We visited Lazarus’ tomb yesterday; It’s only a short distance from where we are staying in Bethany, but the Israeli security wall prevents us from going directly there, we had to take a taxi and travel to the check point and approach it from the east. Not too many pilgrims go there now, unfortunately. It’s an important sign in John’s gospel, pointing to the power of Jesus to give life to the dead.
The Franciscan church adjacent to the shrine is beautiful. Ruins of the ancient Byzantine church lie next to it. Martha and Mary, Lazarus their brother, are all remembered pictorially in the new church.
The ancient tomb, is unadorned. Nothing but stark rock formations that have been there from the beginning. You climb down about 10 feet and there is the entrance where the stone was placed.
We read the account of Jesus raising Lazarus from John’s gospel, a powerful testimony to the divine power of Jesus, but also to his tender humanity. He weeps at the tomb.
We remembered our own loved ones who have died and we joined Martha in her cry of faith. “I believe, Lord, that you have the words of eternal life.” Finally, we sang “Holy, Holy.Holy…”
The devotion can be traced to the late 4th century as pilgrims flocked to the Holy Land from all parts of the world to visit the land of Jesus. The most important place they visited was the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which the Emperor Constantine built in 335 AD atop Calvary and the tomb of Jesus.
Pilgrim processions to this church were common. Egeria, a nun from Gaul who visited the Holy Land in the 4th century, recalls joining Christians from all parts of the Roman world in a procession on Holy Thursday from the garden of Gethsemane to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where they celebrated Jesus’ death and resurrection. For her account.
The Via Dolorosa
The gospels recall incidents that occurred as Jesus was condemned and made his way to Calvary, but since the Jerusalem of his day was almost completely destroyed by Roman armies in 70 AD, only a few places, like the place where he died and was buried, were really known to early Christian pilgrims.
Over the years, pilgrim processions– beginning at the ruins of the Fortress Antonia and ending at the church of the Holy Sepulcher–were accepted as the way Jesus went to his death. The route was known as the “Via Dolorosa,” the “Sorrowful Way;” Today, it winds through the crowded areas of Jerusalem’s Old City, and pilgrims still prayerfully travel it.
“Stations” recalling specific incidents that took place as Jesus went to Calvary developed along this venerable route. Most of the 14 traditional stations found there today and in churches throughout the world are taken from the gospels, above all, from St. Luke’s account.
But other incidents are not mentioned in the gospels, for example, Jesus meeting with Veronica who wipes his face with a cloth, his three falls. Where did these scenes come from? They came from pilgrims devoutly meditating on the passion of Jesus.
John’s gospel reports that Mary stood by the cross of Jesus. (John 19,25-27) Wouldn’t she been among the crowd accompanying him to Calvary and wouldn’t they have met on the way? Pilgrims walking that way believed she did.
Jesus would be very weak during his passion after the severe scourging he received from Pilate’s soldiers. Why else was Simon of Cyrene pressed into carrying his cross? As they traveled the rough winding streets of the Via Dolorosa, pilgrims came to believe that he fell more than once.
The story of Veronica is not found in the gospels, but in early eastern apocryphal writings, like the Acts of Pilate, which tells of a woman named Veronica who possessed a cloth imprinted with the face of Jesus. Pilgrims from the western church returning to Europe passed her story on.
Women played an important role in the passion of Jesus, and so we would expect them to have that same role in the Stations of the Cross. Matthew and Mark begin their story of the passion with an account of an unknown woman who anoints Jesus with precious ointment at Bethany, at the same time that Judas and others are plotting his death. (Matthew 26, 6-13; Mark 14,3-9)
As he went to Calvary, “A great number of people followed him and among them where women were beating their breasts and wailing over him. “ (Luke 23,27) On Calvary, “Many women were also there looking on from a distance.” (Matthew 27,55) Women attended his burial and returned on Easter Sunday to finish anointing his body. (Matthew 28, 1-10)
The gospels acknowledge the role of women, a customary role, in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Can we see the story of Veronica as symbolizing what all women did then? As a reward for ministering to the One who suffered, died and rose again, they discovered the face of God.
