(Custodia.org,Hélene Morlet, Nizzar Halloun) After making a short pilgrimage to the traditional site of the Ascension, in the sunshine and with a cool breeze, the Franciscans celebrated the first vespers of the Ascension on Wednesday, May 13, in the place where according to tradition, the Church commemorates Jesus’ ascension into Heaven.
Having arrived early, the friars waited outside until the time of the solemn entry into the chapel by the Custodial Vicar, Brother Dobromir Jasztal, OFM. Of the four holy places regulated by the Status Quo atop the Mount of Olives, this is the only one that belongs to Muslims.
Although the property has been declared waqf, which means that it is under Islamic law, and even though it is adjacent to a mosque, on the feast of the Ascension, Christians can enter for free and pray. This is a right that is granted to all Christian denominations.
This year, the date on which Easter falls is not the same for Catholics and Orthodox, and since this celebration takes place 40 days after Easter, the Franciscans were alone at the site. Accompanied by pilgrims and other religious communities, the Friars Minor prayed vespers and they sang in procession around the shrine. They concluded the joy of the feast by sharing a small meal friendly together. While some friars stood under the dome, near what tradition considers to be Christ’s footprints, most were praying outside with pilgrims, due to the chapel’s small size. Having said night prayer, most of the friar returned to the monastery while others remained on the site awaiting the vigils.
As occurs every year, four tents were pitched around the shrine in order to accommodate the watchmen. In the evening, a cohort of Franciscans climbed the slopes of the Mount of Olives once again in order to celebrate the vigils. Twenty friars and some nuns were silently awaiting the start of the ceremony, while others, under the guidance of the master of ceremonies, were busy going from one tent to another.
The shrine where the celebrations are held annually—which should not be confused with the Russian Church of the Ascension—became an Islamic property after Saladin’s conquest. The arcades that used to be open were walled up once a minaret was added, and the shrine became part of the “Mosque of the Ascension.”
The vigils began with the entrance of the Custodial Vicar into the shrine, whose white stone walls were upholstered in red for the occasion, and inside which the rock of the footprint was lit by candles. The prayers sung in the shrine could be heard through the small back door and joined the prayers of the pilgrims from Nazareth who were waiting outside.
At the end of the vigils, when it was very cool, a Kawas distributed ice cream but nobody wanted any. Two altars were erected on either side of the door of the sanctuary so as to accommodate the prayers and masses that would go on all night. Celebrated by priests from various parishes and religious communities, the masses echoed the accents of the feast in different languages, starting with Arabic, Italian and French.
As per tradition, after the last mass was celebrated at 8 a.m. outside in Arabic for the Latin parish of Jerusalem, at 9:30, the Franciscans ended this prayer cycle with a Eucharistic celebration presided by the Custodial Vicar. Before the celebration began, local and foreign pilgrims, parishioners and schoolchildren hastily visited the shrine because mass was about to begin. Most of them instinctively regrouped at the entrance to the shrine, as others, following the friezes, surrounded the building. Among them, there was a group of Muslim pilgrims.
The Ascension Mass was coming to an end. The groups of pilgrims and tourists were still all next to each other in the area surrounding the church, trying to be as discreet as possible. An Iraqi woman who came from Australia with her husband was deeply moved and softly said, “God, you are mighty! God is mighty! You are so lucky to live here, may Yassou’, Jesus, bless you all!”