Recently archaeological excavations have uncovered the city of Bethsaida on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. This city stands out as the only example of an entire biblical city found totally intact. But it has another distinction for Christians. Among the citizens of this walled village, as well as those of nearby Capernaum and Chorazin, Jesus laid the foundations of his ministry.
Bethsaida was the largest of these three places. Its hard-working citizens made their living out of agriculture and trade. They served the merchants that passed their way on the road from the Mediterranean Sea to the Greek cities in southern Syria. Many of the people were fishermen who lived off the Sea of Galilee, an hour’s walk away.
Bethsaida (house of fishing) was already ancient by the time Jesus visited it. Peter, Andrew and Philip came from there. James and John may well have called it home. Here Jesus cured a blind man (Mark 8:22-25). Here he fed the five thousand (Luke 9:12-17). By his preaching, teaching and mighty works, he was ushering in the kingdom of God. No surprise, therefore, that Bethsaida is mentioned in the New Testament more often than any other city, except Jerusalem and Capernaum. This New Testament city, now rising from the dusts of centuries, tells a story needed for our day.
In 1996, archaeologists found incense shovels, a statue of Livia Julia, and some coins depicting Philip and Livia Julia close to a Roman temple which dates from the time of Jesus. At this time, Livia Julia, the wife of the emperor Augustus and mother of the reigning emperor Tiberius, died. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus tells us that, in order to honor her, Philip Herod raised Bethsaida to the status of polis (a city) and renamed it Julia. He also built a temple in her honor to foster the imperial cult of Rome. This temple is dated to the year 30 A.D.
The date 30 A.D. is not insignificant. This is the time when Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead.
This is when the Holy Spirit was poured out on believers, sending them into the world to preach the gospel.
Those first disciples who were present at Pentecost were now leaving Jerusalem. They were going back to their hometowns, not simply to resume their trades, but to tell the good news, to live the good news and to transform their world.
They knew that Jesus is Lord. They knew that, where he is acknowledged as Lord, God’s kingdom of justice and peace can come about. For them, this was no idle doctrine or theological proposition. It was the profoundest truth about life itself.
When those early disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit, returned to Bethsaida, what did they find? A newly built temple to a Roman goddess! Where Jesus had so recently preached and accomplished so many of his mighty works, Rome, the very political power that crucified him, had now built a pagan temple. Here, where Christianity was being birthed, Rome was competing with its state religion.
This conflict between a political power and the Church at her birth presages a long history of conflicts to follow. Jesus did not usher in a political kingdom. But his followers have repeatedly faced opposition from governments and, not infrequently, oppression. In modern times alone, the former Soviet Union and Communist Eastern Europe, Mexico, Spain, and China along with Mussolini and Hitler have done their best to destroy the Church. In our day, the Church still suffers sword and fire along with the confiscation of our temporal goods and always under the banner of truth and justice.
At times, the Church lives comfortably with one government. At times, uncomfortably with another. Yet, the Church, even at the cost of suffering and persecution, must remain faithful to the teaching of Jesus. She should never compromise the truth for the sake of acceptance by any particular government.
Governments rule people. They involve themselves in almost every issue that affects a person. From birth to death, from work to recreation, from contracts to commitments, from health care to child care, governments make rules, enact laws and levy punishments for non-compliance.
Every good law begins with the intention of doing good. If a law is rooted, not in the popular consensus of the day but in right reason that discovers something of the eternal law of the Creator, then the entire society benefits. This is why Christians cannot leave the making of laws simply to politicians. Every law is a common concern.
When a government in making laws follows the moral order, there is peace between church and state. But, once a government deviates from moral principles, conflict is inevitable. It happened in the past. It happens today.
As Catholics, we are not surprised that the moral principles taught by Christ, handed on by his Church and held by his followers, come under attack by some. But we are shocked when government summarily dismisses the very freedom of conscience to follow these moral principles. Old conflict, new challenge.
Such a challenge says loud and clear that Catholics are of no account. It is as if Catholics no longer exist as a significant group of people for government to take seriously. Sadly, we have prepared for this moment by no longer speaking out with one Catholic voice on the burning issues of morality. Yes, sadly many Catholics have hastened this day by no longer voting in accord with the moral teaching of the Church, even though it is for the common good.
In the recent excavation at Bethsaida, in the corner of the courtyard of one of the fishing houses, an interesting artifact was uncovered. It was a shard on which someone had engraved a cross. Maybe a disciple returning from Jerusalem after the event of Pentecost carved this cross on stone. Perhaps it was a protest against the building of a new Roman temple. Or perhaps a sign that the state cannot supplant religion. In the end, a cross etched in stone professes the permanent value of Christian faith for society.
The temple that Philip built in honor of Livia Julia at Bethsaida is dust and ashes. The Church that Christ began in this area of the world is flesh and blood, and very much alive. And the Church remains alive and strong when her members faithfully live the teaching of Christ and are unafraid to confront with one Catholic voice any government that tramples their freedom of religion into the ground!