The ancient Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, constructed over the places where Jesus was crucified and buried, has been the focus of Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land since the 4th century. Built by the Emperor Constantine at the urging of Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem, the church has suffered earthquakes, fires, and devastation; it’s authenticity has been questioned, especially since the Enlightenment; it has been fought over by competing Christian churches, yet it still has the best claim to be the place where the greatest of all Christian mysteries happened.
The church received its worst blow when the calif Hakim began demolishing the church in 1009, an action leading to the Crusades. Once Jerusalem was conquered, the crusaders rebuilt the church, but only to half its former proportions.
Reliable historians weigh in positively today on the claims of the Church of the Holy Sepucher “Is this the place where Christ died and was buried?” Jerome Murphy-O’Connor asks in his solidly researched “The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide” (New York, 2008). “Yes, very probably,” he answers.
The Finding of the Cross
When Constantine in the 4th century looked for Calvary and Jesus’ tomb, he had no difficulty finding their location. They were buried beneath a Roman temple built in 138 AD by the Emperor Hadrian, in the new Roman city, Aelia Capitolina, which he erected over the ruins of devastated Jewish Jerusalem. Christians since the time of Jesus knew the place and could point it out to Constantine’s builders.
Early witnesses report that, which tearing down the Roman temple and digging the foundations for the new church, the emperor’s workmen came upon an ancient cistern filled with debris from the old Roman execution site, including three upright beams and the title that Pontius Pilate had attached to the Cross of Jesus. The discovery caused a sensation in the Christian world.
Constantine’s 80 year old mother, Helena, had come the Holy Land as a devout pilgrim, “old in years, but young in spirit. She wanted to know this land… and walk in the footsteps of the Savior….”(Eusebius)
She took the precious remains from Calvary and distributed them, one part to the new church on Golgotha, another part to her son, Constantine, in Constantinople; the rest she placed in the chapel of her private residence at the Sessorian Palace in Rome, where they remain till this day, in the Church of the Holy Cross. She covered the floor of her Roman chapel with soil from the Jerusalem excavations.
Christians rejoiced at the discovery. Less than 25 years before, they had experienced the worst of all persecutions under the Emperor Diocletian, who tortured and killed great numbers, confiscating Christian homes and property. Their religion was on the verge of extermination. Now a new day had dawned; Christianity was triumphant.
The pieces of scarred wood buried in the earth for so long, became reflections of God’s triumphant power. They were placed in settings of gold and precious stones; signs that, like Jesus, the church also had tasted death but was now raised up.
Besides wood from Calvary, Constantine’s builders made another great discovery as they dug the foundations for the new basilica. They discovered the tomb of Jesus, and immediately constructed a splendid rotunda around it. The tomb survives today in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem’s Old City. Nearby one can still see and touch the rock of Calvary.
These early discoveries inspired a powerful movement of Christian devotion. Crowds of pilgrims made their way to the holy places. “The whole world is making its way to an empty tomb,” St. John Chrysostom said. Pilgrims returned home with reminders of their visit: small vials of oil from lamps at the tomb of Jesus, small handfuls of soil. Some even carried back tiny precious portions of the Cross itself.
A feast to celebrate the dedication of this church in 325 AD is found in various church calendars for September 14.
Unlike buildings and towns, large mountains last over the centuries, and so the Mount of Olives, the two mile mountain ridge facing the Old City of Jerusalem, is a unique reminder of Jesus Christ who knew it two thousand years ago, according to the gospels. Olive trees that gave the mountain its name still grow on its slopes.
Ancient tombs, some going back to the time of Jesus, tell us this place is holy ground. One day “God’s feet will stand on the Mount of Olives,” calling the dead to be raised, the Prophet Zechariah said.(Zechariah 14,4) The tombs spread along the mountain and into the Kidron valley below are mostly Jewish, though there are Jewish-Christian tombs near the church of the Dominus Flevit, and Mary’s tomb also lies near the garden of Gethsemane. The tombs, facing the ruins of the temple and the holy city, wait for the end time and witness the promise of resurrection.
