori), where he and his father, Joseph, might have worked. This formerly elegant city was the biggest local building project in Jesus’ day, even if for some mysterious reason it is never mentioned in the Gospels.

Standing there, we were tempted to imagine where Jesus walked because the hills of Galilee probably look much as they did in his time, with lots of olive groves and rocky pastures. The terrain provides little shade from the blazing sun of summer. To walk is to thirst – and maybe for more than water.

The Jesus Trail was laid out five years ago as a chain of paths and dirt roads that wander some 40 miles from Nazareth down to Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee.

In 2012, I hiked it with my college-age daughter and a seminary friend. Our four-day walk took place in June, which is almost high summer and definitely off-season for most hikers. We had the trail almost entirely to ourselves.

Nazareth, a largely Muslim city on a steep hillside, is most famous for the enormous concrete Basilica of the Annunciation, claiming the spot where Mary heard the angel Gabriel announce that she would give birth to Jesus.

We were eager to see Sepphoris, which was destroyed and rebuilt during the time of Jesus and later became a center of Jewish learning. To uncover the ruins, an Arab village was removed – one of many sore memories scarring this land. A small Crusader fort is the only building standing, while the ruins of a nearby Roman villa house an exquisite mosaic floor.

Our route took us across hilly pastures of tawny grass and olive groves to the handsome city of Cana, where we spent the first night. A thick stone jar 5 feet tall reminded us of Jesus’ first miracle: turning water into wine at a wedding feast. It’s prominently displayed in the “Franciscan wedding church.” Not surprisingly, a wedding was going on at the time of our visit.

From Cana we hiked through a national forest of scrubby trees marred by the dumping of much garbage, a smelly reminder that the Jesus Trail wanders through civilizations ancient and modern, not through wilderness. Still, civilization has its advantages; many houses we saw were graced with magnificent flowery plantings.

Our next overnight stop was Kibbutz Lavi, a green hilltop settlement whose inhabitants support themselves by farming and manufacturing furniture for Jewish synagogues around the world. A solemn Holocaust memorial is built into the side of the hill, and the community hall features a miniature “Western Wall” for praying and a shelf of booklets, one to record the life of each member of the kibbutz who has passed on.

We admired the sober, productive atmosphere of the kibbutz but experienced a darker moment when our guide, a grandmotherly original pioneer in her 80s, expressed contempt for the Arab neighbors who refuse to sell their land to the kibbutz.

We saw other signs that the Holy Land was – and remains – a contested land. From Kibbutz Lavi it was a few miles through flat fields to the “Horns of Hattin.” At this shallow bowl of volcanic rock, the Muslim armies commanded by Saladin in 1187 inflicted a crushing defeat on the Crusader army from Europe. No sign of the battle was evident.

Now we were at the climax of the trip. We climbed Arbel, a 700-foot-high promontory that provides a stunning view across the Sea of Galilee, now called Kinnaret. The large lake was colored a magical azure blue against the buff-colored hills that surround it.

We clambered down from Arbel and spent our third and last night at Migdalen, home of Mary the Magdalene, now a fancy suburb.

The Jesus Trail cuts through endless orchards, but we found a little-used trail alongside a lake with a dreamy look under the intense midday sun. Its western shore is dotted with famous sites closely associated by tradition with Jesus’ ministry.

We stopped at Tabgha, where Jesus may have enabled his fisherman disciples to haul in a huge load of fish; now pilgrims now come to scoop up water and carry it home. Then we passed the low grassy brow where Jesus may have preached the Sermon on the Mount.

Our last stop was Capernaum, the home base of Jesus’ Galilean ministry. We looked down upon a densely packed warren of rooms and walls, including what plausibly was the house of Jesus’ most famous disciple, Peter. A little further on, Jesus’ ministry seemed most beautifully memorialized by a tiny Greek Orthodox church with walls and ceiling covered with brand-new, bold and iconic painting, and a beautiful pergola opening onto the lake.

So did Jesus walk here? Most certainly, even if not on the Jesus Trail itself. His footsteps are visible mostly in what the hiker imagines and remembers from the Gospels, but there are more than enough traces – more than enough history – to inspire reflection upon what Jesus continues to mean in our complex and conflicted world today.

Stewart Herman teaches religion and ethics at Concordia College in Moorhead