"Hail, Mary, full of grace": The Feast of the Annunciation in Nazareth | Custodia Terrae Sanctae

"Hail, Mary, full of grace": The Feast of the Annunciation in Nazareth

Nazareth, Basilica of the Annunciation, 24-25 March, 2012

On Saturday the 24th and Sunday the 25th of March the town of Nazareth was in festive array to celebrate the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord, a holiday particularly dear to the local population, which has a long tradition of commemorating this essential event in Christian history in the very place where it occurred.

Nazareth means "a shoot" and refers to the words of the prophet Isaiah: "A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse,/ and from his roots a bud shall blossom" (Is 11:1). The “shoot” the prophet announced is Jesus, who lived a hidden life at Nazareth and then, in Capernaum, began to announce the Good News of salvation. According to Pope Paul VI, the three great teachings that come from Nazareth are the value of silence, the importance of work, and the centrality of family life.

But the Gospel of Redemption began in Nazareth at the very moment when the Angel announced the incarnation of the Lord in Mary’s womb. With the Annunciation, human history was forever changed, thanks to Mary's "yes" to God's plan, the most beautiful and successful act of all creation. According to the Infancy Gospel of James, the Angel first appeared to Mary near the fountain and then appeared a second time near her home, where the announcement was completed. The ruins of Mary's house are still conserved in the Grotto of the Annunciation, the wide vault carved out of rock that is located in the lower part of the present Basilica. The stones of this humble abode, that we can admire to this day, speak of the silence of God, of his delicacy and his respect for his creature, a simple young woman of Nazareth. The words of the angel's greeting, "Hail, Mary, you are filled with grace", echo the joyous messianic words of the prophet Zephaniah: "Shout for joy, O daughter of Zion,/ sing joyfully, O Israel,/ be glad and exult with all your heart,/ O daughter of Jerusalem! [...] On that day, it shall be said to Jerusalem:/ Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged!/ The Lord, your God, is in your midst,/ a mighty savior;/ he will rejoice over you with gladness,/ and renew you in his love,/ he will sing joyfully because of you,/ as one sings at festivals" (Ze 3:14,16-18). There is an invitation to joy: "Exult with all your heart"; there is mention of the presence of the Lord: "The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst"; there is the exhortation not to be afraid: "Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged"; and finally there is the salvific intervention of God: "The Lord, your God is in your midst, a mighty savior". The account of the Annunciation allows us to see in Mary the new "daughter of Zion", called by God to great joy. She, called to be the Mother of the Son of God, accepts the message in the name of all humanity for universal salvation. Mary is the Virgin of the alliance that God establishes with all of humanity. To the Christians of the Holy Land, who today are often afraid for their future, the message of the Annunciation repeats: "Do not be afraid. […] The Lord is with you".

In the afternoon of Saturday the 24th of March, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, His Excellency Mgr. Fouad Twal, together with His Excellency Mgr. Kamal Batish, Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus of Jerusalem, and His Excellency Mgr. Giacinto Boulos Marcuzzo, Auxiliary Bishop of Nazareth, made the solemn entry into the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. Leading the procession with which the Patriarch and his entourage entered the square in front of the Basilica through the streets of the town, were local Arab scout troops. Along with Mgr. Twal, were the civil and religious authorities of the region, the pastor of Nazareth, Brother Amjad Sabbara, a large number of members of the Franciscan community of the Custody of the Holy Land, male and female religious belonging to various congregations, numerous local Christians and groups of pilgrims. The Patriarch was solemnly welcomed at the entrance to the Basilica by Brother Ricardo Bustos, the Franciscan guardian of the Sanctuary of the Annunciation and of Saint Joseph in Nazareth. Descending to the lower part of the Basilica, Mgr. Twal, his entourage and many Franciscans venerated the Grotto of the Annunciation, briefly kneeling in front of the little altar, where the words that recall the entry of the Son of God into the world, Verbum caro hic factum est are engraved. Following this, in the upper part of the Basilica that was filled with people, the Patriarch presided over Solemn First Vespers, alongside Mgr. Batish, Mgr. Marcuzzo, Brother Bustos and Brother Sabbara. The celebration was animated by the Choir of the Basilica of the Annunciation. At the prayer's end, all present were able to greet the authorities, wishing them a happy feast.
The Sanctuary of the Annunciation stands exactly on the spot where, according to Christian tradition, the Archangel Gabriel announced to Mary the incarnation of Jesus in her womb. As early as the second century, descendants of Our Lady's family had a sacred building constructed on the spot. The first basilica was completed in the fifth century, in Byzantine style. In the eleventh century the decaying ancient basilica was rebuilt in Roman style. This building, too, would be destroyed, leaving only the Holy Grotto. In 1620, the Custody of the Holy Land received the concession of the ruins of the basilica. In 1730, another church was built, enlarged in 1871 and then razed in 1955 in order to build the present basilica. The archaeological excavations carried out from 1955 to 1959, during the work on the new basilica's foundations, brought to light the ruins of two earlier churches, Byzantine and Crusader, as well as ruins of the primitive Judeo-Christian building from a period much earlier than the Byzantine construction.

