Why Nazareth is important to Christian / Catholic pilgrims today?
Nazareth is described in the Gospel of Luke as a town in Galilee and the hometown of Mary, mother of Jesus. Although it was not explicitly mentioned in the same Gospel that Joseph was from Nazareth, it can be inferred that it was also his hometown. Following the birth narratives found in Luke’s Chapter 2, it was stated that the Holy Family “returned to Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth”.
When Jesus was crucified, the Romans nailed an inscription above his head: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews or more popularly known as INRI. The title “Jesus of Nazareth” appears several times in the Bible.
Modern-day Nazareth is 320 meters above sea level. It is 25 kms away from the Sea of Galilee and 9 kilometers from Mount Tabor. From Nazareth to Haifa, the next closest city southbound is about one a a half hour long via private vehicle. Going to Tel Aviv from Nazareth is about two-hours long while a three-hour trip via private vehicle is expected when traveling to Jerusalem.
From Kafr Kanna, we had lunch at this local restaurant that served shawarma and chicken barbecue. After lunch, we headed to Nazareth. However, because of the rain, we had to stay inside the bus for about twenty minutes before we finally walked the ancient streets of Nazareth. It was still drizzling and very chilly.
The moment our tour guide pointed that we were already in front of the church, I remember each and everyone went gaga over its amazing facade. Hearing several pilgrims remarking wow gave me goosebumps. But the magnificent facade was reason enough to be in awe. It was really a wowed-experience – the facade was simple yet elegant and bulky but not imposing. There was a feeling of being interpolated to “come in.” For sure it was not the grandest basilica when compared to the baroque churches in the Philippines for example, or the cathedral at Kolñ, or some abbeys in the United Kingdom. But there is something peculiar in the Basilica that shouts beautiful and classy.
The Basilica of the Annunciation was established over what Catholic tradition holds to be the site of the house of the Virgin Mary, and where the angel Gabriel appeared to her and announced that she would conceive and bear the Son of God. This event in the Catholic dogma is the Annunciation.
Mary’s response to Gabriel is carved in Latin across the façade over the triple-doorway entrance: “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The massive two-storey church is strikingly modern in terms of architectural style. I believe we can consider it the largest Christian church in the Holy Land (after having visited many of them during the course of the trip). It houses two churches, the upper one being the parish church for Nazareth’s Catholic community and the lower level is a grotto, commemorating the annunciation.
When entering the basilica, one will notice the reliefs of Mary, Gabriel and the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the facade. Above them is a bronze statue of Jesus. There is a door in the massive structure where a statue of a teenage Mary stands. The sculpture is said to be welcoming all who come to visit her home.
As mentioned earlier, the lower level of the church is a grotto that contains the traditional cave-home of the Virgin Mary, flanked by ruins of earlier churches on the site. Its entrance is sometimes closed by a protective grills. Inside the cave stands an altar with the Latin inscription “Here the Word was made flesh”. In front of the cave is an altar, with tiers of seats around it on three sides. Above it, a large octagonal opening is situated exactly under the cupola of the church.
Within the vicinity of the church is an excavation site where a Jewish village is revealed. And nearby the church complex is another structure, which is believed to be the house and workshop of Joseph. But there is no evidence that the cave over which the church is built was Joseph’s workshop. Even if this is the site of the Holy Family’s home, the cave is unlikely to have been a carpentry workshop in the modern sense.
The church (also known as the Church of the Nutrition and the Church of Joseph’s Workshop) is a solid building standing very adjacent the imposing Church of the Annunciation. I read somewhere that this is semiotically read as: “It stands very much in the shadow of the soaring cupola of the Annunciation Church — just as St Joseph himself lived in the shadow of Jesus and Mary.”
For me, this is not just a mere shadowing story – but the best love story ever told. In literature, I was drawn to think of Romeo and Juliet’s tragedy as an exemplar of a best love story narrative. But there is so much beauty in Joseph and Mary’s love story – even if theologically it is not considered tragic. However, there is something tragic about this relationship, methinks. The Gospels do not offer much about Joseph’s life other than what we know about Jesus in His early childhood. His was silenced. But His role in the history of salvation is very significant. Imagine, Mary getting pregnant and Joseph committing to love her. Again, theology notwithstanding, we can also infer how bold Joseph was for standing for the love of his life. This is the most ideal relationship one can truly aspire: to love not only the beautiful but also the ugly. Theological and dogmatic tradition notwithstanding, their relationship is an honest and brutal communion. Their commitment to love each other is the ultimate road to forever. This is indeed what Gabriel Marcel tells us about hoping in Thee for us!