Franciscan Holy Week highlights in the Holy Land

46089Chrism Mass – Mass of the Last Supper at the Holy Sepulchre

The city still asleep, the sun slowly begins its ascent, but the bells ring already to warn the Christian people: the mystery of redemption begins here in Jerusalem, at the Holy Sepulchre.

It is hard not to enjoy the special atmosphere in the Basilica of the Resurrection on Holy Thursday morning.

The solemnity is certainly stated by the crowd of priests. As recalled by the Patriarch in his homily, “this is the feast of priesthood, this is your day!” The flood of priests dressed in white comes to renew his ordination promises and concelebrate Mass around the Auxiliary Bishops and the Nuncio.

46064Joy is also evident on the faces of the various faithful. A group of Colombian pilgrims is waiting there for the start of the celebration with some anxiety. “Do you ask if I’m happy? How could I not be?” answers the pilgrim with excitement. “This is my first Easter here!” She lets out a smile, almost surprised to be in such a special place.

The Holy Sepulchre gathers faithful from all possible horizons. The Arab parishioners would not miss Easter celebrations for anything, but also the newly arrived pilgrims from all over the world, to whom every gesture leads them to wonder.

The Mass is special: celebrated on the morning it groups at once the celebration of the Last Supper, the Chrism Mass and the procession to the repository (at the Edicule of the Holy Sepulchre).

46061It must be admitted, this is quite moving. Being there, in the centre of Christianity, where all that is celebrated happened 2000 years ago. Patriarch and priests, faithful and curious, local or foreign, everyone accompany Christ in His mystery.

The same rites will be celebrated throughout Christendom today. But nothing will replace the spiritual and emotional density that dwells in the walls where Christians follow each other for thousands of years to relive the Passover of the Lord, and to cross with Christ from death to life.

The Franciscans receive the keys of the Holy Sepulchre

According to tradition, the key of the Holy Sepulchre was entrusted to Muslim families since the middle Ages, but they symbolically handed it over to the Franciscans. As the Custodial Vicar was absent, Father Athanasius Macora from the order of discrete seniority (Councillors) of the Holy Land present in Jerusalem, had the honour to return the key to the Holy Sepulchre. The doors of the Holy Sepulchre were already open, so that the religious could come in for the prayer before the Blessed Sacrament resting in the Tomb.

46083Holy Thursday, Mass of the Lord’s Supper

“At the Cenacle, twelve children are apostles”

It is 3 p.m., the Franciscan friars gathered at the entrance of St-Saviour monastery for a pilgrimage to the Cenacle, then to the Armenian Cathedral of St. Jacques and finally to the Syriac Church of St. Mark. The pilgrims mingled with Christian families of the old city following the beating of Kawas.

Arriving to the Cenacle, the events that took place in it are mentioned, including the washing of the feet, which will be carried out by the Custos Pierbattista Pizzaballa. The room is already full. Pilgrims, locals, and tourists see the beginning of the celebration. The children were touched by the surrounding crowd and by the attention that was granted to them. In a semicircle, they attended the celebration alongside Father Firas Hijazin, the parish priest.

46175The Custos washed the feet of the children in front of their moved parents. “I am Jerusalemite and this is the first time I visit the Cenacle. Can you imagine?” said the mother of Sameer, a boy among the other twelve, and “what a joy to see him at the centre of this beautiful ritual!”

“To carry out this particularly exciting ritual full of humility at the Upper Room is a fascinating experience, asserted Jabra Majlaton father of Saher also among the twelve, this act will mark the children for life.” Looking at his friends with a wide smile Saher added:” When they chose me to be among the twelve I felt like one of the twelve apostles! “.

“Stay up and pray so that ye may not enter into temptation”

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Silence settled in the Basilica of the Agony. The vigil of the holy hour presided over by the Holy Land Custos Pierbattista Pizzaballa, awaited the green light of the cameras that were broadcasting live the service on the site of many TV channels.

The Basilica was full of local pilgrims and faithful coming from the surrounding towns. In this silence, in front of the stone of the Agony, it was time for prayer and meditation.

