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.)

The "Wailing" Wall

The Western Wall, also known informally as the "Wailing" Wall, is one of the "must visit" holy sites in Jerusalem. It is actually the remaining western wall of the Temple constructed by Herod the Great in about 20 B.C.E. and destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. Herod's magnificent edifice was an expansion of the Temple built when the Jews returned from exile in Babylon in the 6th century B.C.E., though both were known as the Second Temple. (In about 950 B.C.E., King Solomon had had the First Temple built at that same location to house the Ark of the Covenant; the Babylonians destroyed this structure when they conquered the Jews in 587 B.C.E.)

The site of the Temple, also known as Temple Mount because of its elevation above the rest of the city, is sacred to the three major monotheistic faiths. Tradition holds that Abraham prepared his son Isaac for sacrifice on this mountain. The Second Book of Samuel relates that King David erected an altar to God on Temple Mount. The Gospels tell that Jesus taught in the Temple and also overturned the moneychanging tables here. The Qu'ran indicates that the prophet Mohammed, on his winged steed Al-Burak, ascended into the heavens from this place.

Today, the Temple Mount is located in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem, but the Western Wall is located in the Jewish Quarter. The grounds of each are open to visitors at certain times of the week; however, political realities in the state of Israel and the Middle East can often intervene. For example, when I was in Jerusalem in 1983, I and my friends were able to go inside both the Dome of the Rock Mosque and El-Aqsa Mosque--to see the rock with Mohammed's footprint and the vast open prayer space, respectively--but we discovered during our recent trip that non-Muslims are no longer allowed inside either mosque, and non-Muslims are prohibited from entering the Temple Mount area from Thursday afternoon through Sunday morning. I consider myself fortunate to have been able to visit these holy places so long ago. (More about the mosques in a future blog.)

Strict Orthodox Jews believe that the Temple Mount is too sacred to walk upon because it was once the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, so they have focused their worship/prayer-life on the Western Wall, which is outside/below the Temple Mount. The Western Wall is sometimes called the "Wailing" Wall because of the many prayers spoken or sung aloud there. It is at once a busy and serene place of worship and prayer.

Men and women are separated at the Western Wall, with the women to the right in a smaller area. Many Orthodox Jewish men spend hours in prayer and reading as visitors come and go. Below is a pair of prayer books:

The bulk of the Wall is located outside, adjacent to a large plaza, but to the left inside an archway is a large room where some men pray or gather their thoughts.

Jews and non-Jews alike approach the Western Wall with reverence. Having written a prayer or a request on a slip of paper, visitors will push the paper into a crack in the Wall, leaving their request in God's hands.

In the following photo, the men's area is to the left of the white umbrellas, while the women stay to the right, behind the barrier. This division applies to all visitors, whether Jewish or not.

We visited the Western Wall on a Thursday morning, when families hold bar-mitzvah ceremonies. The boys and their families gather near the dividing fence, men on one side, women on the other, to hear their sons read their scripture passages. This ceremony marks a young man's "coming of age"--usually when 13 years old--the time when they become personally responsible for their actions. Families travel from all over Israel, and some from foreign lands, to hold a bar-mitzvah at the Western Wall.

As part of their bar-mitzvah ceremony, the boys process with the scrolls. Sometimes the ornate scroll tabernacles are larger or heavier than the boys themselves!

This model shows how the Temple might have looked during Herod's time. The Western Wall would be on the far side of this view:
Reformed Jews who want to hold their son's bar-mitzvah in Jerusalem do so just outside the Western Wall courtyard, in an area below Robinson's Arch, the remains of a bridge that the high priests used to enter the Temple grounds, because women and men are not required to pray separately in this area.
It is amazing to consider that the Temple Mount has been a holy site for more than 3 thousand years. Who knows how many people have gathered here to worship and pray over the millennia?

The tradition continues.