Today, December 1, 2013, happens to be the first Sunday of Advent. I am neither Catholic, nor any too observant a Christian when it comes to the so-called Christian holidays (none of which are enjoined in the New Testament). Nevertheless, there is an unavoidable Collective Conscious in the world which, at this time of year, seems receptive of at least the poetry of the Christmas story. On that basis, BadEagle.com shall present some thoughts between now and Christmas (December 25) regarding certain neglected, if not exotic, aspects of Christmastide. We trust that the Collective Conscious is not averse to the personal reality intended in the story of Jesus, nor that it should obscure or preclude true spiritual life in the soul.
On the Day of Pentecost, (Shavuot, the harvest feast, the fiftieth day after Passover), the disciple Peter gave two sermons in which he uses the names “Jesus of Nazareth” (Acts 2:22) and “Jesus Christ of Nazareth” (Acts 3:6). A treasure of hidden spirituality is contained in the name “Nazareth.” Let’s examine it’s significance.
The word “nazareth” comes from an older Hebrew word, נזר (nâzîr), meaning separate, or consecrated. It was first used in Numbers 6.2, in reference to nazarite vows. This was entirely voluntary, but it involved serious religious commitment, abstinence from various normal and legitimate indulgences, etc. The point is, the word was associated with special efforts in righteousness.
Most interestingly, a great aberration, or distortion, of the associations developed at the time of Christ (1st century AD). It is written in the gospel of John (1:46) that a local Galilean expressed the general estimation of a town called Nazareth: “Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Here we have a town named for righteousness, but a reputation for the antithesis, scum and villainy. It seems to have been known as a crime center of low-life in the region.
According to Marcello Craveri, in his 1967 quasi-anti-Christian masterpiece, The Life of Jesus (Grove Press), there is no record whatsoever of any “Nazareth” in Galilee or anywhere else, until the time of Jesus. It isn’t even mentioned in any writings contemporary of the gospels (p.3). Now, the synoptic gospel narratives were written in the ’60′s, AD. This would imply that Nazareth was essentially an unimportant kibbutz of some kind, a new settlement that popped up some time before Joseph decided to move there and set up a carpenter’s shop. Of course, Matthew’s reason (2:23) for Joseph moving there is not exactly founded in scripture.
John’s gospel, written in the early ’90′s, AD, is where we find the social, moral assessment of the town. This is a generation after the synoptics, and two generations after Jesus. The reputation of Nazareth was yet foul. Craveri makes no mention of any such sociology.
So, when and why did Nazareth turn nasty? Why on earth would Joseph take his precious son there if it was already gross? These are difficult questions. But, let’s consider just the significance of the sociological associations with the town “Nazareth.”
In today’s modern world, the civilized world, congregant populations are much, much larger than those the ancient kibbutzim. All great cities have crime-ridden areas, of course. Historically, we might say that, in a unique way, the large immigrant sections of America’s eastern seaboard cities were like kibbutzim, in that they rose rapidly. However, sections of New York, and later Chicago, in which great numbers of Italians, Jews, or Irish amassed, were not so well-planned or cared for. The people looked after themselves, as it were. Thus, gangs evolved at the foundations of the societies. Hordes of hoodlums developed into ominous, ubiquitous organized crime families. Certain neighborhoods were widely known for the home-made institutions of vice they proffered.
Bugsy Siegel, Jewish mobster, 1906-1947.
In New York, for example, there were places like Five Points (Lower East Side), the Old Brewery, Rag Picker’s Den, Dutch Hill, Hammersley Street, etc., that were capital slums. Five Points was a vortex of moral failure, a maelstrom of spiritual vomit. In Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York (1991), Luc Sante identifies five major gangs that were operating immediately after the Revolution (p.198). They were mostly Irish and Dutch, but, later Jews and the Italians moved into New York. The Bowery gang, for instance, into the mid-19th century, was Irish.
Sam Giancana, in Double-Cross (1992), says that Johnny Torrio, an early Chicago mafia boss (from 1909 on) was trained in the New York Five Points gang, and later brought in Al Capone from the same gang (pp. 14,15).
Al Capone, Italian mobster, 1899-1947.
In 1909, certainly, the Irish still dominated Five Points on the Lower East Side (Manhattan). Big Tim Sullivan himself was a product of Five Points. The Jewish and Italian ‘invaders’ of the Tammany Hall (the Irish controlled center of the area) were real threats to Irish power, indeed. Albert Fried offers some fascinating historical news data on conditions evolving, in The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Gangster in America (1980), pp. 60-68.
Big Tim Sullivan, Irish mobster, 1862-1913
Is there an equivalent of Nazareth here, on some scale, by some social corollary?
Centers of coercion, vice, cruelty, brutality, gang control, this is human congregation at it worst. Doesn’t really matter the size.
The low life, the vice, the crime, this is precisely the kind of life that most parents want to shield their children from. The conscientious parent will make every effort, every sacrifice possible to keep his child from the irreparable misfortune of this horrid, degrading life. Parents want the best for their children, not the worst. Good parents avoid association with crime. The object is to move up the social scale, not down. In a good family, the fall of a child is an unforgettable, sometimes even unforgivable tragedy.
And so Peter announces the lordship of “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus of Five Points. Jesus of the Bowery. Jesus of Hammersley Street.
At just the point when the Jesus movement was catching on in all its spiritual, moral glory; at just the time when the quintessential element, pith of Jewish religion is emblazoned–repentance and divine forgiveness of sin, Peter calls him “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus of gangland. Jesus from the vortex of vice.
Is that it? Is that the message? Peter is in the heart of Jerusalem. Peter is talking first to international Jews, then to the central citizens who regularly haunt the Temple to worship. What happens at the Temple? What is the Temple all about? The sacrificial lamb. The propitiation of sin. Forgiveness. This is the ultimate magic of the Jewish religion.
But, Jesus of Nazareth?
It is profoundly heartbreaking. It is soul-stopping. That such a grand personage, such a noble, elevated, divine being, should have his name associated with the dregs of the earth; that such a righteous man should freely sacrifice his good name; that such a refined, perfect, moral person, should share his glory with the lost–who don’t even understand themselves as lost, who don’t care, who don’t even want to be saved, it is more than the heart can bear.
Jesus took that name, Nazareth, and that message of noble love, into eternity. He had just ascended into heaven about ten days before, as witness by a large group of followers (Acts 1:1-13). Before crowds in Jerusalem, anxious to understand what had happened politically if not spiritually, Peter called out the name Jesus of Five Points. Jesus of the Brewery, who came to save sinners. Jesus of Cherry Hill, who came to forgive the sins of the world. Jesus of Nazareth, now at the right hand of the Almighty.