Today is the Feast of the Annunciation: the day we remember the Archangel Gabriel visiting Nazareth and telling the Virgin Mary of the amazing and terrifying plan God had in store for her. It's a good day to reflect on my journey, last month, to Walsingham - to the Anglican and Roman Catholic shrines dedicated to the Virgin Mary in that village.
Visiting these shrines stirred a number of thoughts about the way the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church understand Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus. I was moved by the hallowing of this place where both our peoples experienced Mary in the Communion of Saints. Both communions share their ministries at Walsingham in a number of wonderful ways, through the leadership of the Anglican Interim Priest Administrator Fr Philip Barnes and the Anglican Shrine Priest Father Graham Lunn, together with the Roman Catholic Rector, Monsignor John Armitage. This is good, healthy, practical ecumenism; a win-win for the Gospel it seemed to me.
Anglicans and Roman Catholics agree that we venerate and revere Mary as the first Christian, the mother of the church and the singer of the Magnificat. We do not worship her, we value her place in the grace of the incarnation and we are in awe of her conceiving, nurturing, raising and educating of Jesus in the righteousness and justice of God, his true Abba, his Father. In this sense Anglicans can say, with the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, that Mary is Theotokos, the God bearer.
At Walsingham there is an extraordinary chapel: the Holy House; modelled by a vision of what is believed to be Mary’s own house. A wonderful place of prayer where amongst the many candles is one for the Anglican Centre in Rome.
At Nazareth itself there is a large basilica there over the site of what is said to be her actual family home. I visited Nazareth once and had an extraordinary experience of Mary. It was at the site of The Sisters of Nazareth Convent, which is a residential school teaching deaf children in the town of Nazareth itself. The mission was founded in 1855 by a community of nuns who were the first sisters to return. When I called on the Sisters, I was taken deep down underground into an archaeological dig beneath the convent.
On October 18th 1884, a workman, who had been cleaning a cistern underneath the convent, tried to come up and he got wedged in the opening. When his colleagues came to the rescue, they dislodged a stone which fell into an empty space. The workman shone his lamp into the darkness and, to his great surprise, discovered a large underground room with a beautiful vaulted ceiling, which was later found to be the ruins of a crusader church. A large stone set in the floor of the church was removed and the Sisters referred to a persistent smell of incense coming from below which was evident for some four days. It is likely that the chapel was used for the last time by a group of crusaders before going out to battle. They had never returned and were possibly massacred at the Battle of the Horns of Hattin at the beginning of July, 1187, the last battle of that crusade. There were Crusader offerings still lying on the altar.
Further excavation beneath the Crusader church over the decades, revealed the tomb of a Byzantine bishop, who had been entombed in a seated position typical of such burials, a sign that this was a significant site during the Byzantine Christian period from 325 – 634 AD.
Later excavation led the Sisters into another deeper, older chamber where they found a Jewish-style tomb where bodies in antiquity were laid immediately after death and allowed to decompose. After about a year, the bones were collected and removed to be given permanent burial somewhere else. The door to the tomb was sealed with a large rolling stone so big that the Sisters couldn’t move it. This seemed to verify the ancient New Testament Jewish custom during the Roman occupation of the first century AD, of burying loved ones in a chamber sealed by a large stone, which is, of course, what happened to Christ.
The most moving discovery for me, as I went down through the layers of the dig, was the fact that the tomb is alongside a 2000 year old Jewish house which had been carefully enshrined and protected by the church buildings above it over the centuries. The basics of the structures had survived underground even though the site had obviously been filled in and rubble had piled up over the time that followed Muslim rule.
Is this dig then the site of the house where Mary and Joseph lived after they returned to Nazareth? (Matthew 2:23). Byzantines liked to build their churches close to known holy sites and the Crusaders followed this tradition. There was also a holy well associated with the Byzantine church where the people of Nazareth came to draw water. This may well have come to be a shrine because it was associated with a place where Mary, Joseph and Jesus actually lived. There were still old records of a long lost “Church of the Nutrition” in Nazareth which it was said was built over the place where Jesus was brought up as a boy.
Standing at the base of the dig, sixty feet down in a 2000 year old Jewish house of some great significance, it seemed to me at the time that I could well be standing in the place where Mary of Nazareth nurtured and raised Jesus. When the Sisters bought the land on which the Convent stands, it was known to locals as the “Field of the Just Man”, and also known as a place associated with the tomb of a saint. An Anglican excavator of the site told me that he believes that these phrases may well refer to Saint Joseph of Nazareth. Joseph, known as the just man, had stood by Mary in her embarrassing pregnancy, as a just act, and may have been buried in the tomb at the base of the dig.
Whether or not this can be verified, what is significant is that over 2000 years later, long after the Crusaders, the Byzantines and the Romans in Palestine have disappeared, the song that Mary of Nazareth sang before Jesus’ birth is heard and valued all over the world. Mary was inspired by the much older song of Hannah the prophet, in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, and must have raised Jesus in this prophetic tradition of the quest for righteousness and justice. Mary’s song sings of a God who:
“has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, brought down the powerful from their thrones, has lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things.” Luke 1:51-53
For all their military, commercial and cultural might, which is now mostly dust, the Crusaders, the Byzantines and the Romans are not shaping the spiritual lives of millions of people today, the way Mary is with her song. The new creation that came from Mary’s womb has gone on re-creating the world ever since. The justice and righteousness she sang about became flesh in Christ and inaugurated the salvation of the world.
But what would this song mean for us today, over 2000 years later? Put in personal terms today, the vindication over time of God’s people and the values of God’s kingdom, that Mary sang of, can lead us to a new way of thinking, attributed to Mother Teresa as follows:
People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centred.
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.
Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, will often be forgotten.
Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.
Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God.
It was never between you and them anyway.
These are the things that endure, that outlive the powers and empires of the world. These are the values that are vindicated in the end, as Mary’s hope was.
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