Fr Vincent in the Holy Land - The Jerusalem Experience

We had two substantial trips to Jerusalem, staying with the French Sisters of Charity in Bethany each time. The first time we focused on Jerusalem, the city of David, and the second time we concentrated on the places and events associated with the final week in Jesus’ life.

117 - Jerusalem

Jerusalem is an extraordinary city, with layers and layers of history, since it became a city around 3000 BC. It is set in the Judaean mountains, which accounts for its high location, around 2,500 feet above sea level (Photo 117). Because of its strategic position as the gateway from the Mediterranean to Asia and Africa, much of the history of this part of the world has been played out within its walls. There are traces of its troubled past everywhere, much of it still to be discovered underground, as successive cultures vied for supremacy: Canaanite, Israelite, Persian, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Arab (Moslem), Crusaders (Christian), Egyptian, Ottoman, Jewish, Moslem. It has been razed to the ground several times; besieged 23 times; attacked 52 times; captured and recaptured 44 times. Even today, it is a sadly divided city, and this is evident at every turn. Small wonder, since it is the hub of three major religions: Christian, Muslim and Jewish.

The present population is about 800,000, of which 64% are Jews, 32% are Muslim and only 2% are Christian. The population of the Old City (less than one square mile) is 33,000, of whom the vast majority are Muslims, with only 9% Jews.

118 - The Walls of Jerusalem

In many ways, it is a magnificent city. The present walls were built by Suleiman (“the Magnificent”) in 1538 (Photo 118). They are vastly impressive, with eight imposing gates, all meaningfully named. Towering majestically above everything else in the Old City is the gleaming gold cupola of the Dome of the Rock, built on the site of the Temple in the sixth century (Photo 119). This location is “the holiest site on earth” for Jews and revered by Muslims, and holy indeed for Christians too, for this was where Solomon’s Temple stood up to the time of the Babylonian captivity, and the Second Temple, built by Herod and frequented by Jesus and the early Church. Muslims call it “Mount Moriah”, for they believe it to be the mount where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice Isaac; they also believe it was from here that Mohammed went up to heaven.

119 - Dome of the Rock

For Jews, of course, the Temple was part of their DNA as a people. Here the ark of the covenant was enshrined in the Holy of Holies. The darkest chapter in their history was when the Temple was destroyed by Nabuchadnezzar and the people were carried off to Babylon; and one of the happiest chapters was when they returned and restored the Temple to its former glory. But history repeated itself for them when the Romans destroyed the Herodian Temple in the year 70 AD, and obliterated it completely in 135 AD. The Jews still come in their droves to pray at the Western Wall every day (Photo 120).

120 - Western Wall

This is the only part of the Second Temple that still stands (apart from some steps on the other side, that Jesus would have climbed on his way into the Temple). The Jews don’t call it the Wailing Wall, for they say that there is nothing to wail about “since the divine presence has never moved from the Western Wall”. But it must be galling for them to see the site of their beloved Temple surmounted by the symbol that has caused them so much recent pain. They still live and long for the day when the restoration will take place and their Temple will once again be built on this holy site. There is a group called “The Third Temple” who not only firmly believe in the restoration but are taking practical steps to bring it about. Some would say that it is their intention to build the new Temple underneath the present Dome of the Rock! Already excavations are taking place as a continuation of the Western Wall, encroaching on the site of the Dome underground – a highly sensitive move for nervous Muslims (Photo 121).

121 - synagogue alongside western wall

The Western Wall is certainly a holy place, and there is an atmosphere of prayer there, in spite of the amount of people moving around. There are always people there, in their prayer gowns and black hats, praying and reading the Bible, and moving their bodies as they pray, unashamedly. And placing their petitions in the wall. One was reminded of that moving moment when a frail Pope John Paul II placed his prayer in the Western Wall in the millennium year, reputedly containing the words: “Please forgive us for the hurt we have inflicted on the sons of Abraham”.

One negative, though! It’s men only in the main section of the Western Wall! Women have a different section, no special dress and no bowing of heads. A bit disturbing, for those more used to some attempt at inclusiveness (Photo 122)

122 Women at Western Wall

Jerusalem is known as the City of David, and with good reason, for it was the warrior and troubadour of Israel who claimed it as his capital, after reigning for seven years in Hebron. He was to reign in Jerusalem as king of the united kingdoms of Israel and Judah for a further 33 years. It was David who gave the high profile to Jerusalem that it never lost, in spite of so much devastation over the centuries. The original City of David has been discovered, part of it at least being outside the present walls, though much has still to be uncovered. David’s royal palace, for instance, has not been found as yet. The magnificent feat of the buttressing of walls on the rising terrain is very impressive and is testimony to the skill and expertise of David and his workmen (Photo 123). The City of David was not actually on the highest point of Jerusalem, but within a generation his son Solomon had built the magnificent Temple higher up, each detail of which is described in the early chapters of the first Book of Kings.

