With the following presentation the attempt has been made to trace all places which according to tradition, legends and popular piety are in some way connected to the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary. From the outset it is important to note that the apocryphal texts, as well as the legends, customs, and visions referred to in this presentation are in no way authoritative in terms of the historically verifiable proof that Mary visited or lived there. Rather these are traditions which have been preserved and celebrated by Catholic Churches of the East and West as well as visions revealed to three women: Brigit of Sweden (1303-1373), Maria of Agreda (1602-1665) and Ann Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824).
There are very few texts about the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the New Testament. We do not even know where she was born. On July 26 the Catholic Church celebrates the parents of Mary and calls them Anne and Joachim in accordance with the Protogospel of St. James (PGJ). Again there exists no historical evidence, however, of any elements of their lives, including their names. The legend told in PGJ relates that after years of childlessness, an angel appeared to tell Anne and Joachim that they would have a child. Anne promised to dedicate this child to God (much the way that Samuel was dedicated by his mother Hannah -- Anne -- in 1 Kings).
Likewise, the Catholic Church on November 21 commemorates the Presentation of Mary in the Temple. Many of the early church Fathers such as St. Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople and St. John Damascene, his contemporary, preached magnificent homilies on this feast referring to Mary as that special plant or flower which was being nurtured for better things. "She was planted in the House of God, nourished by the Holy Spirit and kept her body and soul spotless to receive God in her bosom. He Who is all-holy rests among the holy." In the Byzantine Church this feast is considered one of the twelve great feasts of the liturgical year, called the Dodecaorton.
Other places of Mary’s life can be verified through the Gospels as, for example, Nazareth or Bethlehem whereby the latter is still disputed among Bible scholars as the birth place of Jesus.
The main source for this presentation is the work of Otto Friedrich August Meinardus. Das Heilige Land: auf den Spuren Marias von Nazaret. Frankfurt am Main, Josef Knecht 1998. The author spent many years in the topographical area of the Holy Land. Besides the Scriptures and PGJ he also refers to other apocrypha such as the gospels of pseudo Matthew and of Thomas as well as the Armenian and Arab Infancy Gospels. Furthermore, Meinardus considers the vision of St. Theophilus from the fourth century who was the twenty-third Patriarch of Alexandria and successor of St. Mark. Other sources are the Coptic and Ethiopian Synaxaria (calendars of the saints) as well as medieval texts from pilgrims to the Holy land and of church historians.A spiritual cyber pilgrimage to the origins of our faith may inspire us to preserve our precious heritage and to pass it on to future generations.
I. Wâdî Qilt
According to medieval Greek-Orthodox tradition Joachim retired to Wâdî Qilt located in the desert between Jerusalem and Jericho. From the old Roman road connecting Jerusalem with Jericho delineates a steep path to Wâdî Qilt known also as the Valley of Achor (Jos 7:26; "Achor" meaning "trouble") where Joshua had Achan executed (Jos 7:10ff). In accordance with religious tradition Joachim stayed in the same cave where the prophet Elija hid and was nourished by ravens (1 Kings 17:3f.). In Elija’s Cave Church wall paintings of Joachim and Anna can still be seen.
At the entrance of Wâdî Qilt a two-room cave is located. Beduins and shepherds of this area named it “Dair al-Banat” which is rendered Cloister of Virgins. They maintain that it was here – that the virgin Anna and wife of Joachim thanked God that she had conceived a child.
II. Pool of Bethesda
Excavations of the Pool of Bethesda.
Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades (Jn 5:2).
The shepherd Joachim (PGJ 4:3f) was familiar with this sight.
Near the Sheep Gate was also a grotto which was used as a maternity grotto and
which later became the crypt of St. Anna Church.
According to Christian tradition, the Virgin Mary was born in a cave near the Bethesda Pool where her Son Jesus would one day perform miracles. In accordance with an old tradition which coincides with the customs of that time Mary was about fifteen years old when she gave birth to Jesus Christ in 7 BC. Hence Mary was born around 22 BC. Coptic tradition holds that Mary was born on a Sunday, the 1 Baschons (May 9), and that she stayed with her parents for the following two years, seven months and seven days.
Already in the third century a small Marian chapel was built at the Pool of Bethesda. During the fifth century Empress Eudokia (348-460) ordered the erection of a Marian Basilica enshrining the chapel. In the sixth century Theodosius (ca 530) mentioned a Church honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary near the miraculous and healing waters of the Sheep Gate. This fact was confirmed by an anonymous pilgrim from Piacenza (570). At the beginning of the seventh century the Patriarch of Jerusalem Sophronius (634-638) refers in a song to Prohatike (Sheep Gate) “where St. Ann gave birth.” This reference was taken up by the crusaders who sponsored by Queen Alda, wife of King Baldiun I, erected a church honoring St. Ann in the year 1150.
When in 1187 Jerusalem was ransacked by Salah ad-Din the church was converted into a Qu’ran School and named Salahiyeh. During the Moslem occupation of Israel, Christian pilgrims had to pay a fee in order to be permitted inside the grotto. Probably the finest example of Crusader architecture in the Land of Israel, St. Ann's Church possesses amazing acoustics which make even a solitary melodic prayer pervade one’s being.
Around 1550 the Franciscans were permitted to celebrate holy mass in the crypt on the feast of Mary’s nativity. Already at the end of the sixth century the feast of Mary’s nativity was commemorated on September 8 which determined December 8 for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
After the Krim war Napoleon III asked for the Church of St. Ann in exchange for the French assistance during the war. Thereupon the French government had the church restored (1877-1878) and the White Fathers were entrusted with its custody.