Jesus as a boy must have come to this mountain after traveling the road from Jericho to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish feasts. During the feasts he most likely stayed on the slopes of the mountain or at Bethany, the village on its eastern slopes. It was a favorite place for Galilean pilgrims to Jerusalem. (Luke 21,37-38) He must have stopped on top of the mountain, as many do today, to gaze at the ancient city across the way. Here the gospels say he spoke to his disciples about the days to come. (Mark 13,3-27; Matthew 24,3-25,46)
He wept over the city here: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how many times I yearned to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings, but you were unwilling! Behold, your house will be abandoned, desolate.” (Luke 19,29-44) Roman legions under Titus fulfilled that prophecy in 70 AD, when they destroyed Jerusalem and the temple. Some of the stones thrown down from the temple can still be seen at the base of the old walls.
Towards the end of his life, Jesus rode to the city on a donkey from Bethphage, a town on the road from Jericho, surrounded by followers and admirers who sang and danced and cast palm branches before him. (Mark 11,1,11; Matthew 21,1-11; Luke 19, 28-40; John 12,12-19) The ancient path down the mountain to the city has a good claim to be the one he took.
As he saw death coming, on the night before he died, Jesus prayed here in a garden called Gethsemane at the foot of the mountain. He came with his disciples and fell into an agony. Judas, his disciple, knew the place and led soldiers here; they arrested him and led him away to be tried and humiliated and crucified. (Mark 14, 32 ff; Matthew 26,36 ff; Luke 22,39ff;John 18,1ff)
When Jesus died, Matthew’s gospel says “The earth quaked, rocks were split, tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And coming forth from their tombs after his resurrection, they entered the holy city and appeared to many.”(Matthew 24, 51-54) The tombs around the Mount of Olives, all the dead, Matthew indicates, received the promise of Jesus’ resurrection. “He descended into hell.” Like the tomb of Jesus, every grave opens to the promise of risen life.
According to Saint Luke, Jesus taught his disciples for 40 days and then ascended into heaven from the Mount of Olives. (Luke 24,50; Acts 1,1 ff) No wonder, then, that Christians early on were attracted to this holy place with so many associations to Jesus.
By the 5th century, the Emperor Constantine built a large church on the top of this mountain over the spot where tradition said Jesus taught and prayed with his disciples and ascended into heaven. It was called Eleona, after the emperor’s mother, Helena, an early pilgrim devoted to the Holy Land. (See picture below) Luke’s unique view of the ascension, which inspired the building of this church, also inspired our celebrations of the Feast of the Ascension and Pentecost and the easter season.
In the Byzantine era, great numbers of Christians flocked to the three major shrines built by Constantine: the church over the tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem; the church over the cave in Bethlehem and the church on the Mount of Olives where he ascended into heaven. Soon other churches were built to mark events in Jesus’ life. On the Mount of Olives, a church marked the place where Jesus wept over Jerusalem, “Dominus Flevit,” another where he prayed in agony. Over the centuries they were destroyed and rebuilt.
Over time, the Mount of Olives has been a Christian sanctuary where monks and nuns built large monasteries and pilgrims came, as once Jewish pilgrims from Galilee did. As once Jesus did.
Holy places help us see holy mysteries in concrete ways. They give us insight into the scriptures and the mysteries of faith.
A group of 8 Catholics and Protestants leave on Monday from JFK to explore the land where Jesus lived. We’re staying with the Passionists in Bethany for five days and then five days with the Franciscans at the Mount of the Beatitudes on the Sea of Galilee.
Bethany, on the lower eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives is considered part of East Jerusalem; the Mount of Beatitudes on the Sea of Galilee puts us within walking distance of Capernaum, so we’re close to two places with important links to Jesus.
Some of us have media experience and one of our goals is to produce some short videos (5 minutes or so) on the various holy places that may help Protestants and Catholics alike to deepen their knowledge of Jesus and his mission.
I’ll publish blogs of our trip for the next ten days, depending on internet access and what energy I can draw on. We’ll use Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s fine guidebook, The Holy Land: An Oxford Archeological Guide…2008, along with the gospels to help us find our way.