46184“Stay up and pray so that ye may not enter into temptation” reminded Father Custos. The three key moments that took place in this same place were mentioned: the prediction of Peter’s denial of Christ and the escape of the Disciples, the Agony of Christ in the Garden, and finally His arrest.

Youth and adults, standing or sitting on the floor prayed together. “What a time of intense prayer and joy of being in this basilica” says Zina sister. The evening comes to an end; the faithful left the basilica to initiate a torchlight procession to the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu across the Kidron Valley.

From the forecourt the even more numerous pilgrims on the outside illuminated the streets with candles and torches. Some were beginning to sing. “We are from Ramallah! Exclaimed Mira and Aline, we came last year and will be back next year. This vigil is the evidence of an intense communion. What can be more beautiful than this? Be there with your joy next year, by all means!”

Good Friday

Smartphones, selfiesticks and cameras exceeded the crowd that thronged before the Holy Sepulchre on Good Friday 2015. A few hundred pilgrims and local Christians woke up at dawn to attend the solemn entry of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem guided by the Franciscans, and the opening of the Church of Resurrection’s doors that remained closed since yesterday. Some sang, others were talking, but all were eagerly waiting and ready to enter the building before the doors close again during the celebration of the Passion of Christ.

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At the Calvary, the clergy and the choir of the Custody were accompanied by dozens of pilgrims, while the rest of the faithful gathered at the bottom of the stairs. However, the assembly was completely united. “It was noisy at first, until everyone found his place, but when the sung narrative of the Passion started, there was a profound silence, total, awesome” said Maëlle, a young French of the choir. Dominic, a passing through Singaporean confirms: “I was down and we could hear everything, the atmosphere was very prayerful.” The Veneration of the Holy Cross on the site of the Crucifixion is the climax of this celebration. Where the cross of infamy had been planted, the relics of the cross are now a tangible sign of salvation. While the hosts, consecrated the day before, are brought in procession to the tomb at the Calvary, the enthusiasm is such that people are jostling to receive communion.

After the celebration, it was time for a low voice discussion with the neighbours while waiting for the opening of the Holy Sepulchre doors. All those Christians coming from everywhere are gathered to experience Good Friday in Jerusalem, which continues with the Cross.

The contrast is striking. Less than a week before, during the great procession of palms the crowd was joyful, dancing and singing. Today the procession in the streets of Jerusalem is also dense but rather contemplative, given that it is the opportunity for Christians to solemnly live the Via Crucis. Little is to say that the crowd hardly fit in the narrow streets of the Old City. The Israeli army and police ensuring the security service, manage somehow to be heard. Despite the mess, the rustle echoed by the centuries-old stones of Jerusalem is beautiful: dozens of different languages, all of which come together to pray the Our Father or the Hail Mary.

By late morning, two paths of the cross follow one another. The first is the one of the Franciscans followed by a small number of faithful. The second is the path of the Latin Arabic parish, guided by the scouts. In the crowd, a pilgrim commented: “It’s hard to pray in this crowd! But what is important is to be present in large numbers, to walk in the footsteps of Christ”. Like all the Stations of the Cross, the procession ends at the Holy Sepulchre, the place where 2000 years ago, Christ gave His life for the salvation of the world.

The same crowd will take a break. Silence settles in during the afternoon. Many of them will join tonight’s impressive service for the Funeral of Christ.

Holy Saturday46372

This Holy Saturday, at the same place of the Anastasis, there were many faithful waiting for the Easter Vigil, the mother of all vigils.

As tradition, the Franciscans led by the Custodial Vicar Fr. Dobromir Jazstal, accompanied the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem from the patriarchate where they all met.

Franciscans, seminarians, Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, all of them stood around the tomb in front of which the altar had been erected.

But it is at the entrance of the basilica, before the stone of unction (doors closed) that the celebration really began with the blessing of the fire.

The fire that relit the extinguished candles of the tomb, the new fire that lights a new Paschal candle. After Exsultet, the readings followed each other. “I do not deny that without the text, it would be difficult to follow or focus, whispered Paulina, a Polish with blue sparkling eyes, there is a lot of noise. To me, she continues, it is important to live the mystery in the very place of the Anastasis “.  Around the shrine, some groups of pilgrims and tourists continue to visit the basilica.

