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Millennium Moment
'Yes' to God

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The Land of Jesus Today
by Stephen C. Doyle, O.F.M.

Muslims and Christian Arabs never make any plans without saying, "In sha allah"—"If God so wills." On March 25, the feast of the Annunciation, Pope John Paul II expects to be in Nazareth, "the town linked to the actual moment of the Incarnation." He wants to kneel in the grotto before the altar with its inscription: "Hic Verbum Caro Factum Est" ("Here the Word was made Flesh").

In sha allah, if God so wills, the pope will be there, united in spirit with the Latin-rite Patriarch Michel Sabbah and thousands of Christians praying: "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed are thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death."

As Christians, in celebrating the Great Jubilee Year 2000 we are reliving events in the lives of Jesus and Mary, events that took place in the Holy Land. Their story is our story. To savor their lives and our salvation history, in this Millennium Monthly we will make a spiritual pilgrimage to Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem.


Nazareth is the only place in the world where a word is added to the Angelus: "HIC Verbum Caro Factum Est" ("HERE the Word was made flesh") is inscribed on the front of the altar now in the cave house where the Annunciation occurred. Here the promise of the title uttered by Isaiah the prophet was fulfilled: Emmanuel! God is with us. God is with us in Mary's womb, because she said yes. Her fiat transformed darkness to light.

That theme is echoed by the architecture of the new basilica, completed in 1968. Its black dome becomes invisible against the night sky. But in its cupola there shines a bright light, seemingly suspended in the sky, giving form to the words of John's prologue: "[T]he light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (1:5).

Dispelling the darkness

It is likely that centuries earlier—after the Babylonian exile—the ancestors of Mary and of Joseph, although originally from Bethlehem, found Nazareth an attractive place to settle. From the time of Joseph and Mary archaeologists have found oil lamps such as they would have used. It takes no stretch of the imagination to picture Mary lighting one such lamp to dispel the darkness. Such a scene would have impressed itself upon the memory of her child who would one day proclaim, "I am the light of the world." And as he ate of the loaf that Mary had baked upon the hearth, he formed the memory that would one day provide the promise of the Eucharist, "I am the Bread of Life."

Several grottoes have been excavated, but only one showed evidence of the bane of modern civilization and the joy of archaeologists—graffiti! In the plaster used to make the first shrine of the grotto, early Armenian pilgrims left a record of their visit to Mary's home and a very early Greek-speaking pilgrim scratched "Xaire Maria." They were already making a prayer of the greeting of Gabriel: Hail Mary.

From the earliest times the name Nazarene ceased to designate just those who lived there. Even today the street that passes through the Christian quarter in Jerusalem is called, in both Hebrew and Arabic, the Street of the Nazarenes. All who, like Mary of Nazareth, say yes to God are known as Nazarenes, for by that act of faith they open themselves to the lordship of Jesus of Nazareth.

The previous church (17th century) is memorialized by the continued use of its altar. There the Son of God and Son of Mary still comes to dwell among us each time the Holy Sacrifice is celebrated. Above the altar is an opening to the upper level, the parish church of today's Catholic Arabs of Nazareth, thus binding together 2,000 years of Church history.

The families of Nazareth believe that some of them may well be descended from the relatives of Jesus. An Arab Franciscan is their pastor. Their children are being educated in the schools run by the Franciscan friars and sisters. If you have ever wanted to see what the Good Friday collection is used for, the young people of Nazareth are one example.

'Inflated expectations'

And if you have ever wondered what Jesus looked like, take a close look at them. The Letter to the Hebrews assures us that Jesus had to become like us in every way, or he would not have been our faithful high priest. He was totally indistinguishable from his contemporaries. That is why so many of them rejected him: He was too much like themselves. They were looking for the extraordinary, and were unable to accept one who was so ordinary. They had decided how God should act, and Jesus would not live up to their inflated expectations. They knew his mother too well, and they knew him too well, and yet they didn't know them at all.

In the marketplace, or souk, are the remains of the ancient synagogue. It has never been excavated but is probably where Jesus learned to read the Hebrew Scriptures before his "bar mitzvah" when he was 12 years old and before he fulfilled the precept of going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Here, too, he revealed his role as messiah to his neighbors: "He came to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the sabbath day. He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written: 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.' Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, 'Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing'" (Luke 4:16-21).


If the Nazareth basilica is among the newest in the Holy Land, the one built over the spot where Jesus was born in Bethlehem is the oldest in the world. The emperor Justinian in the sixth century built the present chapel over the cave-house where Mary gave birth to the Son of God. Under the altar a star marks the spot with its Latin inscription: "Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary."

Pilgrims fortunate enough to be there at noon may join the Franciscans who process to the spot each day singing Adeste Fideles. In Bethlehem, every day is Christmas. After venerating the spot where Mary gave birth to the Son of God, and the place where she laid him in a manger, those who have joined the friars in procession are then able to exit through a door in the rear of the grotto of the Nativity to visit the grottoes of those who were neighbors and unwittingly were "round yon Virgin, Mother and Child," on that Silent Night.

We do not know their names, but their homes have become chapels dedicated to St. Joseph, the Holy Innocents and St. Jerome, who in the fourth century translated the Bible nearby. Franciscan archaeologists have recently uncovered one of the 100 monasteries that St. Jerome tells us were around Bethlehem and Jerusalem in his time. Since the Greek Orthodox are the innkeepers at the Church of the Nativity, and the area for Catholic worship in the grotto is so constricted, Shepherds' Field below the "little town of Bethlehem" is preferred for Mass.


