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Pilgrimage, Day 8: Leading to the Passion

“This pilgrimage will play out in your lives for days, months, years,” said Fr. George Williams, SJ, in his opening comments of this morning’s talk.  He noted that the pilgrimage/retreat its initial days had been focused upon the “Joyful Mysteries” of the Rosary; however, with Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem, the focus would transition to the “Sorrowful Mysteries” of Christ’s passion and death on the cross.

Then Williams, who has done prison ministry in California’s San Quentin State Penitentiary, compared Jesus’ final day to that of a prisoner.  He challenged the pilgrims to “remember those in prison as if you yourself were in prison.”  He continued that many are in prison aside from the incarcerated: those in “prisons” of loneliness, of addiction, of circumstance, of poverty, or of age, and like some in prison, all of us are facing the death penalty eventually.

With that somber tone, we boarded the busses to the Garden of Gethsemane and the Gethsemane Basilica (Church of the Agony).  This lower valley floor elevation allowed a sweeping panorama of the eastern side of the walled fortress of Old Jerusalem.  A grove of aged olive trees in the courtyard of the massive church were being pruned during our visit.  Apparently the roots of these trees are resilient and quite long-lived, sending out new limbs from gnarled squat trunks year after year.  It was not a large grove, but an impressive one.  Though we were in the brightness of the day, it was easy to get a perspective of Jesus leaving his sleepy disciples behind and finding a quiet place for earnest prayer a stone’s throw away.

The Gethsemane Basilica (Church of the Agony) offered an immense interior, and uniquely, softly muted light filtered through art glass – predominantly purple, complemented to a much lesser extent by pink and white.  The interior gave the impression of night, quite in contrast to the bright morning sun outside.  It was explained that this lighting was intended to simulate the darkness of the night of Christ’s betrayal and arrest.  It certainly was effective in cultivating a reflective, contemplative mood.

We celebrated a pilgrims’ mass in the Basilica, and I had the distinct honor of lectoring from the altar behind the Rock of the Agony, the massive stone site of Christ’s earnest prayer, around which the church was built. 

My assigned reading was from the Book of Isaiah (53:1-7).  Here is an excerpt:  

… Yet it was our infirmities that he bore, 

our sufferings that he endured,

while we thought of him as stricken,

as one smitten by God and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our offenses,

crushed for our sins;

upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole,

by his stripes we were healed.

We had all gone astray like sheep,

each following his own way;

but the Lord laid upon him

the guilt of us all …

From Gethsemane, we boarded the bus for a short drive to the Zion Gate of Old Jerusalem, where we wended our way through narrow streets and passageways to what is traditionally seen a recreation of the Upper Room where Christ and His disciples gathered to celebrate the Passover Feast in the Last Supper.  We shared the space with other pilgrim groups, so the reading of the institution of the Eucharist was not proclaimed in the quiet, but contrasted to more energetic worship. The structure dated back the 12th Century and featured a sculpture gifted by Pope John Paul II.  The sculptural depiction of a tree represented the three faiths centered in Jerusalem: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  A beautiful art glass window over the exit door was awash with brilliant color from the stark light outside.

Old Jerusalem is the first location in the Holy Land that matched my imagination perfectly.  It is a blend of the old and the new, with the old having the upper edge.  Narrow passages with lofty buildings on either side mute the light from the blue sky above, and in any direction, photogenic angles and details presented themselves to my cell phone camera.  I snapped away at the limestone structures, plants defiantly growing out of cracks and crevices, windows and ironwork. All begged to be captured and visually savored – bits of architectural history to take with me in digital form.

We walked a short distance to Saint Peter in Gallicantu, built atop the home of Caiaphas, the Chief Priest of Jesus’ time.  The site commemorates the “trial” of Jesus by the prominent religious leaders of his day and the fulfillment of His prophesy that by the time of the cock’s crow, Peter, the Rock of his disciples, would deny his Lord three times. 

Well under the church were ancient cisterns, one believed to be “the pit” into which the condemned Jesus spent the last night before his crucifixion.  Father George William’s words from the morning talk came to mind as pilgrims descended steps to the tight confines of the cistern, where a Gospel reading was followed by an a cappella rendition of “Jesus, Remember Me.”  I remained above, away from the dense confinement of the cistern, yet the rising voices met me and drew me mentally into that stone prison.

After lunch, pilgrims were presented options: to return to the hotel, to explore Old Jerusalem, or to tour the Mount of Olives.  Most opted for the Mount of Olives, and I was inclined to return to the hotel, but Kristen, one of my fellow Green Bus pilgrims, encouraged me to join her and another in a foray into the marketplace and Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  The 15-minute walk brought us into the marketplace, where mementos were obtained and atmosphere was taken in.

We found our way through the narrow passages to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The forecourt was bustling with pilgrims and visitors, yet it did not compare to the throng of humanity inside the cool of the ancient church beyond the massive wooden doors off the courtyard.  Just inside the doors, pilgrims venerated the Anointing Stone, where tradition says Christ’s body was anointed with oil before burial.

A serpentine line wended about the massive space under the domed roof to enter, to view, and to venerate the Holy Sepulcher – a line frequently estimated at two-hours long.  Our exploration led to smaller chapels, level under level of the towering monument to faith and tradition.

Just as we were leaving, Kristen, the last of our party inside, beckoned us to come back through the doors leading to the courtyard, as a group of Franciscans, clad in their familiar brown robes, processed before the Anointing Stone, stopped in line, turned to the stone and began to sing.  Their sonorous voices filled the space and soared up into the expanse of the adjacent dome.  The chant came to a close, and their procession continued to another site of veneration, but we did not follow.  Instead we chose to return to the comfort of the hotel after a long day of emotion, steps, and song.  There was so much to take in, and processing time was overdue.  Faith sharing of graces later that evening provided a forum to unpack the experiences of the day and to make meaning from them.

John Stradley