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Church of the Annunciation: Going back to the Beginning

Entering the sacred Church of the Annunciation, in Nazareth, is like going back in time and witnessing the tiny seed before it blossomed into the beautiful oak tree. You are standing at the very beginning, the germination of Christianity. This is where, according to Roman Catholic tradition, the Angel Gabriel revealed to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive a child who would be the Son of God. Pause for a few moments at the very spot where the revelation of the birth of Jesus Christ took place. While you will surely be awestruck by the striking mosaics that adorn the church, nothing will take your breath away more than the knowledge that you are standing at the birthplace of Christianity.

The Church of the Annunciation (or Basilica of the Annunciation, as it’s sometimes known), is located in Nazareth, in the Galilee, and one of the top sites for any Christian on a Holy Land tour. The current structure lies atop the first two shrines built on the location, and contains remnants from those earlier eras.

The first shrine was erected in the 4th century, during the Byzantine era. At first, there was just a simple altar, placed in the cave of Mary’s childhood home. Later, a larger structure was built at the behest of Constantine I, whose ambitions included building churches to commemorate important events in the life of Jesus Christ. (It was at this time that the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher were built as well.) The Byzantine church was destroyed at some point either before or during the Crusades.

The second church, a Crusader church, was built over the ruins of the Byzantine church, and completed in the beginning of the 12th century. Beautiful artwork was commissioned, and French artisans created stunning capitals carved with scenes from the lives of the Apostles. At the end of the 12th century, Christians taking refuge in the church during the Battle of Hattin, during the Crusades, were killed by the approaching Islamic army.

The church was left standing, and Saladin, the Islamic ruler, allowed Franciscan priests to continue to conduct services in the church. Sadly, about 100 years later, around the year 1260, Nazareth was attacked by a Mamluk army and the church was demolished, leaving only the grotto.

Over the next 300 years, the Franciscans devoted themselves to care of the church, whenever the ruling Muslim party allowed them access to it. Finally, in approximately 1730, the Franciscans were granted permission by the Muslims to build a new church. The church encompassed the holy grotto, the original cave believed to be Mary’s first home. This church was enlarged in the 1870s, but destroyed in the 1950s to allow for construction of a new basilica.

You can visit the current church on your Christian Holy Land tour. The church remains under control of the Franciscans, who, for centuries, dedicated their lives to the care and protection of the church. It is the largest Christian sanctuary in the Middle East, and the parish church for the thousands of Catholics living in Nazareth. It was dedicated by Pope Paul VI in 1964. The basilica is a breathtaking building, encompassing two stories. The visitor’s eye is first drawn to the dome, rising fifty-five meters high. The shape of the dome is based on the Madonna lily, the symbol of the Virgin Mary. The upper church is adorned with mosaics of the Virgin Mary, donated by Christian communities throughout the world. Descend to the lower church to see the actual Grotto of the Annunciation, as well as remnants from the Byzantine and Crusader-era churches.

While in Nazareth, a visit to St. Gabriel’s Church should also be placed on the must-list for a Christian tour to the Holy Land. The Greek Orthodox tradition believes that the Annunciation occurred while Mary was drawing water from a local spring. St. Gabriel’s Church was erected over the site that contains “Mary’s Well.” The church contains beautiful wood carvings and painted icons. Descend a few steps into the “chapel of the spring,” and you can peer below to see the running water.

A rough stone cave; the ancient sound of rushing water. These are natural wonders, pure in their simplicity. They remind us that beginnings of Jesus Christ Himself were of a simple nature, and teach us that the sites and people we revere as most sacred and holy are also those of the humblest origins.