When we think of the Holy Land, we tend to think of the places in which Jesus lived, taught and ministered. It’s easy to forget that Mary walked the Holy Land, too — and in many of the same places that we think exclusively of Our Lord.
On a recent trip to the Holy Land — when Pope Francis was there in May — I was privileged to visit the places in which Mary lived, worked and allowed herself to be the instrument of our salvation.
When I wrote my book Imitating Mary: Ten Marian Virtues for the Modern Mom, I researched these places, putting together piece by piece what they must have looked and felt like. I wanted to get as close as possible to re-creating the reality of Mary’s life and surroundings. My work on the book brought me closer to her than I had ever been before.
But following Mary’s footsteps through the Holy Land brought my relationship with her to a new level. It was a profound experience.
Home With the Holy Family
My first stop was the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. The current church was built in the 1960s, over the remains of Byzantine and Crusader churches. Inside the church is the cave in which Gabriel appeared to Mary and issued God’s request that she become the Mother of God. It has been a place of pilgrimage since the earliest times of Christianity.
The basilica itself is beautiful, but the centerpiece, of course, is the grotto, which is contained in a lower floor of the church and can be viewed from the circumference. Pilgrims descend a set of stairs and file past the grotto, which is monitored by the Franciscans, the basilica’s custodians.
At first, I was irritated by the way the friars move pilgrims along, but as I stood before the site of the Incarnation, I realized that if they didn’t keep us moving, we would stay there forever. I was completely elated.
Many years ago, we enthroned the Virgin Mary in our home, and, now, I could tell her, "Blessed Mother, you visited my home; now, I’m visiting yours."
My gratitude for Mary’s fiat brought me to tears.
Also at the site, I was able to view an excavation of Nazareth under the Church of St. Joseph (next to the Basilica of the Annunciation), which showed what the home of Mary and Joseph looked like. It’s stark, stone and cave-like, which is how the people of that time lived — far different from the pictures in the Bible storybooks that we read to our children.
Although it actually came later in my trip, I want to include here my stop at the Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem. As is with many of the Holy Land sites, the Church of the Visitation is newer (the lower church was restored in 1862; the upper church was restored in 1955), because of the destruction wrought by the Ottomans and Crusades.
Inside is the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah, where Mary visited her cousin while they were both pregnant. As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one thing to do in this holy place — pray the Magnificat.
As I did so, I pictured the cousins’ jubilant greeting and its incredible testimony to Christ’s divinity and also the humanity of the unborn. I thought of how, when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, St. John the Baptist leapt in her womb. The Visitation has always been my favorite decade of the Rosary, and so this barren cave dwelling touched my heart deeply.
The Church of the Nativity is amazing and is built over the site of Jesus’ birth. The first church was built in 339 by Constantine and his mother, St. Helena, in order to protect and commemorate this holy site. Having weathered destruction at the hands of the Persians, Muslims, Ottomans and the Crusades, the current church is a blend of reconstruction from various periods. Custody of the church is shared by Roman, Armenian and Greek Orthodox Catholics.
The night before my visit, there had been a fire in the Grotto of the Nativity, which lies beneath the main altar. Even though I wasn’t able to enter the grotto itself, I stopped for contemplation in the cave of St. Jerome, which is close by and also under the church. Here, I felt absolute awe and a profound sense of my smallness as a human being. I closed my eyes and "saw" the Holy Family, with Mary cradling the Infant Jesus in her arms; and I felt a closeness to her that is indescribable, recalling the way I had cradled my own infant children in my arms. I uttered prayers of praise and thanksgiving for the miracle of the Savior’s birth.
Meeting Mary in Cana
Next, I visited the Cana Catholic Wedding Church, also known as the Franciscan Wedding Church. The church has two levels. The upper level contains a simple chapel, and the lower level contains a chapel and small museum with artifacts, one of which is said to be one of the six jars in which Jesus turned water into wine. Records indicate that the original church was built by St. Helena in the fourth century, and the current church was consecrated in 1883.
As I knelt in the upper church, I could "see" and "hear" Mary, Jesus and the disciples, as well as the wedding guests, talking, laughing, eating and dancing. I felt almost as if I was at the wedding with them. With one of my children having been married last year and another marrying this year, Cana was a very important place for me, and I prayed especially for my children there.
Mary and Jesus in Jerusalem
In Jerusalem, the places of Mary and Jesus converge. I walked the Via Dolorosa, remembering that Mary accompanied Jesus at each Station of the Cross. At the Fourth Station, I thanked her for enduring such profound grief for our sake, and at the 13th Station, I expressed my sorrow for my own sins and for those of all mankind. In the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which has been the site of liturgical celebrations since the time of the Resurrection, I touched the rock of Golgotha and remembered that Mary had stood there at the foot of the cross, watching her Son die an agonizing death. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was founded by Emperor Constantine in 326, during which time St. Helena discovered the True Cross.
Even as a writer, I find it hard to explain what that moment was like for me; it was a churning mix of sorrow, gratitude and horror at what our sinfulness did to both Jesus and his Blessed Mother.
At Jesus’ tomb, which also is inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, I imagined Mary’s joy at seeing her risen Son, lovingly looking into his eyes and touching his transfigured wounds. I had once heard in a sermon that Mary had to be the first one to whom Jesus appeared, and that’s what I believe. How could it be any other way?
On the day that my group was visiting Jerusalem, we were not able to enter the Upper Room (also known as the Cenacle). It was closed because Pope Francis was going to say Mass there in just a couple of hours. However, I had a few moments to stand in the courtyard, looking up at the windows of the room in which Our Lord had his Last Supper with his disciples — and the same room in which the Church was born.
Mary was there, waiting for Pentecost with the apostles. The room seemed so small, and I wondered how 120 people could fit inside.
Then I thought about the power of the Holy Spirit and the elation Mary must have felt witnessing the fruition of her Son’s life and death. I could picture her beaming with pride as the apostles left the room to preach the Good News.
Not far from the Cenacle is the Church of the Dormition, built in 1910, where Tradition says Mary "fell asleep" and was assumed into heaven. In the lower level of the church is a chapel with a statue of Mary as she may have looked when she ended her earthly life. The statue is as beautiful as I would have pictured Mary on her deathbed. In my reflection here, I pondered the sadness of the disciples in parting with their dear Mother, and I wondered if they fully understood what was happening.
Following Mary through the Holy Land is both a gift and a task for me. The gift is obvious; the task has yet to unfold.
How can I — how can anyone — visit the places of Mary and Jesus without feeling a responsibility to pass on that gift?
Marge Fenelon writes from