The Holy land – Verbum care factum- The Word became flesh; Church of the Annunciation


Verbum care factum- The Word became flesh

Verbum care factum est et habitavit in nobis, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). With these words splashed across the Church of the Annunciation our pilgrimage in  Israel began. We had crossed the border from Jordan to Israel via the King Hussein Bridge (Allenby) Terminal, which runs over the very narrow Jordan River.

The current Church is a two-story building constructed in 1969 over the site of an earlier Byzantine-era Church going back to the  4th or 5th century. Prior to this, the first shrine was probably built sometime in the middle of the 4th century and  comprised of an altar in the cave in which Mary lived. A larger structure was commissioned by Emperor Constantine, 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 (Bethlehem) and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Jerusalem).

The Byzantine era Church built after this had three aisles, a single projecting apse and a large atrium. A small monastery was built south of the church. Around the year680, the pilgrim Arculf recorded seeing two churches in Nazareth, one at Mary’s spring which the Othrodox Church holds as the Church of the Annunciation and the other on the traditional site of the Annunciation, where the basilica stands today. The Orthodox Church holds that the spring of Mary was where the angel Gabriel first encountered Mary who was so terrified with the news that she fled home prompting the angel to follow her to her home and deliver the message all over again.

Detailed image of the home of Mary which forms the lowest part of the basilica.

 The Byzantine church on the site of the Annunciation survived as late as the 9th century, when 12 monks associated with the church are mentioned in the Commemoratorium of 808 AD. The church was apparently destroyed before or during the Crusades; the Abbot Daniel recorded in 1106-08 that it had been laid waste but thoroughly rebuilt by Tancred and the Franks. The Crusader church was larger than the Byzantine church over which it was built. The church had three aisles and six bays, probably with a crossing covered by a dome fronting three apses

After the Battle of the Horns of Hattin in 1187, the Christian inhabitants of Nazareth took refuge in the church but were slaughtered. The church was thereby profaned, but it was left standing. In 1192, Salah al-Din allowed a few clergy to return and granted Christian access to the shrine. St. Louis made a pilgrimage here in 1251.

The home of Mary which also houses sections of the crusader and Byzantine Churches.

However, in 1263, an emir of Baybars attacked Nazareth and razed the church to the ground. Pilgrims were still allowed to visit the grotto (which was venerated also by Muslims), but in 1283 Christians were explicitly forbidden to rebuild the church. By the 14th century, pilgrims were charged an entrance fee by the Muslims guarding the grotto. The site of the church was filled with garbage and was later used as a cattle shed.

The Franciscans established a monastery in Nazareth in the 14th century and appear to have gained control of the holy site for a period in the mid-16th century. They restored and occupied the former bishop’s palace and began to repair the church in 1620. However, they were expelled several times throughout the 1600s. In 1730 the Franciscans finally completed a new church, which was enlarged in 1871.

The Franciscan church was demolished in 1955 for the construction of the present church, which was built over the Crusader and Byzantine foundations. It was consecrated in 1969.  The modern Church of the Annunciation is topped with a uniquely-shaped concrete dome 55 meters high. Its shape is based on the Madonna lily, a symbol of the Virgin Mary.

The breath-taking Basilica is 59.5 Meters high and shows colourful mosaics pictures of the Holy Family. The mosaics were made by Christian communities from all over the world, and every art work reflects the national character of the country that sent it. Look for the Our Lady of Velankanni, if you are from India.

Adorning the top of the façade of the Church is the statue of Jesus. Beneath it on the left is the angel Gabriel holding the lily and presenting it to Mary who is depicted on the right. The lily is a symbol of purity and virginity. Below them are the four evangelists and the words, “the word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us.” Don’t miss the beautiful main door in bronze which has six images from the life of Jesus.

The lower church centres on the Grotto or Cave of the Annunciation, where the angelic announcement to Mary was made by the angel Gabriel in what now the remains of the original childhood home of Mary.  Also visible down here are remains of the Byzantine and Crusader churches that preceded the present one. The church enjoys the status of a minor basilica. It is the largest Christian sanctuary in the Middle East and was dedicated in 1964 by Pope Paul VI during the first pastoral visit of a pope outside Italy in 400 years.

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