The Church of Saint Gabriel
Where Did Gabriel First Meet Mary?
This site is always part of our live Octagon Tour.
Location - Nazareth
Map Coordinates - 32.707092, 35.301708
Merged Gospels story - 5
This is the traditional site of an ancient spring where it is believed that the archangel Gabriel first spoke to Mary on the day that he told her that she would be the mother of the Son of God.
There have been three churches on this site. The first one was built during the Byzantine years sometime before 670 AD. We learned this from the memoirs of a French Catholic monk named Arculf who visited Nazareth in that year. But this church was destroyed very soon afterward by a Persian army, and it lay here in ruins for about 400 years.
Then the Crusaders came along, and in the twelfth century, they rebuilt the church. But that didn’t last long either, only about 100 years, when it was destroyed by a Muslim army in 1263 AD. Once again, that church lay in ruins for about 500 years. In other words, this church was nothing but rubble much longer than the two brief times that it was in use. But it was finally rebuilt in 1749 AD by the Greek Orthodox community, and that’s the church that stands here today.
You’ll notice that we have to descend four steps to enter the church. Because urban development tends to make cities rise over time, every step downward takes us back in time, and in this case it’s about 300 years per step.
As you first enter the main prayer hall of the church, called the nave, you see that it is beautifully decorated with many icons and frescoes. The difference between these two types of paintings is that an icon is a picture that hangs on a wall, and a fresco is painted directly onto the plaster on the wall.
In the front of the church you can see the richly decorated wooden iconostasis, or icon wall. This wall separates the nave from the altar which is hidden behind it, and this is how Orthodox churches are typically built. The nave represents the earth. The sanctuary and altar behind the iconostasis represent heaven, and the iconostasis itself is symbolic of the separation that exists between earth and heaven. Orthodox priests enter the sanctuary through a door in the iconostasis, just like the Old Testament priests used to do when they entered the Temple sanctuary and the Holy of Holies. Behind the Iconostasis is where Orthodox priests represent the Church on earth to God.
The iconostasis in the front of the church.
What is an icon, and what are they used for? An icon in an Orthodox church is much the same thing as an icon on your computer screen. An icon on your computer is something that stands in the place of something else. It’s just a picture, but it represents a file that is somewhere on that computer. That’s what an icon is in an Orthodox church. It’s generally a picture of a person or a Biblical scene, but the icon is not the person. It merely represents the person. It would be like someone putting a picture of Jesus on their wall, and praying while facing that picture, where they would use the picture to help them visualize Jesus – to concentrate on Him. That’s what an icon is. People don’t pray to the icon. They merely reflect on what it represents.
In both Orthodoxy and Catholicism it is believed that the departed saints or Biblical characters pictured on the icon are currently in the presence of God. Therefore, in these churches, congregation members, in their petitions to God, can and do seek the prayerful assistance and intercession of these departed saints, since these saints have left earth, and they now sit in God’s presence for all eternity. They do this in the same way that a person might ask one of their living friends to intercede in prayer for them as well.
The Crypt Hallway.
The Crusader-era crypt with the Spring of Mary at the Church of Saint Gabriel in Nazareth.
To enter the crypt we have to walk down another seven steps, and in doing so we are going back in time 900 years, to a corridor that dates back to the Crusader era.
The well at the very end of the crypt dates back to prehistory. It is decorated with mosaic tiles, and it leads to an ancient well of Nazareth. This is where the first part of the Annunciation to Mary took place. The walls in this hallway have Arabic writing that says, "The annunciation to the Virgin Mary, nearby the spring”.
The Church of Saint Gabriel was built on this site because this is the location of Mary’s spring, which is today nothing more than a trickle of water that appears briefly above ground. In the time of Jesus, this was one of the places where many of the townspeople in Nazareth came to get their water.
The spring at the Church of Saint Gabriel.
The Catholic Church of the Annunciation, which is a few blocks away, is the location of the traditional home of Mary, where she received the visit from the angel, Gabriel.
What happened in this church?
The Bible doesn’t tell us where Mary was when the angel spoke to her. But there is an ancient book that fills in that gap. Written in about 150 AD, the Protoevangelium of James tells us that it was here that Mary heard the angel say, ‘Hail, you who have received grace. The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women!’ Those words are also found in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 1:28).
Understandably, this startled Mary, and she rushed back to her home, at which time the angel Gabriel continued his conversation with her.
None of that contradicts the Bible, and if it’s true, it means that the annunciation to Mary occurred in two parts, the first part being here, and the second part being down the street, at her traditional home in the Catholic Church of the Annunciation.
How did this story come down to us?
A mosaic at the church showing Gabriel speaking to Mary at the spring.
Much of what we know about Jesus’ early life actually comes to us from Mary, and that includes not only His birth, and His childhood, but also what happened here. And when you’re standing in this crypt, you are inside the three-foot circle of both Mary and probably Jesus as well, since He lived in Nazareth for at least 27 years of His life. The people of Nazareth had been coming to this same site since about 900 BC. And to walk in the steps of Jesus both physically and spiritually is the world’s greatest journey.