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Photo: Melanie Williams

The Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth, Israel

A Holy Land Pilgrimage: Pt. 1 — Where the Word Became Flesh

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The ruins of Herod's palace in Caesarea overlook the Mediterranean Sea. Saint Paul was once imprisoned here.

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The ruins included an arena for chariot races, a temple, an amphitheater, and an ancient Roman aqueduct. A tablet with the inscription of the govener who dedicated the place reads "Pontius Pilate," proving to skeptical historians trying to debunk Christianity that Pontius Pilate was a real person.

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Inside the Stella Maris monastery on Mt. Carmel.

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The cave in which the prophet Elijah hid from the prophets of Baal before defeating them in 1 Kings 17.

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The view of the Mediterranean Sea from Mt. Carmel. This is the view Elijah told Ahab to look at in 1 Kings 17:41-46.

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The Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. Within this Church is the well from which Mary would draw water for the Holy Family and do their laundry.

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The entrance to the well from which Mary would draw water for the Holy Family and do their laundry.

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Iconography in the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth.

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An ancient icon of the Annunciation.

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The Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. Within this Church is the home of Mary, where the Archangel Gabriel came to her and announced the miraculous conception of Jesus in her womb by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. The façade reads, verbum care factum est et habitavit in nobis, "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (Jn 1:14).

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Images of Our Lady from different nations surround the Church of the Annunciation.

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Inside the lower level of the Church of the Annunciation. Behind the gates lies the remains of the cave-home of Mary, where the Archangel Gabriel appeared to her.

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The excavated cave-home of Mary. The altar reads in Latin, "The Word became flesh here."

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The excavated remains of St. Joseph's workshop lie here beneath the Church of St. Joseph in Nazareth. A mural depicts a day in the life of the Holy Family.

By Melanie Williams (Feb 6, 2018)
From Oct. 26 - Nov. 5, 2017, staff writer Melanie Williams went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Having walked where Jesus walked, prayed where He prayed, and experienced the current Middle Eastern cultural and political climate, she would like to share some of her pilgrimage and journey with you. Today, in the first part of an nine-part weekly series, we begin with her first full day of pilgrimage. Staying in Galilee, she travelled from Caesarea to Mt. Carmel and finished her day in Nazareth, where the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and the Word became flesh.

For centuries, Christians have made pilgrimages to the Holy Land out of devotion or penance. In times past, making such a pilgrimage often required a long and strenuous journey on foot or horseback through violent territories. Pilgrims most likely would not return home. Thanks to modern technology, the Holy Land is now just an 11-hour plane ride away from New York City.

I boarded the plane along with 22 other pilgrims in our group; we were among hundreds of secular and orthodox Jews and other Christian tourists of all denominations. As soon as we landed in Tel Aviv, I knew I "wasn't in Kansas anymore" — I was in the heart of the Middle East. I found myself among a mixture of cultures and races, religions and ideologies. To the Jews, this is Israel. To Muslims, this is Palestine. To Christians, increasingly fewer in number, this is the Holy Land.

We began our first full day driving to the former capital of Judea, Caesarea. King Herod had created a palace here, and it was also one of the locations in which St. Paul was imprisoned for preaching the Gospel. The once-thriving palace-turned-metropolis is now ruins, an archeological site, following the Muslim conquest in the 7th century.

From there we journeyed to Haifa, a city on the Mediterranean Sea well known to tourists seeking rest and relaxation. Haifa is also home to Mt. Carmel. Yes, the Mount Carmel. Upon this mount you find Stella Maris, a Carmelite monastery. The Church is built to surround a cave in which the prophet Elijah gathered the Israelites to confront the prophets of Baal and show who the true God is (see 1 Kings 18).

From there we continued on to Nazareth, where the Word became Flesh. We first stopped at an Eastern Orthodox church built upon the well that, tradition holds, Mary would come to for water and to do the laundry of the Holy Family. It struck me how real and ordinary the life of Our Lady must have been. She was a girl, a young woman, who cared for her husband and son.

