Each year I’m privileged to visit the Holy Land to promote the nearly 800-year-old mission of the Franciscans there. With each visit, I discover something new. God is always at work, opening up new insights for any pilgrim who visits this ancient land. This spring I spent nearly a week with the friars who live at and minister in the great Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. During my stay I explored this modern church—consecrated in 1969—each day with my camera, photographing the contemporary artwork and striking architecture which helps the visitor come closer to the mystery of the Incarnation.
The Basilica of the Annunciation is divided into an upper and lower church. The lower church contains the inscription under the altar, “Here, the Word was made flesh,” on the spot which recalls the visit of the Angel Gabriel to Mary.
The upper church contains soaring concrete arches and contemporary artwork. Over the confessionals, four marble inlaid panels, created by an Italian artist named Alessandrini, and depict Gospel passages relating to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. As I took a closer look at these four panels, I began to think about what Pope Francis has written and preached during this year—particularly about our practice of confession, and its part in the larger understanding of mercy. One of the four scenes in the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth is the story in Luke 7:36-50. The story Luke relates is about a woman who interrupts a dinner to which Jesus was invited, at the house of Simon, a Pharisee. Her extravagant gestures of washing Jesus’ feet with her tears, drying them with her hair, and kissing his feet, scandalizes the guests. And indeed, the scene must have been shocking!
Jesus makes the point to Simon that “her many sins have been forgiven because she has shown great love.” Scripture scholars puzzle over this, because Jesus seems to reverse himself! In the conclusion to a parable he’s just told—about two debtors who are forgiven, he asks Simon which will love his creditor more? Simon answers correctly that great love follows forgiveness of a great debt. And then Jesus makes a switch, praising the woman’s great love and faith which have preceded forgiveness!
One of my favorite Scripture scholars, the late Father Eugene LaVerdiere, S.S.S., resolves the contradiction by suggesting that Luke has reinterpreted a parable from another source. Luke’s point, he writes, is that she “had already demonstrated her love...[which] had sprung from a faith response to Jesus, whom she recognized as Lord. The woman has thus been saved by loving faith, and sher salvation called forth the Lord’s peace...” (New Testament Message: Luke, Eugene LaVerdiere, S.S.S., Michael Glazier, Inc., 1980, page 110).
Thousands of pilgrims visit Nazareth’s Basilica each year, and many take the opportunity to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation beneath this scene of extravagant love. These pilgrims bring their faith in Jesus and make the “extravagant gesture,” of a pilgrimage, in faith.
Pope Francis is familiar with the faith of those who visit such shrines. In an address to Italian clergy, he noted:
In shrines...we see miracles! Every 27 July, I would go to the St. Pantaleon Shrine in Buenos Aires and I would listen to confessions in the morning. I would return renewed from that experience, I would return shamed by the holiness I would find in simple people, sinners but holy, because they would tell of their sins and recount how they lived, the problem of their son or their daughter or of this or the other, and how they would visit the sick. You could feel the Gospel....The confessionals of shrines are a place of renewal for us priests and bishops; they are a course in spiritual renewal because of this contact with popular piety. And the faithful, when they come to confess, they tell you their miseries, but you see behind those miseries the grace of God that guides them to this moment. (Visit of the Holy Father to Caserta, Meeting with Clergy, July 26, 2014)
You don’t have to make a pilgrimage to a famous shrine during this Year of Mercy. In your home diocese, there is probably a Holy Door you might visit. But even your parish church can be a “shrine” for you! Bring whatever faith the Lord grants you, and express your love by celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation!