Before going on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I eagerly anticipated walking where Our Lord walked, seeing what He saw and thus somehow experiencing what He experienced. So it was a shock and somewhat of a letdown to find many holy sights covered by Churches, like the place where Our Lord sweated blood and the site of the Crucifixion.
But when it came to Our Lady, it didn’t matter as much that some of the sacred places had likewise been turned “outside in”.
Nazareth’s Church of the Incarnation has a newer basilica built right over an older church. The one below seemed like a great cavern to me, with nothing significant to catch the eye except the cave-like structure to which you must descend. Latin words mark a simple altar: “Verbum Caro Hic Factum Est” (“Here the Word became Flesh”). The starkness refreshed the heart. After all, what sort of adornment could do justice to the exact spot where the Creator of the Universe emptied himself of his Godly glory in order to enter time, and put himself at our disposition?
Some iron bars separate you from that ascetic altar, but somehow it’s fitting that the place of the Incarnation is inaccessible to us physically, yet close enough to be contemplated.
Once again, in the case of the Visitation of Mary, there’s a Church marking the site of the home of Zacharias and Elizabeth. There my bioethicist antennas went up when we were told that Mary might have arrived to Elizabeth’s home less than two weeks after the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary.
Here in the States, the legal definition of pregnancy is when the embryo nests in the uterus, which takes about two weeks. A woman is therefore not legally pregnant for the first two weeks after conception. This is a victory for the prochoice movement because it means that hormonal birth control does not have to be labeled as an abortifacient (a drug causing an abortion) even though one way it works is by thinning the lining of the uterus, which makes it difficult for the embryo to nest there. Since stopping implantation “keeps a pregnancy from happening”, according to legal jargon, therefore the effect of hormonal birth control on the uterus does not cause an abortion. However, our Catholic faith teaches us that a human being exists from the moment of conception, which happens around two weeks before implantation.
How does this relate to the actual site of the Visitation? It means Saint John might have been leaping in his mother’s womb at the presence of Jesus in Mary, who wouldn’t have even been acknowledged as pregnant by our legal system. There’s a heavy irony there.
Perhaps these thoughts don’t seem appropriate for someone on pilgrimage in the Holy Land. But Jesus refers to himself as “the Way, the Truth and the Life”. The Biblical passage of the Visitation was already such a prolife moment for me and now is even more so after discovering how quickly the pregnant Mary could have arrived there, carrying Life Himself. Besides Mary, the first human being to acknowledge (by a leap of joy) the recently conceived presence of the Son of God was an unborn child.
Another significant enclosed spot of Our Lady is the Tomb of Mary, which is near to the Garden of Gethsemane. Upon entering, you must descend an age-old, dimly lit stairway. At the bottom there’s a little building inside the Church that marks the tomb where Mary’s body lay.
This is interesting for us Roman Catholics because we’ve been raised on the tradition that favors the view that Mary didn’t actually die. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it like this: “when the course of her earthly life was finished, she was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory…” (#966) The wording leaves room for the possibility that Our Lady only fell into a deep sleep before being taken up into heaven.
Our pilgrimage guide, John Leyendecker, who belongs to the Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic Church, informed us that the Byzantine Catholics affirm that Our Lady did die because she desired to be in conformity with her son who died. John observed that the existence of Mary’s tomb is evidence for their point of view.
John went on to tell us that the Proto-Evangelium of James tells the story of how Mary passed away during the precise period that all of the Apostles were gathered together: during the Council of Jerusalem (cf. Acts 15). But Thomas showed up late and asked to see her. When they opened the tomb for him and witnessed that her body was gone, an angel appeared to them asking: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” Now we know the Proto-Evangelium of James is not one of the books of the Bible, but isn’t it interesting to learn of this ancient account?
Personally, I don’t feel the need to take a stand one way or the other. In any case, both sides seek to give honor to our Mother Mary.
At some point near the end of our pilgrimage, it suddenly struck me that we had visited almost all of the sites corresponding to the mysteries of the rosary, including the three mentioned above. It is Mary then, who takes me back to those sacred places of her Son during my daily recitation of the rosary.
This article was written by Joan Kingsland, Consecrated Woman of Regnum Christi.