Nazareth was a place of little consequence

Published December 1, 2003

On a recent trip to England (a too frequent occurrence this year!) I saw a newspaper item in which a columnist reports about an encounter with a friend who was in some distress. The columnist wrote, “The reason for this upset was because he was steeling himself to take a brave step. ‘I am preparing’ he confessed, ‘to come out as a Canadian.’ We offer our moral support in this difficult time.” That comment reminded me of a BBC-4 broadcast I heard once when I was driving in England. It was an interview show and the host said, “Our next guest is (if this is not too much of an oxymoron) an interesting Canadian.” I should not get upset by these things. It is simply the classic, supercilious, somewhat quaint, English condescension towards colonials. And I suppose it is better to be on the receiving end of gentle sneers than outright hostility or violence that so many people of other nationalities endure. I wonder what would happen if these commentators had substituted for the word “Canadian” a designation like “Jew” or “Pakistani.” All hell, and a heap of litigation, would break out. But suppose we substitute for – Canada – in these stories the word – Nazareth – Some quite different scenarios begin to emerge. Nazareth was a place of little consequence, to put it mildly. There is no reference at all to it in the Hebrew scriptures. But it is clearly identified with Jesus – most of the references in the gospels and the book of Acts to Nazareth are in the phrase “Jesus of Nazareth.” John, alone among the gospel writers, even tells us that the word – Nazareth – appeared on the identifying notice on the cross. (The other writers say only “Jesus, King of the Jews”.) The two gospel writers, Matthew and Luke, who say anything about the birth of Jesus make it absolutely clear that he was born in Bethlehem, and even John refers to his coming from Bethlehem. Luke states clearly that Mary and Joseph came from Nazareth to Bethlehem at the time Jesus was born. Matthew, on the other hand, suggests strongly that Joseph and the family moved to Nazareth after Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (and the exile in Egypt ) as if they had never been there before. However we piece together these bits of the Christmas story, one thing seems clear: that even though Jesus is often referred to as “of Nazareth,” there are some attempts to distance him from that connection. Bethlehem had class, Nazareth did not. But the clearest evidence of the snooty attitude towards Nazareth comes from the mouth of Nathanael. Philip had told him of this great person he had met “Jesus of Nazareth” and Nathanael replied loftily, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” So Jesus shared the fate of countless others since – the disdain that is attached to a label. Nathanael knew nothing of Jesus and wrote him off because he came from a place that was clearly beyond the pale. So when we sing songs like “O little town of Bethlehem” we need to remember that behind all these stories is an entire legacy of labelling that is as alive today as it was then. Sometimes it is simply a minor irritant, as in the case of English snobbishness towards us. Sometimes, as in apartheid days in South Africa, it is a matter of life and death. But above and through it all is the glorious reality that God chose to come into the world in the infant of Bethlehem (and the man of Nazareth!) and take the worst that the world can do. And that Christ is alive today. Archbishop Michael Peers is primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.


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