I visited the Holy Land for the first time with a small pilgrimage group from Rome’s Santa Susanna community, along with faculty from Marymount International School. We numbered 30 people, including two priests, Fr. Tom Holahan and Fr. Phil DeRea. As I was thinking today of tomorrow’s feast of the Annunciation, I remembered our visit to Nazareth and the Basilica of the Annunciation and though I would repost that story.

My only apology is for the size of the photos. It took me a long time to find then originals and much longer to try and re-size them – to absolutely no avail! I tried to create a carousel of the few photos I found in an attempt to re-size them. That seems to have been an exercise in futility!


LUKE 1, 26-38

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” And the angel said to her in reply, “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.” Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.”

Nazareth, is, of course, a town we know from the Gospel, from songs, from our childhood. Nazareth, a hill town in Galilee, city of the Annunciation, of Jesus’ childhood, of Joseph’s carpenter shop. The town where Jesus played with boys his own age, where he helped St. Joseph make tables and chairs and where his mother drew water from the only well in town and thus knew most of the women. A town of 63,000 overlooking the Jezreel Valley, Nazareth is one of the oldest sites in the Holy Land and today is the largest Arab town in Israel. It was not considered much of a town in Jesus’ time and in fact, Nathaniel of nearby Cana said, in John 1,47: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”

Annunciation Basilica by night – our first view of this shrine

By day –

Modern Nazareth is not the bucolic setting one imagines from Christmas cards but a busy fairly modern town, though part of it, called Nazareth Village, offers a re-creation of what Nazareth would have been like at the time of the Holy Family. Our time in the Holy Land was principally dedicated to exploring the churches and places of our pilgrimage, not the cities and towns and villages, so I cannot say we got to know this Galilean hill town. However, I will, towards the end of this travelblogue©, fill these pages with pictures of people and places and foods and dress and local customs so you can get another idea of the country.

Though we had been staying in a Nazareth hotel, we had not yet visited the basilica of the Annunciation. We saw it by night on Monday as we returned from the Sea of Galilee region and our visit to Mount Tabor. However, Tuesday morning, before our departure for the Jordan Valley, Jericho and Jerusalem, we visited this church and the adjacent Church of St. Joseph’s Carpentry where Father’s Tom and Phil celebrated Mass. I’ll take you to St. Joseph’s tomorrow as I just have too many photos of each site to short change either one.

We were ushered into a courtyard where we saw the beautiful facade of this church, with the words, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt amongst us.” We walked under a portico, partly as protection from the rain, and partly to see some of the dozens of plaques featuring Madonna and Child and donated by churches or by the episcopal conferences of various countries around the world.

The basilica itself is almost an architectural oddity inside with its various levels and the remnants of the many churches – Byzantine and Crusader era – previously constructed over the original grotto area, and then destroyed over the centuries. Some of the pavement from earlier constructions is still visible and amazingly well preserved, considering the vicissitudes of history. In fact, in the sunken area we find the apse of a fifth century Byzantine church that had been built around the grotto of the Annunciation. On the north wall (though I do not have photos) are the remains of a 12th century Crusader church and some restored Byzantine mosaics.

The church is, of course, built over the site where the Angel Gabriel is said to have appeared to Mary to announce that she would become the mother of the Savior. The Basilica of the Annunciation was commissioned by Franciscans and consecrated in 1969. It seems that the architect, Giovanni Muzio, was asked to build a church that was “modern, multinational and mysterious.” For many the “mysterious” part is the architecture itself, as you will see from a few photos.

The greatest mystery was, of course, divine – the divine motherhood of Mary, announced to this humble teenager from this insignificant hill town by an angel of the Lord in a small, almost forlorn cave.

This site of the Annunciation was one of the most moving experiences of the trip. As we entered the church, the contrast between the bright facade and the dark interior was almost jolting. Is this truly such an important, revered site? Inside it seemed so somber, so dimly lit, with just one luminous area drawing your attention.

Drawn by that light, we walked to the middle of the church where we saw a low, sunken area with an altar, surrounded on three sides by stone seats, where another pilgrimage group was celebrating Mass.

And there, behind the altar, behind a gate, was the grotto of the Annunciation, the actual place where Mary, our Blessed Mother, the Virgin Mary, “Theotokos”, the Mother of God, received the announcement: “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”

This was a moment that was moving beyond telling. As I touched the grate that separated me from the cave and the small altar inside, I felt closer to Mary here than in any other place we would visit. Mary has become my Mother in many new ways ever since I lost my earthly mother. And I felt the presence of both of them, side by side, right here. This was a simple home, a simple dwelling, a simple but unique woman, whose one word – “Fiat” – “thy will be done” – changed her world and the history of mankind.

I thought then, and I repeat it here: To be this humble, this willing to listen to and obey the word of God, without question, without guile, with just simple faith! What a lesson for all of us!

I lingered a bit near the grotto but we did not have much time for personal prayer as Fathers Tom and Phil were about to celebrate Mass in the nearby Church of St. Joseph. So many groups ask to celebrate Mass at important pilgrimage sites that it becomes very important to maintain a timely schedule.

As we left this simple and yet complex basilica and the simple yet uniquely historical area of the grotto, I knew with certainty I would return one day.