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The Many Faces of Mary in Nazareth

 


Franco Verroca's statue of the adolescent Mary, about the age when she said yes to God's plan, stands over the Basilica's south entrance.

 

 

 

After the Annunciation, Mary predicted that all generations and nations would call her blessed. A visit to the Basilica in Nazareth shows how right she was.

By Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

Photos courtesy of the Franciscan Printing Press (Jerusalem)

 

 
Pope John Paul II on Visiting the Holy Land

 

 

 

Every March 25 is special in Nazareth, Mary’s home when she was invited to become the mother of Jesus. This year the Feast of the Annunciation will be even more extraordinary because it marks the 2,000th anniversary of Jesus’ conception. To commemorate this event, Pope John Paul II plans to visit the Basilica of the Annunciation and celebrate Mass there.

When Mary answered the Archangel Gabriel, “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38), she unleashed a revolution in human history: the Son of God becoming one of us! Betrothed but not yet married, Mary trusted that God, who made this awesome yet troubling invitation, would help her carry out the role she accepted that day. Her decision was so significant that in parts of medieval Western Europe the Feast of the Annunciation was celebrated as the first day of the year!

Mary, Mother of Peace, comes from Korea.

Believers from all times and cultures have acknowledged Mary’s faith and her pivotal role in God’s plan. In his 1987 encyclical Mother of the Redeemer, Pope John Paul II wrote, “Certainly the Annunciation is the culminating point of Mary’s faith in her awaiting of Christ, but it is also the point of departure from which her whole ‘journey toward God’ begins, her whole pilgrimage of faith” (#14).

When the Good News of Jesus Christ spread to men and women in the farthest corners of the world, local artists represented Mary and Jesus as people of their own time and place, as members of their culture. That is as valid in 20th-century Japan or Cameroon as it was in 14th-century Italy! The Church describes this as “inculturation.”

In his 1990 encyclical on the Church’s missionary mandate, the pope explained, “Through inculturation the Church makes the Gospel incarnate in different cultures and at the same time introduces people, together with their cultures, into her own community. She transmits to them her own values, at the same time taking the good elements that already exist in them and renewing them from within. Through inculturation the Church, for her part, becomes a more intelligible sign of what she is, and a more effective instrument of salvation” (#52).

A little later in the same encyclical, John Paul II quoted from Paul VI’s 1969 talk in Kampala, Uganda, “It will require an incubation of the Christian ‘mystery’ in the genius of your people in order that its native voice, more clearly and frankly, may then be raised harmoniously in the chorus of other voices in the universal Church” (#54).

Father Engelbert Mveng, S.J., designed Our Lady of Africa, a gift from Cameroon. Women offer the fruits of their labors to Jesus and Mary.

The artwork inside and outside Nazareth’s Basilica of the Annunciation reflects this inculturated universality.

That Basilica is the fifth church on this site, previously occupied by a third-century Jewish Christian church, a fifth-century Byzantine basilica, a 12th-century Crusader church, plus a modest chapel built in 1730 and enlarged in 1877. That structure was demolished in 1955 to allow important archaeological excavations prior to the 1960-69 construction of the present Basilica, which was solemnly consecrated on March 25, 1969.

Members of the Order of Friars Minor came to Nazareth early in the 13th century, soon after Francis of Assisi visited the Holy Land himself. Except for the years 1363-1468 when they were expelled under Egypt’s Mameluke Sultans, the friars have remained in Nazareth. In 1542 the entire community was martyred on orders from the Seljuk Turks, who controlled the region from 1517 until World War I. Over the centuries the friars have served as pastors for the local Catholic community and as spiritual guides for pilgrims from across the globe.

Fathers Bellarmino Bagatti, O.F.M., and Emmanuel Testa, O.F.M., worked with architect Giovanni Muzio and a group of theologians to plan the artwork in the Basilica. More than 20 countries or regions on five continents accepted an invitation to provide copies of locally honored images of Mary.

Together, these images provide a powerful reminder of the universal, multicultural face of God’s people on whose behalf Jesus suffered, died and rose from the dead.

Father Peter Vasko, O.F.M., and the Franciscan Printing Press (Jerusalem) provided the photos for this article. Information was drawn from The Basilica in Nazareth: Where Jesus Became Our Brother, by Gumbert Ludwig, O.F.M., La Nuova Basilica di Nazaret and Santuari e memorie della Madonna in Terra Santa (Centro Propaganda di Terra Santa, Milano), plus additional research.

Pope John Paul II on Visiting the Holy Land

After Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow visited the Holy Land in 1965, he addressed a poem to Jesus, including these words: “How I long to know that the stones I am treading in Nazareth are the same which her [Mary’s] feet touched when she was your only place on earth. Meeting you through the stone touched by the feet of your mother....I will walk away as a witness who testifies across the millennia.”

On June 30, 1999, Pope John Paul II quoted that poem in his letter Concerning Pilgrimage to the Places Linked to the History of Salvation. Recalling the importance of sacred places and the desire of many Christians to visit the Holy Land in the Middle Ages, he writes, “And providence decreed that, alongside the brethren of the Eastern Churches, for Western Christianity it would be the sons of Francis of Assisi, the saint of poverty, gentleness and peace, who in truly evangelical style would give expression to the legitimate Christian desire to protect the places where our spiritual roots are found” (#4).

Commenting on his own, hoped-for pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the pope says, “First of all, I very much want to visit Nazareth, the town linked to the actual moment of the Incarnation and the place where Jesus grew ‘in wisdom, age and grace before God and men’ (Luke 2:52). Here Mary heard the angel’s greeting: ‘Hail, O full of grace, the Lord is with you!’ (Luke 1:28). Here Mary spoke her fiat [Let it be] to the message that called her to be mother of the Savior and, overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, to become the womb that would welcome the Son of God” (#7).

“To go in a spirit of prayer from one place to another, from one city to another, in the area marked especially by God’s intervention, not only helps us to live our life as a journey, but also gives us a vivid sense of a God who has gone before us and leads us on, who himself set out on man’s path, a God who does not look down on us from on high, but who became our traveling companion” (#10).

 

Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M., is associate editor of this magazine and author of Day by Day With Followers of Francis and Clare (St. Anthony Messenger Press). He visited Nazareth in 1990 and 1998.

 

 


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