In Holy Week my mind turns to Jerusalem, as I recall my participation in the liturgies and pilgrim devotions there. It is also a time for remembering the Church of Jerusalem. Palm Sunday is a special day for Holy Land Christians as they turn out for the procession from Bethpage down the Mount of Olives, past the graves of those buried facing west toward the Golden Gate, where by Jewish tradition the Messiah is expected to appear to establish the kingdom, to St. Anne’s in the Old City. During the last two decades, the Palm Sunday procession has become a festival of Palestinian Christian identity, with the faithful pouring in from all over the region, from Galilee and, if possible, the West Bank as well as Jerusalem.
The route is so crowded the best word to describe it is “thronged” with people. Boy scouts in uniform, some quite beyond adolescence, provide crowd control along the margins of the road. Religious in a great variety of habits are strung throughout the crowd, and prelates of the different Catholic churches in their distinctive robes come toward the end, with the canons of the Holy Sepulchre and the Latin Patriarch at the very end. When the procession ends at St. Anne’s, those privileged to squeeze into the monastery garden hear an exhortation from the patriarch followed by blessing with a relic of the true cross.
The Palm Sunday procession, a walk of a few kilometers under the hot sun, pressed around with sunburned, dusty pilgrims from many lands, may be as close as today’s Christians will ever get to feeling what it was like to celebrate a holy day in St. Helena’s Jerusalem.
I associate Holy Thursday with the Cenacle or Upper Room, but that site was taken over by the Muslims centuries ago, and the lower floor is now occupied by a yeshiva. Elsewhere the day might be an occasion for interreligious dialogue. In Jerusalem, it prompts scrupulous observance of the Status Quo agreement, which allows various denominations and religions to share the same holy sites. On Holy Thursday, I think instead of the Olivetan Benedictine double monastery of Abu Gosh, built on the ruins of a 12th-century Crusader church, where the monks and nuns chant the liturgy in antiphony. “Ubi Caritas,” beautiful wherever it is sung during the washing of the feet, is ever so beautiful reverberating within those ancient stone walls.
On Holy Thursday night and early Good Friday, I think of St. Peter in Gallicantu, the traditional site of Jesus’ imprisonment, the trial before Caiaphas and Peter’s denial (see Am., 1/24). The Pit, the hollowed-out cistern where Jesus is said to have been kept the night before his death, is the very best place to share in his hour of darkness. St. Peter’s is also where in 1998 I watched the announcement of the Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement, and so I pray that day for peace with justice and forgiveness in the Holy Land, too.
On Good Friday, I also think of the Calvary Chapel at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The chapel itself, though I have been privileged to celebrate Mass there a number of times, does little for me until I think of the frail Pope John Paul II making his way back there, up the very steep steps, at the end of his pilgrimage in 2000, to pray in solitude for 45 minutes. He had more true feeling for the marbled-over Golgotha than I ever will.
The nearby Holy Sepulchre, with its low entrance, recreates the sensation of the disciples bending down low to peer into the empty tomb. But for Easter, I think of the Easter Vigil service at Abu Gosh, where deep in a crypt beneath the church, amid candlelight, for catechumens and infants baptized into Christ’s death and rising, the resurrection is made real again.