The present basilica was built during the years 1960-69 and consecrated on 25 March, 1969 by Cardinal Gabriele Garrone. It was built to the design of the architect Giovanni Muzio, and faced in local stone. The main facade features a bronze statue of the Redeemer, with the scene of the Annunciation seen in the upper part, and the four evangelists depicted in the lower. The south face, dedicated to Mary as an adolescent, bears the inscription "Salve Regina" and is oriented like the Franciscan church of 1730. On the left, a Crusader wall and the three Crusader apses are notable. The interior consists of the lower basilica and the upper basilica. The lower part, styled like a crypt, conserves the Grotto of the Annunciation - Mary's House. The upper church is dedicated to the exaltation of the Virgin Mother of God-made-man. The top of the large central dome is shaped like an inverted lily, symbolizing the purity of Mary. The large mosaic of the main altar is inspired by the Franciscan theological tradition of Mary Mediatrix of Grace and the proclamation of the Second Vatican Council of Mary, Mother of the Church, and the phrase "Unam Sanctam Catholicam et Apostolicam" is written at the top of mosaic itself. In the center is the figure of Christ with Saint Peter and the crowned Virgin, surrounded by the charismatic and hierarchical Church, a pilgrim on the earth, moving toward Christ. The two side chapels are dedicated respectively to the Most Blessed Sacrament and to the Franciscan Order, particularly the Custody of the Holy Land. Popular devotional traditions to Our Lady are represented in the form of processional flags inserted into the wall, colorful representations of Marian sanctuaries around the world, the most important of each country or people.

On Saturday evening, Brother Ricardo Bustos, together with Mgr. Twal, other bishops and many members of the Franciscan community, led an evocative torchlight procession, with the participation of hundreds of the faithful. The statue of Mary was carried in procession to the interior of the Basilica and placed its lower section, a short distance from the Grotto of the Annunciation. Solemn Eucharistic Adoration followed in the Basilica's crypt, with the intense participation of religious, local Christians and pilgrims.

On Sunday morning at 10 o'clock, the upper part of the Basilica, beautifully decorated with white flowers, saw the Latin Patriarch, Mgr. Twal, as principal concelebrant of the Solemn Mass of the Feast of the Annunciation. Concelebrating with the Patriarch on this special occasion were Mgr. Kamal, Mgr. Marcuzzo, a visiting Italian bishop and Brother Ricardo Bustos. Dozens of other priests and religious also concelebrated, including many Franciscans. Thousands of people filled the Basilica for the celebration, coming not only from Nazareth and other parts of the Galilee, but also from Jerusalem, Bethlehem and many other parts of the Holy Land, together with many groups of pilgrims of different languages and origins. The liturgy was animated by the Custody's Magnificat Choir, directed by Hania Soudah Sabbara, and the choir of the Basilica of the Annunciation, who sang the Holy Mass dedicated to Saint Joseph by Brother Armando Pierucci, the Custody's organist and director of the Magnificat, the Franciscans' music school in Jerusalem. Brother Pierucci provided the organ accompaniment for the celebration.

