When I go to Rome, my favorite place to say Mass is over the tomb of St. John Paul the Great in St. Peter’s Basilica. Being inspired by him and having had the opportunity to meet him make that altar particularly important to me.
In my years of priesthood I have been blessed to celebrate Mass in many important holy places. I have said Mass near the tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul and in the room where St. Catherine of Sienna died. I have prayed Mass at the tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem, near the cave where he was born in Bethlehem, not to mention in Fatima, Portugal, Lourdes, France and at St. John’s in Duluth!
Father Richard Kunst
But no experience of saying Mass in a holy place has quite matched the experience I had of celebrating the Sacred Mysteries in the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth in Israel.
Nazareth, the town where Jesus spent most of his earthly life, was so insignificant that it is not even mentioned in the Old Testament. In fact Scripture scholars say that during the time of Jesus it had a population of only 180 to 220 people, all from the same tribe. The Church of the Annunciation, which is built over the site of ancient Nazareth, actually covers the entire area of the town from the time of Jesus.
Today things are a little different in Nazareth. It is one of the largest towns in northern Israel at over 80,000 inhabitants. Sixty-nine percent of them are Muslim; 30 percent are Christian.
Like many expansive churches, the Church of the Annunciation has many altars on its three different levels, but it is the one in the crypt that is most important. In the lowest level of the church is a simple altar placed in the midst of an archaeological site. Surrounded by ancient, excavated walls that are 2,000 years old, the altar stands at the very site of the Annunciation, standing in the exact location where God leaped down from heaven to earth, the very site of the Incarnation.
Year in and year out, my weekday Mass crowd hears me say the same thing every March 25th: If I were pope for a day I would make the feast of the Annunciation a holy day of obligation, because it is the precise moment God became man. Unfortunately, this most important commemoration of our faith tends to get lost because of its close proximity to Holy Week. In fact it often falls right on Good Friday, which is actually poetic, since Jesus came to earth to suffer and die for us.
Second only to the crucifixion, the Annunciation is portrayed more in art than any other historical event in human history, and for good reason. It is the most important historical event in human history. The very moment Mary responded to the angel, “Let it be done to me according to thy word.” Jesus Christ was conceived in her womb.
This is where Mary receives the title “Ark of the Covenant,” since in the Old Testament the Ark of the Covenant was thought to be the very presence of God on Earth. Now Mary is the new Ark of the Covenant, because though the Old Testament version of the ark was lost 600 years prior to Jesus, now God becomes present in a much more wonderful way, not in a fancy gold box but in the human womb of a virgin.
I love reading the Annunciation passage in the Bible (Luke 1:26-39), but it is the last line of the story which sends a shiver down my spine when reading it.
After Mary agrees to this daunting privilege, the text says, “And the angel departed from her.” There is no sadness in the angel’s departure, because now heaven is present in the person of Jesus Christ — God the Son in her very self. She indeed is the new Ark of the Covenant.
This is our Christian faith. This is the faith that we hold to be true as inspired by God in this beautiful and most solemn feast day that we will celebrate this month.
Here also lies one of the more compelling arguments against the atrocity of abortion. The Christian faith has always made the clear profession that Christ’s life on earth began at the moment Mary agreed to receive him. The precise moment of his conception in the womb was the precise moment of the Incarnation. It is a no-brainer to see how this affirms our Catholic understanding of human life’s beginning as well: at the moment of conception.
How can one argue against that? The Annunciation is not only the moment of the Incarnation, it is also the clearest case for human life.
May our faith be that of the Virgin Mary’s in accepting God’s divine will in our lives, accepting God’s will above our own.
Father Richard Kunst is pastor of St. John the Evangelist in Duluth and St. Joseph in Gnesen. Reach him at [email protected].