The first readings cover the history of Salvation, and then the Gloria resounds and fills the vaulted dome, accompanied by the organ and the bells ringing in full peal.

Then, in front of the empty tomb, the Patriarch proclaims the Gospel of the Resurrection. Nowhere is more striking than here in Jerusalem, in the place itself of resurrection.

46351“In Arabic the basilica is called the Church of the Resurrection, said Father Raed Abusahlia, we do not want to stay on Golgotha all our lives, hard times are always temporary, the message of Easter is the joy, the victory of life over death, including all our troubles!”

For a whole month the Christians in Jerusalem exchange their vows in all languages. Brother Ayman, OFM, is a native of Nazareth, “al-masihqam” exclaimed he in Arabic, “Christ is risen!” It must be answered “haqanqam”. “As a Christian of the Holy Land I believe we must live the mysteries of Christ in the very places of the facts and turn them into a living memory of our everyday life. As a Franciscan friar, he continues, Easter is a special grace. “Here and now” two words always present in my prayers. It is “here” and it is “now” that Jesus Christ is risen. The message of this holy place is to love both friends and enemies, from our birth to our death. We must bear witness of Jesus in our lives, and as the sweet scent we received last night … it must be worn every day.”

And that is why tomorrow, right here, and for eight days we will celebrate that joy: Christ is risen, He is risen indeed!

Easter Sunday

“Death and life are faced each other in an admirable duel. The Guide of life, though death, is alive and reigns. Christ, our hope, is risen, he will precede his people in Galilee”.

The words of the Easter Sequence, sung before the Alleluia of the Resurrection, could not better illustrate the joy that prevailed this morning at the Holy Sepulchre.

Christ is alive! The empty tomb is the sign of His victory over death.46433

One must be in Jerusalem to understand how the mystery of Redemption is joyfully celebrated.

A large crowd came to the Mass presided over by the Patriarch, a sign that this festival is very popular here. The usual parishioners, pilgrims, visiting priests and off course, many Franciscans were present in numbers.

True to tradition, the Holy Sepulchre echoed a thousand sounds: Orthodox bells, Latin organ singing gloriously the joy of Resurrection, Coptic praying behind the Edicule, pilgrim groups, and even Armenian and Syriac services.

In fact, today is Palm Sunday for the Orthodox churches.

A joyous confusion once again shows that the Holy Sepulchre is the Basilica of those who put their faith in Christ, the Christian people believing in the Messiah’s victory over death.

While the Pontifical Easter Mass was celebrated by the Romans in front of the empty tomb, several low Masses followed one another within the Edicule. The Custos of the Holy Land, his Custodial Vicar and then the Apostolic Nuncio, Mgr. Lazzaroto, each one said Mass at the place of the Resurrection itself. A French young volunteer who participated in one of these Masses, said: “I was really moved. I felt like something burning inside me. Be here this day, before Christ present in the host …”

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For all of the small Christian flock in the Middle East, it is impossible not to think about the persecuted brethren in Iraq and Syria. The Patriarch wanted to give a message of courage and confidence. “Let us arm ourselves, brothers and sisters, with Faith, courage and joy of our encounter with Jesus, to announce to all our brothers His resurrection and victory…” he said in his homily. “Christians, we are called to the heart of this region of the Middle East, shaken by wars and bloodied by violence, to be signs of contradiction, signs of hope beyond everything. Our future in this region and in the world is uncertain and even obscure, but do not be afraid, Christ warned us and He is “with us until the end of days.”

The joy of Easter does not end on Resurrection Sunday. For a week, the Church celebrates the Octave of Easter with the same solemnity. On Holy Monday, the Brothers minor will go on pilgrimage to Emmaus.

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But above all, the Christian people continue to celebrate throughout the year the mystery of redemption at the Holy Sepulchre, where joy will never stop.

Christ is risen, He is truly risen!

Happy Easter to everyone!

Nicolas Kimmel