Nazareth is within 25 miles of Stella Maris, and we were able to make several visits. It was a very small place at the time of the Holy Family, with maybe only 400 inhabitants – the whole village no more than 800 metres in length (Photo 37 - Old Nazareth). Its present population is over 50,000; 70% Muslim, 30% Christian. It has had a chequered history, like all the holy places; it figured prominently in the Crusades and was for a time capital of the Crusader kingdom in the north.
37 Old Nazareth
38 Basilica of the Nativity
The centrepiece of present-day Nazareth is the Basilica of the Annunciation (Photo 38) - it towers above everything in the Old City. The basilica is of recent vintage, having been consecrated only in 1961. The guidebook says it is the largest church in the Middle East. Externally, it is built in the shape of a tent (“he pitched his tent among us”).
39 Irish Mosaic
There are beautiful mosaics of Our Lady all round the basilica (Photo 39 Irish Mosaic), representing different countries, some of them quite gaudy and opulent, so one is glad to descend the considerable steps to the quiet and simplicity of the grotto of the Annunciation, and to sit there trying to absorb the import of the words carved under the small altar: “Verbum caro HIC factum est” (Photo 40).
40 - Verbum caro hic factum est
Alongside the basilica, there is a church to St Joseph (Photo 41), built over what is pointed out as his home, indicating that the homes of Mary and Joseph were close together.
41 - Church of St Joseph
42 - Greek Orthodox Church
The Greek Orthodox have a church the other end of the town (Photo 42), beside what is called Mary’s spring. It is the only spring in Nazareth (Photo 43), and the Greek Orthodox claim this as the site of the Annunciation.
43 - Mary's Well
Much of their devotion springs from the apocryphal Gospel of St James, where this sort of detail is often given, and it does state that the Annunciation took place beside the well, traditional place of encounter with God in the Bible. But all the subsequent tradition in terms of the existence of previous churches points to the site of the basilica as the authentic one. The evidence includes several graffiti, including a remarkable one in Greek from the second century, with the greeting of the angel: “Kaire Maria”.
By way of reconciling the two traditions, our Director Fr Jose offered the ingenious view that it could have happened that the angel first appeared to Mary at the spring where she would have gone to draw water. Then (in the human way that God works) the angel might have given her time to absorb the enormity of what was being asked and might have told her he would meet her back home again later in the day!
44 - Tomb of the Just man
Right across from the basilica is the convent of the Sisters of Nazareth, of French origin. In recent years, they made an extraordinary discovery in their basement: they found what is known as the Tomb of the Just Man (Photo 44). The tomb goes back to the first century. I met an Irish nun there, by the name of Sr Margaret Byrne, from Co. Wicklow, who has been in the Holy Land over 50 years. She showed me all around the impressive excavations. She is convinced the just man in question is none other than St Joseph – not only that, she thinks that this was the house of the Holy Family! That Joseph moved in here after returning from Egypt. She said when they opened the tomb, a wonderful smell of perfume filled the air.
Nearby is the synagogue church (Photo 45), an early Christian church built on the site of the original synagogue, which the Holy Family would have attended, and where Jesus would have preached. It is moving to sit there and read Luke 4, 16-30, and the account of his visit there at the beginning of his public ministry, how “all eyes in the synagogue were fixed on him” - and the surprising aftermath when they wanted to throw him off the cliff.
45 - Synagogue Church
On a subsequent visit there on my own, I was determined to go to the top of the cliff (Photo 46), which rises almost immediately from the synagogue to a height of 300 metres.
46 Looking towards the precipice
There are great views from the top, with the Old City below, and in the distance the place known as the Precipice, popularly pointed out as the cliff from which they tried to throw Jesus, and it was here in fact that Pope Benedict said Mass on his recent visit to the Holy Land (Photo 47). But most of the researchers agree that there was no need to go that distance, with several cliffs nearer at hand. In this more likely one, the Salesians have a school and an imposing church dedicated to ‘Jesus the Adolescent’. Interestingly, Tabor is very visible from here (Photo 48).
47 Looking down on Nazareth
48 - Mt Tabor in the distance
Alongside the convent of the Sisters of Nazareth is the International Marian Centre, opened just a year ago. It is run by the Chemin Neuf community, who were founded in France in 1973. They specialise in spreading the Good News by means of modern communication, with a particular emphasis on ecumenism. They have 1200 members in 21 countries. The Centre has a wonderful multimedia presentation of the history of salvation from the creation to the resurrection, in four stages. And many other video presentations too, including an inspiring one of “Mary in the Koran”, an eye-opener on how revered she (and Jesus) are in the Muslim tradition. The Koran account of the Annunciation is very similar to that of Luke.
49 - Chapel in Marian Centre
The Centre also has a lovely chapel (Photo 49), with icons of the 20 mysteries of the Rosary done by a Latvian couple.
