9: Where Mary was born
When we think of Mary at the time of the Annunciation, we may well imagine a young country girl, perhaps a little naive, not quite versed in the ways of the world. The reality probably was quite different.
The New Testament does not tell us where Mary was born. The apocryphal gospel of James, written in the 2nd century, locates her birthplace near the temple in Jerusalem, which was the city of her parents, Joachim and Anne.
The remains of a 5th century church named in honour of Marys birth seem to confirm the notion that Our Lady was indeed born in Jerusalem. According to the accomplished Holy Land scholar Fr Bargil Pixner OSB, she came from a theologically sophisticated family with probable ties to the Essenes one of the three Jewish schools of rabbinical thought at the time.
According to Fr Pixner, Mary might have committed herself to a chaste life from an early age. This was a time when it was unthinkable that a Jewish woman would not seek a life of vigorous procreation. Only the Essenes, the creators of the Dead Sea Scrolls, would have applauded the girls decision.
And so the chaste Mary married Joseph (according to Fr Pixner probably a widower, also with Essene links, with four sons and a vague number of unnamed daughters) who would respect her chastity as well as her unconventional pregnancy and live with her in the tiny Galilean hamlet of Nazareth. Marys parents, meanwhile, would have remained in Jerusalem.
When Jesus healed the man who had been paralysed for 38 years at the Bethesda Pools, near Jerusalem’s Lions (or St Stephen’s) Gate, he might well have been in the area to visit his maternal family. Indeed, next to the ruins of the colonnaded pools, there is a 12th century crusader church named after St Anne, mother of Mary (and near which the remains of the church marking Mary’s birth were found).
For all its austere simplicity, St Anne’s church has remarkable acoustics. These were tested by the ramshackle choir that was our pilgrim group of 45, before one Fr Michel Lavoie, a Canadian White Father based at St Anne’s, gave us a proper demonstration. It was the second time in two days, after our visit to Shepherd Fields in Bethlehem, that a religious named Michel had sung for us. Fr Lavoie was particularly happy to meet a group from Africa, having been stationed in Tanzania for some years. He seemed to know all the White Fathers based in South Africa.
Earlier in the day we had recalled Jesus looking down on Jerusalem and weeping for the destruction of the city that would not recognise the Son of God. As he beheld Jerusalem from the slopes of the Mount of Olives, he looked upon the enormous temple, which he knew so well.
It was in the temple that Jesus made his first utterance to be recorded in the New Testament. And two years before his death he came to the temple and showed his angry side. It is one of the great stories in Scripture: gentle Jesus losing his temper! He was human after all.
Some years ago there was an article in The Southern Cross about whether Jesus ever laughed. One theologian proposed that Jesus probably never laughed, because he could anticipate all the punchlines. What a morose view of the soul! Of course Jesus showed emotion. He wept for dead friends and for a desolate future. He showed consideration when others showed intolerance. He showed compassion. He was fully human. Humans lose their temper. And humans laugh and cry.
Jesus frequently went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as was required of all Jews. He knew the temple well, and he foresaw its destruction. After the failed Jewish uprising against the occupation, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, and with it the temple, in September 70. All that has remained of the temple’s structure is a wall, which during the diaspora the scattering of Jews around the world was known as the Wailing Wall. Since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 it has become known by its positional name, the Western Wall.
People come here to pray, and not just Jews. Pope John Paul II prayed here in 2000, inserting a small piece of paper into a crevice in the wall, as is the custom, praying that the anti-Judaism committed in the name of the Church over two millennia be forgiven.
The time of our pilgrimage coincided with the week-long celebration of Israel’s Independence Day. The area around the Western Wall was packed with young, dancing people draped in Israeli flags, an impressive show of national pride. As I put my hand in prayer on the Western Wall, I asked that one day young Palestinians might exhibit similar joy in celebration of their independence day.
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