Listening to the Fifth Gospel

The sun-baked ruins of the Holy Land have a story to tell

My Israeli government guide was in a hurry. "Now we must go," he said. "We have only a few minutes. We have much to see." But I wanted to stop the fast-forward blur of ancient stones and modern resorts, freeze-frame the past, and try to enter it.

Standing in the ancient synagogue in Capernaum only steps from the lapping tides of Galilee, I refused to move. This is one of the most sure sites of Jesus' ministry. And one of the less pilgrimized. Here there is no Crusader church, no darkening dome covering the sacred ground, no flickering candle glow, no redolence of incense, no local guides urgently pressing you into their service. Here there is only the sunlight and the stones. A few walls, an impressive stand of roofless columns, some stone steps and benches, bearing the marks of use and neglect since the fourth century. A bare, ruined choir where once devout men read aloud the Holy Word and fervently disputed its meaning.

Here I wanted to pause and listen to the stones, to stand and touch them, as I had once paused by that great black rock sunk into the turf in our nation's capital and had run my fingers over the names of those who had died in the unofficial war of my youth. As I had then sought to find my soul's connection with a fallen generation, named so simply in black granite, so now I wanted to hear the echoes of the anonymous faithful who had cried here for deliverance from the Roman oppressor.

Just beneath these fourth-century stones lie buried the remnants of an earlier place of prayer, destroyed perhaps by legionnaires in the Roman wars. Unlike the ruins in which I stand, it probably sported no carved columns, little or none of the formal architecture of public gathering places. But it was graced with a young man's ...

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