The Christian churches in Nazareth

By John F. Fink

March 25 is the feast of the Annunciation, when the archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary to tell her that she had been chosen to become the mother of God. I’ve always thought that the feast should be called the feast of the Incarnation because a lot more happened than simply an announcement. Upon her acceptance (“Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me as you have said”), the Second Person of the Trinity humbled himself to become a human.

All this happened in Nazareth which today is the largest Israeli-Arab town in Galilee, with a population of about 150,000. (Only 120 to 150 people lived there at the time of Christ.) About 50,000 Jews live in nice homes in Upper Nazareth and 100,000 Arabs live in large homes in Lower Nazareth—large homes because several generations usually live in them and because they have larger families than do the Jews. When children or grandchildren marry, another story is added to the homes. The Arabs in Nazareth are roughly 50 percent Christian and 50 per-cent Muslim.

The Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth is the largest and most modern Catholic Church in the Holy Land. Its importance is in the fact that it was built on the site of the Incarnation. The present church is the fifth building constructed on this sacred site. The first was built by St. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, in 356. Other churches were built by the Byzantines, the Crusaders and the Franciscans.

The present church was completed in 1969 at a cost of $5 million. It is really two churches, one above the other. The bottom church preserved the remains of the ancient church-es built here.

When visiting this church, the pilgrim should keep in mind “four Ms”: 1. Mary: “AVM,” for Ave Maria, is carved everywhere. The sides of the “Ms” are slanted at the same angle as the “As” and “Vs” so the letters nest together. 2. Mystery of the Incarnation: the lower church, where the Grotto of the Annunciation is, is simple to reflect Christ’s humanity, while the upper church is elaborate to reflect his divinity. 3. Multinational: 130 countries contributed art to the upper church. 4. Modern: all the art contributed was supposed to be (and is) very modern. (In all honesty, it must be said that many American pilgrims are disappointed when they see the art contributed by the United States; they don’t like it.)

The two churches, one on top of the other, are 80 feet high and 130 feet long. The western and southern facades are decorated with statues illustrating the Incarnation and the Annunciation. The dome is 170 feet high. Across the front of the church, in Latin, are carved the words “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” and by the altar in the grotto in the lower church is a sign that says, “Here the Word was made flesh.”

The paintings, mosaics, sculptures and other artwork in the upper church, as well as around the plaza outside the church, are particularly interesting since each of the 130 countries tried to send something especially meaningful to the Catholics of that country.

Pilgrims who visit the Basilica of the Annunciation usually also visit the Church of St. Joseph, which isn’t nearly as elaborate as the basilica. It’s believed that this church is built over St. Joseph’s carpentry shop.

Unlike many churches in the Holy Land that are shared by Christian faiths, these two churches are Catholic. However, pilgrims should also see the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Gabriel, about 500 yards from the Basilica of the Annunciation. It is built over the Well of Mary and this is where, according to the Orthodox tradition, Gabriel appeared to Mary. The well itself is one of the most authentic sites in the Holy Land. Since it was the city’s only water supply, this must be where Jesus and Mary came to fill jars and jugs with water. Water continues to flow under the church and pilgrims can draw it themselves.

The foundations of the Church of St. Gabriel go back to the 600’s but the upper church is about 120 years old. It is attractive, with frescoes on the walls and ceilings with scenes from Christ’s life. There are 10 paintings on the iconostasis that separates the sanctuary from the rest of the church.