Thursday, September 19, 2013

Verbum caro hic factum est

Even if your Latin is a little rusty, the significance of the additional 'hic' will not be lost on you: Here the Word became flesh. So reads the inscription on the Altar in the House of Mary in Nazareth, over which stands the modern Basilica of the Annunciation, built in 1969. The Altar stands at the side of the lower basilica, whilst the upper basilica fulfils the needs and requirements of large pilgrim groups, being a much bigger church. An octagonal opening in the roof of the lower basilica, the floor of the upper church, allows light to flood into the grotto from the huge conical dome above, built to resemble a lily being offered downwards from heaven.

Lower Basilica
Lower Basilica

Upper Basilica
Whilst visiting recently I was able to play the basilica's new Reiger organs. There is a two-manual in the lower church and a large three-manual instrument in the upper church which has a very useful playback system. I was able to play an improvisation and then wander around the church while the organ played it again, giving me the opportunity to hear how the instrument sounds in the building rather than just at the console. As you might expect, the acoustic in the church is absolutely huge, given its cavernous proportions, but the Austrian firm's voicers have done a tremendous job and the organ sounds with great clarity.

To the side of the basilica is an excavated area including some 1st century dwellings, of which the Blessed Virgin Mary's House is the most significant. Inside an adjoining museum is a stone which is thought to have the earliest 'Ave Maria' carved on it, although it is quite difficult to make out.

The museum also contains the 'Crusader Capitals', beautifully carved sculptures for the pillars of a church which was never built. They were buried to hide them when the town fell to Muslim invaders and were rediscovered relatively recently in immaculate condition: 

There are two other sites of great significance in Nazareth, one being the Church of St Joseph, built over the first century remains of what was thought for several centuries to be St Joseph's carpenter's shop. It later became known as St Joseph's house. The other site is much less well-known, as a result of its hidden location. When I was in Nazareth I stayed at the Convent of the Sisters of Nazareth, just a few metres from the entrance to the Basilica. The Mother Superior told me that when the sisters had bought the site of the convent in 1855, they were charged a premium for the land because they were told that according to local legend, it was the site of the tomb of the 'Righteous Man'. At the time the sisters assumed that this was a ruse to extract a higher price, but when they began to excavate to build the foundations of their convent, some startling discoveries led them to realise that there was indeed something of great significance there.

The Mother Superior took me beneath the cellars of the house which open out into a space which is supported by both Byzantine arches and crusader walls. She explained that they had found a vault which had supported a church, long gone, in which there was a hole through which water could be extracted from a cistern beneath. An exact description of such a church exists in early writings, which was thought to be built over the site of the House of the Holy Family, a cave hewn from the soft rock. It suddenly dawned on me that we were now standing in a cave beneath the vault, with an ancient cistern just to the side. I asked if she was telling me that we were standing in the House of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Being a wise and cautious person, she responded that it is impossible to be sure of anything, but anything is possible. The cave contains the remains of a crusader altar, so it is certainly a site of significance: 

On the other side of the site is a rolling stone tomb, believed to have been the grave of the 'Righteous Man', St Joseph. In my mind's eye I had always imagined that a rolling stone would be enormous, but in fact this stone is only about three feet high. The small entrance, which one would have to crouch to enter, leads into a very cramped tomb containing a flat area to the right where the body would be laid out, and five small niches (one of which can be seen in the photo) in which bodies would be laid to rest. In time, when only bones remained, these would be removed and placed in an ossuary.

Dr Ken Dark, from the University of Reading, UK, has written an in-depth article about these excavations entitled 'Early roman-period Nazareth and the sisters of Nazareth convent' which has recently become available to read online.

The purpose of my recent visit to Nazareth was to work with the Choir of the Basilica of the Annunciation. They were a truly lovely group of people and we particularly enjoyed working on Elgar's Ave verum together. The choir men frequently go to Galilee for all-night fishing expeditions and had just returned from a particularly successful one catching over a hundred fish. They have promised to take me fishing on my next visit. I can't wait.

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