47. “Watch Out:” Holy Thursday and Good Friday in Jerusalem

When I’m with the Tantur group, I experience Holy Week through the perspective of Roman Catholics priests and laity. Among the many things I have appreciated, I have appreciated that the ecumenical mission of Tantur prompted the Roman Catholic Administrator of the Holy Lands to allow non-Catholics to receive communion in group worship. Thus, I can participate in the heavily sacramental nature of Holy Week Catholic observances along with attending Protestant services.

I met the Tantur group at Basilica of the Agony on the Mount of Olives Thursday night. This church is built next to the Garden of Gethsemane and its hundreds-of-year old olive trees. Although the church was supposed to be a place of prayer on that Holy Thursday as individuals remembering Jesus’ praying “sweats of blood” as he realized what was most likely in store for him, the church was not a place of silence. Housekeepers were vacuuming the altar rug from a recent worship service; plastic chairs were being pulled across the stone floor by individuals streaming into the church; a group of women talked loudly, undeterred by stares and “shhhh” from others.


We eventually left the church to have a prayer walk to St. Peter of Gallincantu Church. It is the church built next to the traditional site of Caiaphas’s residence and trial scene, the High Priest’s prison cell, and the site where Peter denied Jesus three times before the cock-crowed. The walk is probably between half-a-mile and a mile down from the Basilica of the Agony, through the Kidron Valley, then uphill to Church of St. Peter Gallincantu. I walk with Bishop Brian, who is 79 and sometimes has difficulties with hills. Since the prayer walk was in the dark of night, he moved slowly even though he wanted to keep up with the group. Half-way up the Kidron Valley, I heard an “Oops” and Bishop Brian lurched toward me. As I shouted “Watch Out” and thought “Down he goes!” I grabbed his elbow to keep him upright. “Thank you. I’m okay,” he quickly responded. He must have been okay because he made it to the Church of St. Peter Gallincantu without any other mishaps. Maybe my words “Watch Out” thinking “Down he goes” are appropriate for the narrative about the darkness of Holy Thursday and Good Friday.

At 6:30 AM, I joined a joint Stations of the Cross walk sponsored by St. George Cathedral, the main Anglican congregation in Jerusalem, and other mainstream Protestant Churches. Led by a man carrying a cross, a dozen ministers, priests, and lay people took turns reading relevant scripture passages and uttering prayers at the appropriate sites. “We pray for those like Jesus condemned to death.” “We pray for those innocents like Jesus who suffer, from children in Syria to children in Palestine.” “We pray for those, like Simon of Cyrene, who carry a cross not their own.” “We pray for those mothers like Mary who watch with tears while loved ones suffer.” The juxtaposition of scriptural readings with very real current life-situations, whether here in Jerusalem, elsewhere in Israel, Palestine, Syria, or other parts of the globe, got my attention. The shift of emphasis from a heavily liturgical Roman Catholic emphasis upon Jesus’ death to a heavily Protestant contemporizing of his way toward the cross was moving. Despite the constant stops, we were not in a “bubble.” In typical Old City fashion, we had to share space with other groups such as a Coptic group and an Ethiopian group participating in their own Way of the Cross. Merchants were already selling both religious items such as crosses, beads, icons and secular items such as oranges and bakery goods. Of course, at times the group marshal or Israeli police would shout “Move On,” “Hurry, Make Way for Others,” “Move to the Right.”

The final worship was a Good Friday Veneration of the Cross at Ecce Homo. The Sisters of Zion were saying beforehand: “Be sure to wear a jacket” “Be sure to get there early.” The service was held in the very cool chapel at the lowest level of Ecce Homo. There were probably one hundred others scattered around the space. I had to duck to avoid hitting my head on the low stone ceiling. Besides an altar, the space’s other focal point was a ten-foot cross draped with a purple cloth of Lent.

Father Russ officiated the service and was assisted by Father Joe. After the initial prayer, five or six Tantur members participated in a responsive reading of the Scriptural passage dealing with Jesus’ arrest by Caiaphas and his trial before Pilate. Without being overly pious, I was moved by the cold, damp, confining atmosphere of the space and the cold, foreboding atmosphere of a trial. A sister then spoke to us about the Veneration of the Cross. As one experienced in having Christians of other faith at the service, she said “You can make any sign before the cross to which you are comfortable.” As a musician led us in “Remember Me, O Lord,” individuals filed before the cross and either knelt or bowed down before the cross. Although most individuals kissed the cross, I, being a repressed Protestant, knelt and placed my hand on the cross. The service concluded with Father Russ celebrating Mass in a quiet and penitential fashion.

Holy Thursday and Good Friday services involved remembering through readings and movement. Whatever the association with “actual” sites, the places of those readings and movements are powerful reminders of the Incarnational aspect of the Christian narrative. I, like most of the Tantur group, could care less whether “X” marked the spot. I don’t really care if the tree at the Garden of Gethsemanae is 2000 years old or that the stones on the Via Dolorosa were walked on by Jesus. We cared most about remembering a narrative about Jesus, which Christians believe is the most important narrative in the world. I care about someone stumbling in the dark, about being able to say “Watch Out,” about someone being able to declare “I’m okay,” about knowing that I am surrounded by others who continue to pray and care for those condemned, for those who are innocent, for those who act as “mothers.” In remembering this type of narrative about Jesus, I recognize that I am a mainstream Christian because, for me,  his narrative has to be linked to real-life situations of contemporary individuals and groups, non-Christians and Christians.


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