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The Church of the Annunciation

September 23, 2019

Legend has it that Mary was told by the archangel Gabriel she would give birth to the son of the God, and where she uttered her consent saying: “Let it be done to me according to your word”. According to the Catholics she received the message at her home in the village of Nazareth. According to Greek Orthodox tradition, she received the message while drawing water from the well near her home – known today as “Mary’s Well”. Both locations have churches commemorating this event, known in Christianity as the Annunciation, hence the name given to the churches.

The Roman Catholic church, known as the Basilica of the Annunciation –is the largest and most renowned of the churches in Nazareth. Built upon what is believed to be the original site of Mary’s home, the church is a two story-building, while inside, on the lower level is a grotto believed to be the original home of Mary.

The site was first used as a shrine in the 4th century BC, when an altar was built in the cave that Mary had lived. Later during the Byzantine period a larger church was commissioned, funded by Saint Helena, mother to Emperor Constantine I, who helped found churches commemorating important events in Christianity. At around the same time, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Church of the Nativity were also founded.

A second church was built over the Byzantine structure by the Crusaders, which was never fully completed because of the Moslem victory at Hittin. Excavations were done in the area in 1909 revealed several Romanesque capitals made by French artists that had never been installed. The Franciscan priests were allowed to remain to take care of the church, however between the 13th and 17th centuries, which was a time of many political upheavals, the priests were expelled and massacred, and local Christian families helped take care of the church.

In the 17th century the Franciscans were permitted to return, and when they built a small structure to enclose the holy grotto that is venerated as the house of Mary. About a century later permission was given for a larger structure to be built, which was further enlarged in the 19th century, becoming a gathering place for the entire Latin community in Nazareth.

In 1954 the structure was completely demolished to make way for the construction of the current basilica, which was designed by Italian architect Giovanni Muzio. Building of the church was completed in 1969, and to date it is the largest Christian sanctuary in the Middle East. The Basilica contains a gallery with mosaics representing some of the most important Marian devotions in different countries. The towering cupola, surmounted by a lantern symbolizing the Light of the World, covers the massive two-story basilica, which is in strikingly modern architectural style and colorfully decorated. The outcome of Mary’s consent is carved in Latin across the façade over the triple-doorway entrance: “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).

The lower level of the basilica enshrines a sunken grotto that contains the traditional cave-home of the Virgin Mary. The cave is flanked by remnants of the earlier churches that stood on the site. Inside the cave stands an altar with the Latin inscription “Here the Word was made flesh”. To the left of the cave entrance is a mosaic floor inscribed with the words “Gift of Conon, deacon of Jerusalem”. The deacon may have been responsible for converting the house of Mary into the first church on the site, around 427.

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