50 - House from time of Jesus
Within the confines of the Centre, recent excavations have found the remains of a house from the time of Jesus, which the Holy Family would no doubt have visited (Photo 50).
Charles de Foucauld
Everything is close together in Nazareth. Less than 100 metres from the basilica is the community of the Little Brothers of Jesus, who derive their inspiration from Charles de Foucauld. Charles lived in Nazareth for three years. He was at a crossroads in his life, and wondering should be become a priest. He came (anonymously) to work for the Poor Clares, asking to do some work, and to be given just bread and water, and he would sleep in the hut outside the enclosure, wanting only to pray in their chapel (Photo 51). It changed his life: he got a new devotion to the hidden life and came to appreciate the worth of the life of the Son of God on earth. He decided he could live Nazareth anywhere in the world. “I want to shout out the Gospel with my life!”. He also found his priestly vocation, for he wanted to give the Eucharist to people far away, and decided to go back to Algeria, where had served in the army, and work among the Muslims and the Touregs, whom he had befriended during his previous sojourn. He met his death, of course, at the hands of the Touregs.
51 - Chapel of Charles de Foucauld
When the Poor Clares sold some of their property in 1970, they did not sell the little patch where Charles lived for they knew he was a holy man. While they were building their new convent, they lived in the present house of the Little Brothers, which is where Charles had his little room and where he wrote his letters and reflections, and prayed in the chapel – he even did some paintings (Photo 52).
52 - Charles de Foucauld
53 - Nazareth Carmel
On another visit to Nazareth we had Mass in the Carmel of the Holy Family. It is a very sturdily-built monastery, in the beautiful cream-coloured stone that is a feature of this part of the country (Photo 53). We had a pleasant hour afterwards with the nuns – there are 14 of them, from 13 different countries! (Photo 54). We found much the same diversity in the Haifa Carmel. It seems requests go out occasionally from the Carmels in these places for reinforcements, though many nuns ask to come here. French is the spoken language in all four Carmels, and the chaplains in the Nazareth and Bethlehem Carmels are the Fathers of Betharram, a French congregation brought to the Holy Land through the persistence of Blessed Mary of Jesus Crucified.
54 - Carmelite Nuns Nazareth
We spent the evening of that same day with the Bishop of Nazareth, Paul (Boulos) Marcuzzi, whose official title is Patriarchal Vicar, in charge of Israel (Photo 55). He gave of his time generously, speaking about what he called the ‘Mariology of Nazareth’. He said there is no such thing as the hidden life of Jesus. It is all unveiled in his ministry and preaching!
55 - Bishop of Nazareth
Taking us up to the flat roof of his house, he pointed to the basilica less than 100 metres away, and kept repeating:
“Here and nowhere else on earth, the Word became flesh!”! (Photo 56).
56 - Basicila from bishops house
By a certain spiritual logic, it will be appropriate at this juncture to say something about our visit to Ein Karem, scene of the Visitation. It is in a lovely location, just outside Jerusalem: with gentle green hills and olive groves - the hill country of Judah alright (Photo 57). It would have been a nice place to come on holidays, as Jesus would have done, to his cousin John.
57 - Ein Karem
The small village is dominated by two churches built on opposite hills. The church of St John the Baptist is built on the spot reputed to be the home of Elizabeth and Zachary, where John was born (Photo 58).
58 - Church of St John the Baptist
There were Byzantine and Crusader churches here in previous centuries. There are traces of a shrine that one of the Herods built to Aphroditus – always a sign that this had from the earliest times been a sacred site, for Herod and his successors wanted to eradicate all signs of Christianity. Of course, there was history between the Herods and John!
Underneath the present church there is a Grotto, and a small chapel, marked by a dramatic sign: “Hic natus est precursor Domini” (Photo 59).
Outside the church, the words of the Benedictus are inscribed in several languages (Photo 60).
60 - The Benedictus
On the hillside across the valley is the Church of the Visitation, designed by Barluzzi, and also administered by the Franciscans (Photo 61). According to Luke’s Gospel, Elizabeth hid herself, in preparation for the birth of John. According to tradition, it was here that Mary visited her.
61 - Church of the Visitation
Outside the church, there is a striking sculpture of the encounter between the two women (Photo 62), as well as a wonderful mosaic over the entrance.
62 - Mary & Elizabeth
The verses of the Magnificat are on plaques around the walls in 42 languages (Photo 63). We had Mass of the Visitation in the church, and it was moving to relive the Gospel story “in situ”, and to recite the Magnificat.
63 - The Magnificat in Irish
Down in the valley between the two churches is Mary’s Spring (Photo 64). Some say this was where Elizabeth greeted her. The name “Ein Karem” means “generous spring”, and there was certainly plenty of water gushing out, although – a modern touch! – we were told it was polluted!
64 - Marys Spring