We walked the path she would have walked down to her home, now the Church of the Annunciation. As we shuffled through the narrow streets, suddenly a very loud voice filled every space around me. I didn't know where it was coming from. It was so loud that it was deafening. I looked to our guide who didn't seem fazed at all. He explained it was the Muslim call to prayer. On top of various houses and buildings in every city there are loud speakers tasked with announcing a recorded call to prayer, which is then sung in Arabic. It is played seven times a day to remind everyone in the town that it is time to pray and worship "Allah."

Here I was, thinking I was just going to go see a holy place, the place where Jesus was conceived and where the Holy Family lived, but I realized that in today's modern world, I was surrounded by so much more. I was in the middle of a very Muslim town. Being a girl from Indiana, it's safe to say my greatest exposure to Islam up unto this point had been through news broadcasts on the television. Now, I found myself on their turf. Muslims that I encountered were very peaceful people. In these villages, Christians and Muslims are neighbors, their children run the streets together, grow up together, and they both are facing persecutions by the government. Little did I know how much I would come to know about their daily life on this pilgrimage, more of which I will share with you as we go along this journey together.

We then came upon the Church the Annunciation — with its massive limestone façade and the Latin words across it: verbum care factum est et habitavit in nobis, "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (Jn 1:14).

The lower level of the Church of the Annunciation contains the remains of the cave in which Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, lived and where the Archangel Gabriel appeared to her. In Latin, the altar reads, "The Word became flesh here." I fell to my knees. I was literally on holy ground, where this mystery of our faith that I've heard about since childhood actually occurred. It struck me again how real Mary was, how she walked and lived upon this earth, in this home built out of a cave (as were most homes at that time), and God sent His Word to become flesh in her womb, for the salvation of humanity.

We then went on to the next church, which neighbors the Church of the Annunciation: the Church of St. Joseph, built above the place believed to be the workshop of St. Joseph.

Our guide explained to us that one of the main resources of the area at the time of Jesus was stone, and it was also the most common building material. In the Scriptures, the Greek word tekton, meaning "builder or artisan," was used to describe Joseph. He most likely worked with both wood and stone. Furthermore, Joseph most likely walked 50 minutes to work every day from Nazareth to Tzippori, a local Roman city that was being rebuilt at the time.

The only reason Nazareth became a place where people lived was because of the nearby work in Tzippori. Nazareth came to be what we would liken to a mining or workers' village. That is why people said in the Gospels, "What good can come from Nazareth?" (Jn 1:46). It was a small, backwater town at the time of Jesus. It didn't even make the list of towns on the Roman census.

We ended our day by celebrating Mass in the Church of St. Joseph. At every holy site in the Holy Land, whatever the site commemorates, you celebrate the liturgy for that event, rather than the liturgy for the day. So, since we were in Nazareth, on the property of the Church of the Annunciation, we celebrated the liturgy for the Solemnity of the Annunciation. As I sat in the church built above the workshop and home of the Holy Family, I meditated upon the love that the Holy Family had for each other, for God, and for their neighbor, day in and day out. I prayed that I, too, may imitate Our Lady's "yes" to God's will and live each and every day in simplicity, humility, and love.

By the time we finished in Nazareth most of the churches were closing down for the day in Galilee, so we headed back to our hotel on the coast of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus spent so much of His time preaching and healing.

As I lay down to sleep, I reflected upon the whirlwind of our first day, and wondered what God had in store the following day. I knew that whatever it was, it would be amazing.

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Lmk - Apr 2, 2018

Thank you for taking us along on your trip to the Holy Land. Each stop you detailed so well. Your photos, descriptions and impressions, simply brought these profound sites to life. Thank you so much for sharing.

Jean Pergande - Feb 6, 2018

I tried to print the story but it only printed the photos and not the story.