What first strikes the visitor to St Ann's Church is its
simplicity, both within the unadorned interior and on the clear clean lines of
its facade. Yet there is also a sense of majesty, perhaps lent by the church's
stark cross-vaulted ceilings and giant pillars.
Stone steps descend to the crypt below the church, where an altar is dedicated
to Mary and the ancient rock has been beautifully incorporated into the shrine.
The Protogospel of James situates Mary’s birth in Jerusalem so that her presentation in the temple at age three could occur in the same vicinity. Mary’s presentation in the temple can be paralleled to that of the prophet Samuel. His mother Hannah, who like Anna was also thought to be barren, offered him as a gift to God at Silo (1 Sam 24). The text of the Protogospel of James relates the event when Mary was brought to the temple as a hitherto unheard of gesture since there were no temple virgins in Jerusalem at that time. Mary stayed in the temple until her twelfth year, the beginning of her puberty and her Bath-Mizva. According to Coptic tradition, her father Joachim died when Mary was six years old and her mother when Mary was eight.
The Coptic Synaxar (Liturgical Calendar) celebrates the feast of Mary’s
Presentation in the Temple on December 12. Already in the eighth century the
Byzantine orthodox rite commemorated the event of Mary’s Presentation in the
Temple called Eisodos on November 21. The French diplomat, Philipp de Maizičres
(1327-1405), was acquainted with the feast while in Cypress and introduced it to
Pope Gregor XI who at that time resided in Avignon (1370-78). In 1585 Pope Sixtus V introduced the feast in the Liturgical calendar.
IV. Mary’s Engagement in Jerusalem
The story of the choice of Joseph as Mary’s spouse is reminiscent of the Old Testament Book of Numbers. There we read that among the twelve staffs the staff of Aaron from the House of Levi began to blossom (Num 17:20). The staff was an indication of the dignity of a family and was usually carried by the leader of the clan.
The gospel stories about Nazareth clearly distinguish Mary’s house from that of Joseph. According to Matthew 1:18 Mary lived in her home when she conceived from the Holy Spirit. Only after their engagement did Joseph take Mary home as his wife (1:24). Matthew does not mention the name of the city where the Annunciation occurred. Only after the return of the Holy Family from Egypt does he mention Nazareth as the town where they lived (Mt 2:23). Luke, on the other hand, writes that the angel appeared to Mary in Nazareth (1:26).
in southern Galilee about fifteen miles southwest of the Sea of Galilee (kineret) and
twenty miles from the Mediterranean westward in the basin of the hills of the
lower Galilee. In Biblical time Nazareth was a small agricultural town settled
by a few dozen families. A prophet, king or priest were not expected to ever
come out of Nazareth. This prompted the response of Nathaniel in John 1:46 "Can
anything good come out of Nazareth?" Nazareth was isolated in ancient times
because no trade routes ran through the city and therefore had no economical value.
Two churches in Nazareth claim to be built on the site of Mary’s home The Greek-Orthodox church of St. Gabriel with Mary’s well, Ain Sittna Mariam; and the Latin rite Basilica of the Annunciation.
The Greek-Oorthodox base their tradition on the statement of Protogospel of James “And she took the cup and went out to fill it with water. Suddenly, a voice said to her,
The belief that Mary’s first encounter with the angel took place
at a well has its Old Testament counterparts: the encounter of the chief servant
of Abraham’s household with Rebecca (Gen 24:13ff); Jacob’s meeting with Rachel
(Gen 29:2ff) and Moses’ with Zipporah (Ex 2:16ff).
At the base of the northern slope of St. Gabriel Church are three springs, whose water flows fifty-four feet through a rock-cut channel into the
Greek Orthodox Church (built in 1750, although containing Crusader remains). It then continues underground for five hundred feet to a structure called Mary's Well (first built in 1862 and now restored). This gushing water is significant for two reasons.
First, it is Nazareth's biggest source, flowing at the rate of one thousand gallons per hour in the winter's end (250 in summer). Although there were several smaller springs around the village, and people had cisterns in their homes as well, it is assumed that Mary came to this spring with other women of the village to do the washing. In the West Bank today, many villages still lack piped water and one sees the women at the major spring on laundry day just as two thousand years ago.
Secondly, there is an ancient tradition about this spring. In
the Protoevangelium of James we read that Mary was one of seven unblemished
virgins from the line of David who were supposed to weave a new curtain for the
Holy of Holies in the Temple. It was her task to spin purple and scarlet
threads. That is why, in the iconography, she is sometimes depicted spinning.
The building contains two churches. The lower one, simple in form, is for the use of pilgrim groups, whereas the upper, elaborate church is for the local congregation. Between the two is a large octagonal opening called the "oculus," literally "eye."
modest lower church may be said to represent the human dimension. It includes
the ruins of a Byzantine church, and on its north side is a cave. Here tradition
places the Annunciation. There are even two ancient pillars marking the places
where Mary and the angel stood. More likely, though, the house was above, and
only this cave-basement has remained.
In between the divine (Upper Church) and the human (Crypt below) is the oculus, the opening. If one stands in the upper church when a pilgrim group sings Mass in the lower, the song rises up, and in the air of the oculus one can sense the encounter.
Sections I - V
Sections VI - XI
Sections XII - XVI
Sections XVII - XXIII
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