Nazareth is a congested place, a town poured in a limestone bowl. Undisciplined roads scrape the steep slopes. Some 100,000 people call this miracle-site home, and oddly enough, in a modern manifestation of honking glory, they all manage to pound away on their car horns at precisely the same time. Daily. The city is a perpetual traffic jam.
Adding to this mêlée are the pilgrims. Koreans, Spaniards, Americans, and Ukranians hop from curb to curb, wide-eyed and white knuckled. They are ducklings on the march. Mother-guides quack and fuss.
The goal for most of these visitors is a church building, an omphalos that rises from the bottom of Nazareth’s bowl. The shape of its cupola is said to resemble the Madonna lilly (Lilium candidum) or even the fleur-de-lis, although some imagination (and a view from directly below) is required to make this work. No imagination is needed, however, to recognize that the Basilica of the Annunciation is an important center for Christians the world over.
The site brings to mind the message delivered to Mary by the angel Gabriel:
“You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus” (Luke 2:31).
I visit the Basilica several times a year. Rarely, though, do I have a chance to explore the place alone, and certainly not leisurely. Today is different. I have no ducklings to fuss over, no calls to take, no schedule to keep. I can look closely for details that I have missed on other visits.
The structure before me is the most recent incarnation of buildings erected on this spot. The earliest is some kind of shrine that likely dates back to the third century AD (and possibly earlier?), only a few generations removed from Jesus’s own day and well within the memory of its Byzantine residents. Since that time, the place has been developed, modified, destroyed, and overbuilt many times over, resulting in sequence of stone shells that make me think of amatryoshka doll. Like the Russian toy, these nesting shells also reveal in the end (to those who choose to believe), a mother with a baby inside.
I sit in the shade at the entrance gate, sipping a cola given to me by a old friend who sells sandwiches nearby. I study the figures carved into the Basilica’s facade. The four evangelists flank the central door as do the figures of Gabriel and Mary. But it is the words, not the figures, that catch my eye. They are theologically rich.
The gatekeeper rests in his chair. I get his attention, point with my finger, and begin reading
“Verbum caro . . ?”
He finishes the quote without looking up, “‘. . . factum est et habitavit in nobis.’ It is from the gospels, he instructs. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’”
We smile and shake hands. It is the mystery of the ages.
I finish the cola and go inside.
There, I see more shells, more layers, more memories. Byzantine columns rise before me, a pilastered wall from the Crusader church is to my left. The area used as a meeting place for the local parish is directly above my head. A large round hole in the ceiling unites these spaces, below and above, old and new.
The focal point of it all, whittled down beyond recognition, is a cave. It is believed that this cave formed a part of the original home of Mary. The thought is impossible to prove archaeologically of course, but it is consistent with what we know of domiciles in this limestone region. Here, caves have been (and continue to be) used for cellars, barns, cisterns, and living space. The claim has gained more credibility since the discovery of a first century home was announced by the Israel Antiquities Authority in 2009 directly across the street (seehttp://mfa.gov.il/MFA/IsraelExperience/History/Pages/Residential_building_time_Jesus_Nazareth_21-Dec-2009.aspx).
I walk down the stairs to the iron grill that separates the public space from the cave itself. I grip the bars and peer inside. I think about all the millions of believers who have endured great danger and expense to share this view. A nun by the name Egeria traveled here from Spain (probably) in AD 383. She describes the experience and writes that in Nazareth she was shown a “big and very splendid cave in which Mary lived. An altar has been placed there” (See Wilkinson’s translation inEgeria’s Travels, 1999: 96).
Today, an altar stands in the center of the cave. It is certainly not the same one that Egeria saw. But it may rest on the same spot. On it are words now familiar to me (thanks to the gatekeeper), but with a twist:
Verbum caro hic factum est.
The twist is the hic, a new element that plays upon the text of John 1:14. It is a tiny particle I had not noticed until this moment. It is a powerful claim on display for all to see.
Hic, in Latin, means “here.”
“Here,” the altar proclaims, “the Word became flesh.” On this spot. Inside this cave. Upon this ground. In this town. Under this ridge. Within this Heartland.
Here, in Nazareth, is the place of incarnation. Embodiment.
I marvel with Paul over “the announcement of the secret that was kept quiet for a long time,” but “is revealed through the prophets” (Rom 16:25-26).
Right here. Hic.
I am not in a hurry. I sit on a bench in silent contemplation.