Pilgrimage is always an adventure. So, here we go, pray for us.
“I am the Good Shepherd.” This is one of the names Jesus often used to describe himself and his mission. The Old Testament before him used this same image to describe God. So, Psalm 21 begins “The Lord is my Shepherd.”
During the Easter season the church favors portraying Jesus in symbolic ways: “I am the vine,” “I am the Bread of Life,” and the description of him in our gospel: “I am the Good Shepherd.” That is because we know the Risen Christ now, not by seeing him, but in signs and symbols.
The Good Shepherd is a many-faceted image. On one hand, Jesus says he is the shepherd who goes in search of his lost sheep, and when he finds it he cradles it tenderly in his arms and brings it back to the flock. However far we stray, he will search for us and lead us back to the safety and comfort of his presence.
But the shepherd also leads his sheep and guides them through “a dark valley” into experiences and ways they cannot know. So, during the Easter season we read the story of the journey of the early church. Now, as then, Jesus is the shepherd leading his church into paths unknown, until finally she comes into “green pastures.”
He will lead each of us on our journey. Like sheep we feed intently on the small plot of life our eyes fall on. But the Good Shepherd is never far from us. No, we do not see him; but he is always near. We can trust him, “the shepherd and guardian of our souls.”
Angels play an important role in St. Luke’s gospel and its continuation, the Acts of the Apostles, which we read during the Easter season. Angels appear to Zachary in the temple announcing the birth and name of John, but the priest rejects the angel’s message and loses his speech. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary, announcing the coming of Jesus and she welcomes his message and breaks into song as the Holy Spirit comes upon her. Angels announce the birth of Jesus to the poor shepherds and send them off to Bethlehem to see the newborn Child. Later in the gospel, an angel appears to Jesus to strengthen him as he prays in Garden of Gethsemane.
Besides angels, the Holy Spirit is important for Luke. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus announces in the synagogue of Nazareth, “to bring glad tidings to the poor.” As he ascends into heaven he tells his disciples “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”
Notice in Luke’s accounts, how often angels and the Spirit of the Lord tell people to go somewhere. “Go to Bethlehem,” “Go to Egypt,” “Go to Nazareth.” In one of our readings last week an angel tells Philip to get up and head south on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, the desert route.” Then, after Philip meets the Ethiopian official and baptizes him, “the Spirit of the Lord snatches him away” and sends him on the road to Azotus and then to Caesaria.
It sounds like a GPS system. “Go here, turn right, head for this place or that.” Actually, a GPS system is a good analogy for what Luke wants to say. He believes that there’s a divine guidance system for our world and it’s up to us to listen to the signs we’re given and follow God’s instructions. God has a plan for this world and for each of us. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, leads us.
I had to drive out to Greensburg, PA, last week to conduct a retreat for the Sisters of Charity there. Most of the way I know, but I never drove to Greensburg so I decided to use a simple GPS system I have in my IPhone .
I never used it before, and to tell you the truth, I didn’t trust it. The GPS said to take Route 66 after you get off the Stanton exit; get off at route 30 and a quarter of mile after that you will be there. I followed it, but then I saw a sign for route 130 and I said to myself, “This thing is wrong, It must mean route 130.” I got off at 130 and I was wrong. The GPS was smarter than I was. So I had to call the convent and say, “ Sister, I’m lost, can you come and get me.”
No matter who we are, we need to pray for guidance and listen to the ways the Lord speaks to us. God is smarter than we are.
Today is Mothers’ Day. I think the smartest mothers, like the smartest fathers, the smartest anybodys, are those who know they need the guidance of God and pray for it every day. A mother I know wrote this prayer some years ago. Here she is, a mother praying for angels and the grace to hear them:
O Lord, I need your help today.
I want to care
for those you’ve sent into my life,
to help them develop the special gifts
you’ve given them.
But I also want to free them to follow their own paths and to bring their loving wisdom to the world.
Help me to embrace them without clutching, to support them without suffocating, to correct them without crushing.
And help me to live joyfully and playfully, myself, so they can see your life in me and find their way to you. Amen.
(Virginia Burke Phelan)