|Devotion to Our Lady||
THE BASIC FACTS
THE HISTORY OF NAZARETH
Nestling humbly almost at the bottom of a valley, completely shut in by low hills, Nazareth appeared to be hiding itself from the eyes of men. It was a poor village, away from the great commercial routes and with no outlet to the plain of Esdrelon, except through a narrow pass. So unknown and forgotten was it that its name does not appear even once in the whole of the Old Testament.
As regards the exact site of the old town, there are some authors, such as Dr. Clemens Kopp, who draw a distinction between primitive, Jewish, and Byzantine Nazareth. They hold that the galleries which run beneath the church known as the Workshop of St. Joseph are probably relics of the primitive town, and that Jewish Nazareth was built near Mary's Well, a short distance east of the present town, which stands on the site occupied by Byzantine Nazareth.
Because water is necessary for life, we know that towns naturally grew up around adequate water sources, such as an abundant spring. But we must also remember that the primitive settlers at Nazareth may have chosen an elevated site near the spring in preference to the floor of the valley. Then, too, no traces of ancient dwellings have been found around the spring itself. Therefore we believe it more probable that Jewish Nazareth was situated on the lower slope of the hill, where part of the present town stands.
The maiden, Mary, lived in a modest little house which, like the other dwellings in Nazareth, was composed of two parts, a natural cave, perhaps somewhat improved upon by the occupants, and a kind of second room formed by walls built in front of and enclosing the cave-mouth.
This cave has been providentially preserved to the present day for the loving veneration of the faithful, and it may still be seen, haloed with a tradition of sixteen centuries. Like a precious jewel it was set in a basilica built probably in the fourth century by the converted Jew, Count Joseph of Tiberias, and replaced by the magnificent temple of the Crusaders which even today in the midst of its ruins shows its three great apses.
At the time of Jesus, Nazareth was just a small town with an estimated population of around 500 people. Today, Nazareth has grown to a population size of over 80,000 persons.
According to the Gospel of Luke, Nazareth was the home village of Mary and also the site of the Annunciation (when Mary was told by the Angel Gabriel that she would have Jesus as her son). In the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph and Mary resettled in Nazareth after returning from the flight from Bethlehem to Egypt.
Therefore Nazareth was where Jesus grew up after spending the first part of His childhood in exile in Egypt. Nazareth was the 'home-base' from where Jesus would begin His public ministry as an adult in His early thirties.
NAZARETH OVER THE YEARS
The town of Nazareth is not mentioned in the Old Testament, nor even in the works of the famous Jewish historian of Our Lord’s day, Flavius Josephus. Yet, it was not such an insignificant village as is generally believed. We know, first, that it possessed a synagogue. Nazareth was a home for the priests who went by turns to Jerusalem, for service in the Temple. Up to the time of Constantine, it remained exclusively a Jewish town. St. Paula and St. Sylvia of Aquitaine visited the shrines of Nazareth towards the end of the fourth century, as well as Theodosius about 530; but their short accounts contain no description of its monuments. The Pilgrim of Piacenza saw there about 570, besides “the dwelling of Mary converted into a basilica”, the “ancient synagogue”. A little treatise of the same century, entitled “Liber nominum locorum ex Actis”, speaks of the church of the Annunciation and of another erected on the site of the house “where our Lord was brought up”. In 670 Arculf gave Adamnan an interesting description of the basilica of the Annunciation and of the church of the “Nutrition of Jesus”.
The toleration which the Moslems showed towards the Christians, after conquering the country in 637, did not last long. Willibald, who visited Nazareth about 725, found only the basilica of the Annunciation, “which the Christians”, he says “often redeemed from the Saracens, when they threatened to destroy it”. However, in 808 the author of the “Commemoratorium de easis Dei” found twelve monks at the basilica. The Greek emperor, John Zimisces, reconquered Galilee from the Arabs in 920, but, five years afterwards, he was poisoned by his eunuchs, and his soldiers abandoned the country.
The basilica, finally ruined under the reign of the Calif Hakem (1010), was rebuilt by the crusaders in 1101, as well as the church of the Nutrition, or St. Joseph’s House. At the same time the Greeks erected the church of St. Gabriel near the Virgin’s Well.
The archiepiscopal See of Scythopolis was also transferred to Nazareth. After the disastrous battle of Hattin (1187), the crusaders, with the European clergy, were compelled to leave the town.
On 25 March, 1254, St. Louis and Queen Marguerite celebrated the feast of the Annunciation at Nazareth; but nine years later, the Sultan Bibars completely destroyed all the Christian buildings, and Nazareth soon dwindled down to a poor village.
In the fourteenth century, a few Franciscan Friars established themselves there, among the ruins of the basilica. They had much to suffer during their stay, and many of them were even put to death, especially in 1385, in 1448, and in 1548, when all the friars were driven out of the country.
In 1620 Fakher ed Dîn, Emir of the Druses, allowed them to build a church over the Grotto of the Annunciation; but it was ruined some years later by the Bedouins. The Franciscans nevertheless remained near the sanctuary, and in 1730 the powerful Sheikh Dhaher el Amer authorized them to erect the church which is still to be seen.
WHAT CAN WE LEARN?
The entire preparation by God for the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity bespeaks HUMILITY!
God chooses to become man, not in some large country or in a great all conquering race, but His preferred entry into this world is a tiny country with a small population.
Even more humility is seen in the fact that God does not choose the capital city for His birthplace and future residence; nor does He choose to be born to a ruling king or queen in a suitably grandiose palace setting for the King of kings. No! His birthplace will not be a palace, but a cave. His 'queen' will be a poor virgin who lives in a hillside cave-house, not a palace. He Himself will be born in cave.