The liturgy used the readings of the Fifth Sunday of Lent, with passages from the prophet Jeremiah (31:31-34), Psalm 50 and the Letter to the Hebrews (5:7-9), but then used the Annunciation reading in the Gospel of Saint Luke 1:26-38. Mgr. Twal opened his homily, which he gave in Arabic, by warmly greeting and welcoming everyone present: the bishops who accompanied him, the guardian and pastor of the Nazareth sanctuaries, the Franciscan community of the Custody, the priests and religious who were concelebrating, the Holy Land faithful in attendance, all the faithful who were watching the celebration on live television in Europe and the Middle East; the Fatebenefratelli community of Nazareth, which was celebrating its silver jubilee, the new International Mary of Nazareth Center for increasing knowledge about Mary, and the many, many pilgrims of all languages and origins.

In the angel's announcement to Mary, Mgr. Twal continued, God is for the first time revealed as the Trinity: the Holy Spirit descended on Mary, the power of God the Father covered her with his shadow, the Son was incarnated in her womb. God seeks communion with man in order to realize his plan of redemption, and humanity enters into true communion with the Lord thanks to Mary's reply, with which she agreed to enter the economy of salvation, sensing her vocation and the responsibility to which she was called. And this was not a personal act, but is open to all humanity: Jesus was born and died for all mankind, and we belong to his Church because salvation has an ecclesiastical and communal character, continuously recalled in our relations with others. Just like Mary's experience, the Word of God still challenges us today, shedding light on the unexpected events of our lives and the sacrifices that are asked of us. We should reflect on our ability to accept the message and requests of God, the way in which we receive visitors and pilgrims to the Holy Land, our willingness to give them authentic human, cultural and spiritual enrichment. After her encounter with the angel, Mary left in haste to go to her cousin Elizabeth, to help her during this pregnancy she was carrying at an advanced age. In the words of the Magnificat Mary glorifies the presence of God in her life with expressions of blessing and thanksgiving. We too, are called to make ourselves close, unhesitatingly, to family members, friends and acquaintances, when an important event - joyful or tragic - comes into their lives, helping them, reinforcing their faith, and demonstrating a spirit of unity and belonging to the human and religious family.

The Patriarch ended his homily with a delicate reflection on the situation of Christians in the Middle East, who are anxious and fearful in the face of political instability and uncertainty in the region. Then he appealed to the governments, asking that they be enlightened by the experience of love and communion of the Holy Family and distance themselves from violence and personal interests. He appealed to our Muslim brothers, with whom Holy Land Christians have been living for a long time, that together we might pursue peace through the love of God and our neighbor, collaborating in building a common homeland, advancing in good citizenship, religious liberty and protection of human rights. His last appeal was to Mary, that she would help the Middle Eastern Christian community to live the Word of God, to face the difficulties of this land, to always be an example of love and tolerance. May Mary bring peace into all hearts and all families, and bless young people, mothers, old people, the Galilee and all the Holy Land, the whole world.

At the end of the Eucharistic liturgy, the pastor of Nazareth, Brother Amjad Sabbara, gave the assembly the happy news that next year the Catholic community would celebrate Easter with the Orthodox community, an important step in developing ecumenism in the Holy Land.

To the hymn Hail, Mary of Nazareth, the bishops and concelebrating priests formed a brief procession to the interior of the Basilica to commemorate the incarnation of the Word of God, during which the Prolog of the Gospel of Saint John (1:1-18) and the Annunciation passage from Saint Matthew (1:18-25) were read.

Mgr. Twal concluded the solemn celebration with the recitation of the Angelus Domini and then bestowed the apostolic benediction with a plenary indulgence.

Text by Caterina Foppa Pedretti
Photos by Miroslaw Jadlosz