123 - City of David buttressed walls

Further evidence of architectural creativity is seen in the time of Hezekiah in the eighth century BC, with the brilliant diversion of the water system to the Pool of Siloam, within the walls, to prevent the attacking Assyrians from poisoning the water (2 Chron. 32).

There are numerous vantage points within the Old City from which to view the surrounding area, particularly from David’s Citadel, looking east towards the Dome of the Rock, with the Mount of Olives in the distance (Photo 124).

124 - Jerusalem looking towards Mount of Olives

For Christians, the holiest site is the Holy Sepulchre. Formerly a large basilica housing both Calvary and the Garden of the Resurrection, and constructed on the site identified by St Helena, it is now a two-domed church: the smaller dome over Calvary and the larger one over the tomb (Photo 125).

125 - Holy Sepulchre domes

In between, one can venerate a stone slab, reputed to be the one on which the body of Jesus was laid, on being taken down from the cross (Photo 126).

126 - Stone of Anointing

All three areas are scenes of immense crowds, and awe-inspiring in their immediacy. You get the sense you are standing on holy ground, though here as elsewhere in the Holy Land, you have to keep saying: “Somewhere in this general area something extraordinary happened on this earth”.

An indication of the complexities of the administration of the Holy Sepulchre is found in the tortuous protocol involved in the opening of the main door in the morning. One Moslem family has the keys; another Moslem family uses them! But not until a representative of each of the three Christian communities (Franciscan, Armenian and Greek Orthodox) first knock from the inside. The door itself is very ancient, and it is almost falling apart, as nobody can change anything without the agreement of all! (Photo 126a).

126a - Church of the Holy Sepulchre - entrance door

The Old City is small enough to pace most of it in a couple of hours, which we did, taking in some of each of the so-called Four Quarters: Moslem, Jewish, Christian and Armenian. The Armenians, of course, are Christian too, but sizeable enough to have their own section of the city; their churches are quite unique and distinct, the largest being the cathedral, dedicated to St James, “the brother of the Lord” and the first Bishop of Jerusalem (Photo 127).

127 - Cathedral of St James

It has to be said that Jerusalem is a very spiritual city. We met vast numbers of people coming from the Dome of the Rock around midday on the Friday, the Muslim holy day, and a few hours later hordes of Jews were making their way to the Western Wall at sundown as “shabbat” began.


Holy Week

To enter into the events of the last week of Jesus’s life, you have to begin by shutting down any obsession you have with accuracy of detail, and make up your mind to be satisfied with general indications of place and setting. You have to close your eyes and focus on the core essentials, which are awesome in themselves, namely:

  • That here in this city the Son of God drew breath and walked
  • That here his voice was heard and his message preached, and his miracles witnessed by ordinary people
  • That here he went to his death while the world looked on
  • That here a few days later his tomb was found to be empty
  • That here – after his resurrection - his voice was heard again, that he was seen in flesh and blood, in time and space, but without the limits of time and space.

This mindset is your only insulation against the general unsatisfactory nature of the much-changed landscape where all this took place, for “all is changed, changed utterly”. This is particularly true when it comes to the Way of the Cross, the Holy Sepulchre, the Cenacle and the Ascension.

128 - Way of the Cross fifth Station

The Way of the Cross: Most of the outdoor Stations are marked with a Roman numeral on the street (Photo 128) but housed in little churches along the way (not all of them open). In one case – the Fourth Station – the numeral on the street has been ripped away and a shop stall erected in its place. The little churches are quite attractive indeed, with appropriate icons of the Station in question, beginning (in the Moslem Quarter) with the Flagellation, the Condemnation, the Ecce Homo: the first two administered by the Franciscans, and the Ecce Homo by the Sisters of Zion. The Sixth Station (Veronica) is in the chapel of a community of the Little Sisters of Jesus, with a plaque saying that Pope Paul VI prayed here in 1964. As the ground rises, there are shop stalls on either side with traders enticing you to buy, and you long for a little quiet to facilitate reflection. Besides, while we walked, the Muslim prayers were being relayed from the Dome of the Rock on a very loud loudspeaker. But then you reflect that the Way of the Cross on the first Good Friday took place amid a lot of noise and along a very busy thoroughfare (deliberately engineered so by the Romans), and a not inconsiderable part of the indignity for the hapless victims was the milling crowds and the peering eyes, all forming their own opinion of their guilt. Flavius Josephus, the noted historian of these times, said that about two million people came into Jerusalem for the Passover each year (Photo 129).