Compared to the capital city of Jerusalem, Nazareth was a 'cast-off'! The Jews of Jerusalem had a low opinion of Nazareth, as we read in Holy Scripture, where the Nathaniel, says to Philip, when speaking of Jesus: "Can any thing of good come from Nazareth?" (John 1:46).
Yet as Scripture also says: "But the foolish things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the wise; and the weak things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the strong. And the base things of the world, and the things that are contemptible, hath God chosen, and things that are not, that he might bring to nought things that are: that no flesh should glory in his sight” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
Sadly, art, though well-meaning, gives us a false impression of the reality of the circumstances that surrounded the Incarnation of Our Lord; which is clearly seen to be the case in these paintings, that are shown above and below.
They show a comfortableness and luxury that Our Lady quite simply did not enjoy or possess. This is true also of the way artists depict the Passion and Death of Our Lord; they make it such a bloodless and calm event, as though it was almost a game or 'play acting'!
WHERE ON EARTH IS NAZARETH?
Israel lies to the north of the equator. It measures 263 miles from north to south and, at its widest point 71 miles, from east to west. At its narrowest point, however, this is reduced to just 9 miles. It has a land frontier 632 miles and a coastline of 170 miles. It is ranked 151st on the List of countries and outlying territories by total area.
Above, you can see how tiny Israel really is, surrounded on all sides by 'giants'. The land area of Israel is only 8,000 square miles. Israel stretches 263 miles from north to south, and its width ranges from 71 miles at its widest point, to 9⅓ miles, at its narrowest point. It is smaller than El Salvador (8,124 sq. miles), and just a little bigger than the Fiji Islands (7,000 sq. miles). In comparison to various states in the USA, it is just slightly smaller than the states of New Jersey and Vermont. You could fit 33 Israels into the state of Texas; 20 Israels into California; 10 Israels into Kansas; 5 Israels into Ohio; Hawaii, Massachusetts and New Hampshire are of a comparable size to Israel.
Modern-day Nazareth is nestled in a natural bowl which reaches from 1,050 feet above sea level to the crest of the hills about 1,600 feet. Nazareth is about 16 miles south-west from the Sea of Galilee (11 miles as the crow flies) and about 5½ miles west from Mount Tabor (the mountain of Our Lord’s transfiguration). Jerusalem is a little over 90 miles south of Nazareth; while Bethelehem (on the southern outskirts of Jerusalem) is just inder 100 miles south of Nazareth. The Nazareth Range (a range of hills), in which the town lies, is the southernmost of several parallel east-west hill ranges that characterize the elevated tableau of Lower Galilee.
In 1260, Baybars and his Mamluk army destroyed the church during their attack on Nazareth. A small number of Franciscans managed to stay in Nazareth until the fall of Acre in 1291. In the three centuries that followed, the Franciscans were in and out of Nazareth, depending on the local political situation, which was constantly in flux. Franciscan accounts of this period document their expulsion in 1363, their return in 1468 and a massacre of some of their members in 1542. Local Christian families with Franciscan support helped take care of the church as well during this period.
Emir Fakr ad-Din granted the Franciscans permission to return in 1620, at which time they constructed a small structure to enclose the holy grotto that is venerated as the house of Mary. In 1730, Dhaher al-Omar permitted construction of a new church, which became a central gathering place for Nazareth Latin community.
The church was enlarged in 1877, and then completely demolished in 1954 to allow for the construction of a new basilica, which was completed in 1969. The new basilica was designed by the Italian architect Giovanni Muzio, and built by the Israeli building firm Solel Boneh during the years 1960-69. Used by the Latin parish, it remains under the control of the Franciscans. It is the largest Christian sanctuary in the Middle East, and was dedicated in 1964 by Pope Paul VI.
The current church is a two-story building constructed in 1969 over the site of an earlier Byzantine-era and then Crusader-era church. Inside, the lower level contains the Grotto of the Annunciation, believed by many Christians to be the remains of the original childhood home of Mary. Under Roman Catholic canon law, the church enjoys the status of a minor basilica. A historically significant site, considered sacred by many Catholics. The basilica attracts many Catholic pilgrims each year, even during times of danger and hostility in the volatile Middle-East political setting. Even Anglicans, and Eastern Orthodox Christian visitors come to the shrine every year.
The first shrine was probably built sometime in the middle of the 4th century, comprising an altar in the cave in which Mary had lived. A larger structure was commissioned by Emperor Constantine I, who had directed his mother, Saint Helena, to found churches commemorating important events in Jesus Christ’s life. The Church of the Annunciation was founded around the same time as the Church of the Nativity (the birthplace) and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the tomb). Some version of it was known to have still been in existence around 570 AD, but it was destroyed in the 7th century after the Muslim conquest of Palestine.
The second church was built over the ruins of the Byzantine era church during the Crusades, following the conquest of Nazareth by Tancred in 1102. The Crusader era church was never fully completed. Five Romanesque capitals carved by artists from northern France, and discovered during excavations in 1909, had not yet been installed in 1187 when news of Saladin’s victory in the Battle of Hittin reached the city. Saladin granted permission to Franciscan priests to remain in Nazareth to oversee services at the church.
ABOVE: Here we are in the lower level of the church, beneath the circular opening in the ceiling above, looking north, past the altar, into the entrance into the grotto of Nazareth, which is believed to be the location of Our Lady's home and the site of the Annunciation. The remnants of churches from the Crusader and Byzantine eras are seen around the grotto.
The above photos show the grotto's interior, with the beautiful 18th century altar dedicated to the Annunciation. On the right side of the altar (as we look at it) stands an ancient column, probably placed there in the fourth century to mark the place where the angel appeared. Behind it are stairs that lead up to a small cave (called "Mary's kitchen") and an exit to the yard.