Friday, April 6, 2012

Steps of the Franciscans

It’s Holy Week in Jerusalem! For the Western Church, that is (the Eastern Church celebrates one week after the Western Church this year). Accordingly, I thought I should probably post my Palm Sunday update before Easter Sunday arrives... :]    

Palm Sunday was a delightfully busy day; I was able to celebrate at two morning services – Catholic and Anglican – and by taking part in the procession down the Mount of Olives toward Jerusalem, an annual event that commemorates Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem some 2000 years ago. The combination of the three kept me -- and a number of my JUC peers! -- on my feet from 8 in the morning to 5 in the evening, and here I’ll provide a glimpse of just one…

Three friends and I awoke in time to arrive at the Catholic Palm Sunday service at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre -- a note on the Holy Sepulchre, before I go any further: it’s perhaps the most magnificent church in the Old City in terms of history and general grandeur; originally built in Constantine’s time, it’s seen several stages of destruction and repair. It’s a particularly encouraging symbol of a step in the direction of Church unity: here, Eastern and Western Christians share the space for services and worship (wow!). Back to Palm Sunday, though: my friends and I weren't the first to arrive -- as we made our way to the outskirts of the crowd gathered by the Franciscan chapel, hushed voices and shifting feet marked the atmosphere of anticipation. The Franciscan chapel is next to the traditional place of the burial tomb of Jesus Christ, which is actually inside the walls of the church. A towering monument marks the location, and above it is a massive domed ceiling with a window at the top that allows sunlight to stream in from above. Here's a look at it:

Within ten minutes, the Franciscan priests filed out and the service began. The richness of liturgy and incense filled the church and sent echoes bouncing off the massive stone walls surrounding us. The priests, robed in red and white and bearing palm branches, began to process around the tomb of Christ, with those holding staffs and flickering candles leading the way. The deep voice of the organ joined in, and the crowd parted to let the line of priests through. When they had passed, a woman hurried over to our side and shared a bunch of olive branches (quite plentiful in this land!) with a man on my side. He took some and passed the rest around – and so I acquired my own little sprig of olive. The congregants had begun to follow in the steps of the Franciscans, and my friends and I joined in. At each Hosanna! (‘Save now!’ – the expression that the people used to usher Jesus into Jerusalem those many years ago), each palm and olive branch was waved high in the air, remembering Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

As we processed around the tomb, I realized that while I was swimming in a mass of strangers and foreign languages, the sense of unity in the place was incredible. I looked around and found that I could see -- albeit only partially -- into the souls of people I didn’t know; the radiance on the Franciscan priest’s face, the anticipation of the expression of the man beside me, and the smile of the silent woman across from me each revealed such deep authenticity that they didn't seem so much like strangers at all.

As we continued around the monument, the faithful drumbeats of the priests’ staffs on the old stone floor as they walked echoed in the church and in my mind, and I thought about the richness that the Catholic and Orthodox traditions of Christianity have preserved. It’s incredible to think about the years and years of accumulated practice, rehearsed hundreds of thousands of times, and again played out here, one more time. Part of the beauty that I find in such tradition is its holistic nature – that is, how fully it incorporates both physical and spiritual aspects of our humanity. Here, we worshipped with our eyes, taking in the sight of palm branches held high above the crowd and the faint morning light through the window high above; we worshipped with our ears, listening to the liturgy and the organ and faithful beat of the priests’ staffs; we worshipped with our sense of smell, the incense reminding us of our prayers and praises rising to heaven; and with our lips, if we knew the Latin or Italian (several of us did not, but we could join in with the Hosannas, or even in the liturgy if we happened to glimpse a copy of the text held by a neighbor beside us!); and with our fingers, as we waved our own palm and olive branches; and with our feet, as we walked together, remembering the procession of people who accompanied Jesus to Jerusalem. 

The rest of Holy Week here has been something of a blur, involving a number of other services and events in anticipation of Passover and Easter, a lot of research as those once-distant deadlines are beginning to draw near, and not quite enough sleep! It's worth it, for sure -- we all figure we can catch up on sleep later. (: For now, though, I wish each of you a meaningful Good Friday and a rich & joyous Passover! More photos from Palm Sunday below...

Above: Palm Sunday morning at Christ Church, the Anglican church just a few minutes' walk from JUC. They make good neighbors!

Above: Palm Sunday procession down the Mount of Olives toward the Old City of Jerusalem. On the right just over half-way up the photo are the walls of the Old City, and to the left of them, the modern road weaving its way around. 

Above: Remembering. 

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