129 - Way of the Cross


129a - Calvary

The Holy Sepulchre: The final five Stations are within the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre – a place which has been the fulcrum of much conflict and destruction over the centuries ever since the first basilica was built here in the time of Constantine. There are always people milling around, especially in the three main centres of devotion: the Calvary, the Stone of Anointing and the Holy Sepulchre itself (Photo 129a). In many ways, the Stone of Anointing lends itself to greater devotion, for it is in an open space as you enter the basilica and people have a certain leisure to pray and kiss the large slab, whose impact is heightened by the red streaks in the stone. You see great devotion and faith here. Up above, the rock of Calvary (under glass) is moving to see – for rock does not fade (Photo 130). The tomb, a stone’s throw away, with space for only six people at a time, and a fussy Greek Orthodox cleric herding the people through with unholy haste, is a place where you need time that you don’t get (in spite of visiting three times!) – Photo 131


130 - Rock of Calvary


131 - Entrance to the Tomb


The Cenacle:

In many ways, this is the most disappointing of all. The Upper Room looked uncared for, with paint peeling from the ceiling. The reason is that it is in nobody’s care at the moment (Photo 132) The State owns it. It used to be in the care of the Franciscans, but in 1552 the Ottoman Turks evicted the Franciscans and built a mosque. Christians were not allowed back until the State of Israel was declared in 1948. From then on, Christians were allowed to visit, but the State retained ownership. The mosque is still there but the Muslims have lost interest. A sliver of good news in recent days is that a new accord with the Vatican seems to be closer, which would entrust the upkeep of the Cenacle to Christians. This would be a major boost for this sacred place, for so long considered to have been (a) the scene of the Last Supper; (b) where the Risen Lord appeared to the disciples; (c) where the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost and (d) where the First Council of Jerusalem took place - the “synagogue church” of the early Christian community. The building itself is quite attractive, with rib-vaulted bays and Gothic-style arches from the time of the Franciscans, and a large wooden carving of the vine and the branches (Photo 133). Underneath the Upper Room is a synagogue, reputedly housing the tomb of David, but this is highly unlikely as the Bible says explicitly that he is buried in the “city of David”, which is 300 metres away.


132 - The Cenacle


133 - The vine


The Ascension: The reputed site of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives is now a small octagonal mosque, having replaced a Byzantine church in the 12th century when Saladin drove out the Christians (Photo 134). A stone on the floor of the mosque is much revered as having the footprints of Jesus (Photo 135). It is a much-visited holy site, by Muslims as well as Christians, for Muslims believe in Jesus as a prophet. Christians are allowed to have Mass in the ruins of the surrounding Byzantine church on Ascension Day. There are two other churches of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives: one Russian Orthodox and the other Lutheran; their spires can be seen from the Old City.

134 - The place of the ascension


135 - Footprints


We visited many other sights in Jerusalem over the three days. On the third day, we had Mass in the Holy Sepulchre – well, in the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament alongside the tomb (Photo 136). It was the feast of the Presentation in the Temple, another building long since destroyed, as Jesus said it would be. But the presence of Simeon and Anna was easy to evoke.


136 - The Tomb of Jesus


137 - Dormition Abbey top from Mount of Olives


The imposing Dormition Abbey (Photo 137) stands close to the Cenacle; this is where Mary is said to have died before being transferred to “Mary’s Tomb” alongside the garden of Gethsemane, whence she was assumed into heaven (Photo 138);

138 - Dormition Abbey Interior

and within a stone’s throw is the gorgeous church of St Peter in Gallicantu (Photo 139). Oddly enough we didn’t hear the cock crow here, for there is cockcrow all over the city, by day and by night. That, and cats – cats everywhere.

139 - St Peter in Gallicantu

Another morning we had Mass in the Jerusalem Carmel on the Mount of Olives, called the “Pater”, for it is right alongside the remains of the Pater Noster basilica from Byzantine times, and the supposed site of the giving of that prayer by Jesus: the words are along the walls of the partly-restored colonnades in every language under the sun (Photo 140).

140 - Remains of Pater Noster Basilica



141 - Words of Pater Noster

Nearby is a little underground grotto, where, tradition has it, Jesus would often bring his disciples and where he is said to have instructed them about the signs of the end of the world. The nuns have access to this grotto through a stairway in the cloister (Photo 141).


Dominus Flevit

There is, of course, a wonderful view of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives and as we descended we stopped at the little chapel of “Dominus Flevit”. It was built by Barluzzi in 1955, on the site of a previous Byzantine church. It is in the shape of a tear and is exquisite inside, with a clear window behind the altar looking down on Jerusalem (Photo 142). The words of Jesus are all around the church, and there is an evocative icon under the altar of a hen gathering her brood. It is in the care of the Franciscans (I discovered since that Barluzzi was an Italian Franciscan friar!).

142 - Dominus Flevit Church

And so, on to Gethsemane … The olive trees in the garden are evocative, some of them very old indeed (Photo 143). Unlike the last time I came, in 1999, the garden is now closed to the public, though it is possible to walk round it and view it. Pope Paul VI planted an olive tree here in 1964.


143 - Gethsemane

Nearby there is a grotto, which could have been where Jesus went first (“as usual”), before bringing the three disciples into the garden with him. The adjoining basilica of the Agony - again by Barluzzi – was built in 1924 with donations from countries around the world. The interior is in very sombre dark colours, with purple predominating. The rock on which Jesus is said to have prayed is the basis of the altar. And there is that beautiful exterior in mosaic, depicting Jesus in agony as the Mediator of the world (Photo 144). It is indeed the “Church of All Nations”.

144 - Church of All Nations