Thursday, July 31, 2008

Mary of the Annunciation

Her Story:
A number of the Blessed Mother's titles refer to her given name, Mary. Titles such as Mary of Nazareth, Mary of Bethlehem, and Mary of Galilee commemorate those places where the Virgin experienced God's providence. Other titles, such as Mary of the Visitation and Mary of Calvary, mark milestone events in her life. Of these titles, Mary of the Annunciation is particularly inspiring to the people of God, for it memorializes a young girl's complete trust in the goodness of her creator.

The Gospel of Luke (1:26-38) provides the only account of the Annunciation in the Bible, relating that the angel Gabriel went to Nazareth to tell Mary, a maiden engaged to be married, that she was going to bear the long-awaited anointed one. Gabriel announced to this teenager, "And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High."

Because this announcement puzzled Mary, who was certain of her virginity, Gabriel explained how God would make the impossible pregnancy occur: "For nothing will be impossible with God."

Despite the angel's reassurances, Mary must have been terrified. Not even married, and pregnant! No one would believe this miracle, so she would be stoned or exiled. Was this to be her only reward for faithful service to God? Yet she found the courage within her young soul to submit to God's designs: "Here am I, the servant of the Lord: let it be with me according to your word."

Mary's cousin Elizabeth--or rather, Elizabeth's unborn child, John--confirmed the angel's message for Mary in what amounted to another annunciation: "And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy" (Luke 1:43-44). Elizabeth also prophesied Mary's faith that through her God would bring to fulfillment what had been foretold of old.

While Mary responded to the angel's annunciation with submission, she greeted Elizabeth and John's annunciation with rejoicing: "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior..." (Luke 1:46-47).

Mary's twofold response to the Annunciation--first her trusting submission to divine providence, then her joyful praise of the Lord's ways--has inspired the people of God for two millennia. She challenges the faithful to become the persons God created them to be and then to rejoice in the transformation, trusting that with God all things are possible.

During our trip to Israel, we visited the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, now a large Christian Arab town in the north (in Galilee). The modern basilica, completed in 1969, is the fifth church to be built on this site, reputedly the place where the Virgin Mary was living when the Angel Gabriel brought her life-changing news.

The basilica is located at the top of a hill and is quite a beautiful church.

The focus of the sanctuary is an exposed cavern, below the modern floor but open to view; called the Grotto of the Annunciation, it is the place where, according to tradition, the angel appeared to Mary. The remains of Byzantine and Crusader churches flank the grotto, and the altar within the grotto is from the 18th-century Franciscan church that had been built on this site. Here's a view of the grotto:

The basilica is highly decorated. The massive doors are bronze and depict, in relief, scenes from the gospels.

On the walls of the sanctuary are a number of really incredible mosaic pictures. Presented by Christian communities throughout the world, they depict the Blessed Mother in her many manifestations and reflect her many "names."

This mosaic, which includes a depiction of Pope Paul VI, was given by the Vatican when the basilica was being built:

This mosaic, above the altar, is one of the world's largest and shows Mary crowned in glory beside her Son.

The basilica also has a gorgeous Stations of the Cross:

There are some lovely modern stained-glass windows scattered about the sanctuary (see the top photo in this blog entry).
We were quite fortunate to visit the church just before a wedding party arrived, and we quietly took our leave as the bride and groom were entering the sanctuary. It was a fitting capstone for our visit to this particular holy site.

Traditional Prayer:
May all generations proclaim you blessed, O Mary.
You believed the Archangel Gabriel, and in you were fulfilled all the great things that he had announced to you.
My soul and my entire being praise you, O Mary.
You had faith in the incarnation of the Son of God in your virginal womb, and you became the Mother of God.
Then the happiest day in human history dawned. We received the Divine Master, the sole eternal Priest, the Host of reparation, the universal King....Amen.
New Prayer:
Tune me the tune and word me the words! O Mary of the Annunciation, teach me that song of praise, that hymn of joy. Rhyme me the rhyme and beat me the beat! I will smile away sadness and laugh away melancholy. My God has created a wonderful life, a life of wonders, for my very own delight. O Mary, I will rejoice and be glad in it! Amen.

("Her Story," "Traditional Prayer," and "New Prayer" are from 100 Names of Mary: Stories and Prayers by Anthony F. Chiffolo. St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2002.)

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