There are in Nazareth some extensive remains of first-century caves which, from their antiquity and location, could conceivably have been the home of the Blessed Virgin at the time of the Annunciation, or of the Holy Family thereafter. Each of them had been protected and built on, first by a Byzantine, later by a Crusader church. Today they have evolved respectively into the Basilica of the Annunciation and the house of the Sisters of Nazareth, an order of 19th-century French origin.
The basilica is one of those vastly impressive Roman Catholic pilgrim churches, all bright piazzas and shining stones that are surrounded by images of the Virgin drawn from all over the world (including our own Lady of Walsingham). Inside the church, a grotto is the focus of devotion and sight-seeing: an icon and a brace of altars hallow the space where X marks the spot of Gabriel’s piously-supposed greeting. Whatever the caveats of the scholars, the eye and heart are led irresistibly to this place of the announcement of our salvation. One can almost feel the feathery touch of angel-wing, and hear the devout salutation: ‘Hail, Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women.’
Outside the church, as you line up to take your picture of the stonework, you feel the excitement of the overwhelming ‘What if?’, then set off obediently into the souk, with its array of lamb carcasses, plastic toys and sun hats.
Even more impressive are the excavations at the Sisters of Nazareth. Led by a tiny Irish nun into the bowels of the earth (she’d been a headmistress for forty years, and it showed), we were met by a single doorway, carved into the ancient rock, which opened up the possibility that here indeed was the house where the Holy Family had made their home. Why else (the argument runs) would the Byzantines have built their so-called Church of the Nutrition here, if this had not been a site already hallowed by tradition and identified as the place of the Lord’s nurture?
This is the question our nun put to us, a lifetime of faith and hope shining in her eyes.
And it is a tempting thought that, on this very rock where I am standing, my Saviour once whittled a stick or ate a pomegranate, or fired a catapult, while his Blessed Mother hung out the washing, and St Joseph knocked up a three-piece suite.
But, in the end, the theological significance of Nazareth will always trump the merely biographical. Yes, archaeology takes us so far: it is estimated, for example, that Nazareth was a village containing no more than 200 individuals, most of them children. It was a poor place; truly the back of beyond, and entirely understandable that in the Old Testament it isn’t mentioned once, and in the New it’s the place, famously, from which ‘nothing good’ can be expected to come. Yet it is here among the dirt-poor of Galilee that Mary is prepared and called to be the mother of the Saviour. Through her youth and unmarried condition, she is another of the Bible’s many women in whom the gift of childbirth could be expected. But the Spirit blows where she will, so it is here among the hungry and thirsty that the Word of God became flesh, to be for us the source of living water and satisfying food.
The Zimbabwean clergy who are our fellow pilgrims obviously find many telling parallels with their own situation. Their parishioners suffer desperate poverty and real hunger, yet keep the faith with remarkable zeal. They cry out, ‘How long, O Lord?’, but never turn away from God, or believe their faith to be in vain.
They remind me of another group of Christians we have heard about in Tel Aviv. These are the Filipino servants who have made their homes here, without significant income or anything resembling security. Yet they have begun to raise families, and their children attend Israeli schools, speak Hebrew, and are, like those to whom the gospel was first preached, precisely the sort of marginalised poor who come to Christ and his Church in substantial need.
Such a thought sounds an interesting counterpoint to the dominant rhetoric in the Church of England at the moment. We have decided to rely not on greater poverty, but on the diagnoses and prescriptions of a Renewal and Reform programme. This is not to take an easy swipe at that much-needed process. It is, rather, to see that God does not act in accordance with the dictates of humanity; to notice the varying experiences of Christians in Zimbabwe, Tel Aviv and Britain; and to ask whether we Europeans might have things to learn from others as we all try to proclaim God’s Good News to the poor.
The ancient stones of Nazareth, and what they suggest to us, indicate that there is, at least, a conversation to be had.