In spite of the fact that it towers over the city of Nazareth, I went to Israel twice before seeing the Church of the Annunciation. After being in the quiet holiness (even with the cranky overseer) of St. Gabriel's, I wasn't sure if I even wanted to go. But go I went ... and I found it to be an absolute "must see" when traveling to the Holy Land.
While the Church of the Nativity is the oldest church in Israel, the Church of the Annunciation is the largest. The outside is arranged with walkways -- both covered and not -- filled with paintings, statues, and other pieces of artwork, all created to honor Mary, the mother of the Christ. Inside, on the lower level, the Grotto of the Annunciation is the focal point below. This is the place where, tradition holds, Mary lived with her parents and where she received the words of her future from Gabriel. The upper level's focus is not only the dark wooden pews shining high with years of polish and patina, but also the continued memorials to Mary. The floors are marble, within them depictions of angels.
I looked forward to my friends coming to see what I'd seen years earlier. Together we walked among the pilgrims outside. Below the church, in the grotto, we sat quietly at thought of what it must have been like to have been the young girl -- her whole world ahead of her, a natural world, a world of marriage and children -- to be called to such a task. Above, as we walked under the lily dome and as we listened to visitors below singing "Hallelujah," we marveled at the gifts in honor of this woman/child.
When there was nothing left to do, we returned to the real world, where beneath the church is found remnants of 1st century Nazareth. A reminder, I suppose, that life truly existed here once upon a time, and that Mary's life -- and Joseph's and the little boy Jesus -- was not a fairytale in a book we call the Bible.
Inside the Grotto (video)