September 8 is known in Catholic tradition as the birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary. While the canonical Gospels are silent about her origins, we know about her parents Joachim and Anne, her birth and childhood from the second century Protoevangelium of James. Early Christian tradition places the home of Joachim and Anne next to a double pool that was a popular healing center - the pool of Bethesda, known to us from the Gospel of John:
“Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Hebrew called Bethesda, which has five porticoes. In these lay a multitude of invalids--blind, lame, and paralyzed.” (Jn 5:2-3)
It is there that Jesus healed a paralytic. The double significance of the site as birthplace of Mary and location of a miracle soon turned it into an important Christian sanctuary. The Byzantines built a large basilica, St. Mary of the Probatic, over the pools.” Damaged by the Persian invasions in 614, it was rebuilt and then destroyed by the Arabs around 1010. The Crusaders built a small monastery over the ruins, and in 1030 they also built the present basilica, a large Romanesque church dedicated to St. Anne, above the caves where the memory of the Virgin’s birthplace was kept.
At the end of the Crusader period, St. Anne’s was turned into an Islamic law school, and it fell into neglect under the Ottoman Empire. In 1856, the Ottomans offered the basilica to France, and it was entrusted to the Missionaries of Africa or White Fathers, who have welcomed pilgrims there until today.
The Church of St. Anne is located at the beginning of the Via Dolorosa in the Muslim Quarter, just inside Lion’s Gate at the eastern entrance of the Old City. The complex is an oasis of peace amid the noisy hustle and bustle of the Arab markets. The Basilica is known for its extraordinary acoustics, and visitors are invited to sing their hymns of praise to God before they walk down to the crypt dedicated to Mary’s birth. The massive complex of pools and ruins of the Byzantine and Crusader churches is still well preserved. Visitors can walk down into the deep cistern where water remains, as a memory and perhaps invitation to all those who still seek healing in this place central to salvation history.