The pope comments that Jerusalem is "especially charged with meaning." It is called the City of Peace (salem = shalom). Here, Abraham, our father in faith, made a covenant of peace with the priest-king, Melchisadek. Seven hundred years later, David made it his capital and the people sang of his offspring who was to come:

May he live as long as the sun endures,
like the moon, through all generations.
May he be like rain coming down upon the fields,
like showers watering the earth.
That abundance may flourish in his days, great bounty, till the moon be no more (Ps 72:5-7).

To gain for us that peace and righteousness, Jesus offered himself. But before the offering on the cross, he offered himself on the table at the Last Supper. The Cenacle (dining room) was the place where his injunction, "Do this in memory of me," was obeyed by the Franciscan custodians until 1530, when it became a mosque. Since 1948 it is a national monument of the State of Israel, because it was mistakenly thought to be over David's tomb.

The tenacious friars, thrown out the front door, have come in the back door by getting possession of the adjacent property. Their Chapel of the Cenacle abuts the original upper room. Behind the altar the famous sculptor, Andrea Martini, O.F.M., has designed an almost life-size representation of the Last Supper with Jesus and his apostles. The bronze figure of Jesus contains the tabernacle, the door of which is the large bronze host Jesus is holding at his breast.

Nearby, in the middle of an abandoned quarry is a small hill of fragmented rock. It was adjacent to the road leading into the city gate, and an ideal place to make an example of criminals (and of prophets without honor in their own country!).

Have among yourselves the same attitude that is
   also yours in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God something
   to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross (Phil 2:5-8).

Recent renovations in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher now allow the pilgrim to see and touch the top of Calvary. A short distance away is what is left of the tomb of Christ. Pilgrims are surprised that the spot of crucifixion and the tomb are in the same church. The tomb was a cave in the wall of the quarry, very close to where Jesus handed over his spirit.

In order to build the church, however, St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, had to cut away the wall of the quarry, and the tomb disappeared. All that remains is the rock shelving upon which Jesus' body lay. The dome above has recently been magnificently redecorated. At the entrance of the little shrine now covering the spot where he rose from the dead burn the candles reminding us once again in the words of St. John: "And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."

Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth
   and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:9-11).

"Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth." That is what the Great Jubilee 2000 is all about.

Stephen C. Doyle, a biblical scholar and author, is an alumnus of the Pontifical Biblical Institute of Rome. His most recent book is A Retreat With Mark: Embracing Discipleship (St. Anthony Messenger Press).


Patriarch Michel Sabbah 

Pope John Paul II's long-awaited visit to the Holy Land (March 20-26) is meant to be a religious pilgrimage to the land of Jesus' birth. As he does in all his trips, the Holy Father will preach a message of love, peace and justice.

But the Jubilee Year papal visit will be a special source of hope to the 175,000 Christians who represent a mere 2.3% of the population there; they come from 15 Christian denominations, primarily Orthodox and Catholic.

In the Holy Land, made up of modern Israel and ancient Palestine, Christians are a minority within a minority, far outnumbered by Muslims and Jews. But, Latin-rite Patriarch Michel Sabbah, bishop of the Diocese of Jerusalem, told Millennium Monthly, "Palestinian Christians have deep roots in the Holy Land. They can trace their lineage back to the origins of the early Church."

According to the patriarch, himself born in Nazareth, "Ours is a special vocation. It is to bear witness to the Lord in his own land. The Church of the Holy Land started as a small church. Today, it is the church of Golgotha, a suffering Church. It continues to be small, just like the group around Jesus was small and suffering. This is the main challenge of our leadership—to help our faithful understand and accept this vocation."

As leader of the Catholic community, Patriarch Sabbah is used to negotiating religious and political land mines and encountering roadblocks of many kinds. He is encouraged by the ongoing and "extensive" dialogue with Muslims, noting that "we are one people, struggling for the same internationally recognized rights." Dialogue with Jewish leaders is both official and unofficial, but less extensive. Differences among them must be settled "in a just way," the patriarch insists.

Just as Pope John Paul II will speak directly with Palestinian Christians during his visit to the Holy Land, Patriarch Sabbah urges all Christians coming to the land of Jesus' birth as pilgrims to do likewise. "It is not the holy bones and stones" that make up the heart of the Church of Jerusalem, he says. "It is rather the faithful who in their turn give a meaning and a life to the holy places. It is by getting in touch with the local Christian communities that pilgrims come to understand the reality and the plight of the mother Church of Jerusalem."*

— by Judy Ball



'Yes' to God

This year's Feast of the Annunciation (March 25) will be marked in Jubilee Year style. Throughout the world, the Church will honor women for their achievements and contributions and invite them to reflect on the challenges they face in the new millennium. The theme of the Jubilee Day for Women is "Women Saying Yes to God."

Meanwhile, Pope John Paul II is expected to be in the Holy Land, where he will visit Nazareth and kneel at the grotto in the Church of the Annunciation. It was there, more than 2,000 years ago, that Mary spoke her yes to God. Liturgical celebrations underscoring the dignity of women will also be held at major Marian shrines of the world and at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome. A prayer breakfast honoring women is planned at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

In local parishes, women are expected to be celebrated at special liturgies and programs. Individual women at home are urged to make the day one of prayer, celebration and enrichment of spirit and body; of gratitude to other women who have been companions on their journey; of celebrating the gift of faith.*



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