Palm Sunday is an opportunity for Christians in Jerusalem to participate in the procession that commemorates the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem (Luke 19: 29-40). Presided over by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, it starts at 2:30 p.m. in Bethphage, on the Mount of Olives, and ends at the Church of St. Anne near the Lions’ Gate. This festive day can gather up to 15,000 local Christians of all denominations as well as international pilgrims.
“In one day, more pilgrims come here than during the entire rest of the year!” said Br. Agustín Pelayo, the guardian of the Franciscan sanctuary in Bethphage. The sanctuary was renovated two years ago so as to better accommodate groups of pilgrims who come to find peace here. “In 1876 in this place, a Bedouin shepherd accidentally found a Byzantine-era monolith with a fresco of the Crusader period,” said Br. Agustín. The small shrine is mentioned by the pilgrim Egeria as the commemorative site where Jesus met Martha. At the time, it was at the crossroads between the road from Jericho to Jerusalem and the road from Bethany to Jerusalem.
The Custody purchased the land and built a church on the Crusader-era structure in the late nineteenth century. “It was more of a home than a church, because it was forbidden to build churches Ottoman rule. The apse was added later on, and in 1955, the architect Barluzzi completed the restorations. From the depiction of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem that was painted by the Crusaders, Barluzzi got the idea to use the medieval tower as the façade of the church,” said the monastery’s guardian.
The cross fresco dates back to 1160. It is being restored after spending 700 years underground. “This is one of the few frescoes where we see the faces of the characters, because it was not discovered until much later. The Muslims had erased all of the others,” said Br. Agustín. In the sanctuary’s garden, pilgrims can also admire a tomb with a rolling stone dating back to anytime in between the first and the fourth century. “This allows them to imagine what Christ’s tomb was like before going to the Holy Sepulcher.”
But Bethpage is not just a sanctuary. “The Franciscans had a farm on the land that they had bought! Cows, pigs, sheep, rabbits… and of course donkeys, just like in the Gospel. The friars made ham, cheese and dairy products, and then they would deliver them to other monasteries in Jerusalem with the donkeys,” recounted Br. Agustín. “But times change: today, the friars buy food at supermarkets, and Christians in Jerusalem are struggling to find decent housing at reasonable prices. Therefore, the Custody has adapted by building the Saint Francis residence.
“There are 68 Catholic families who have been living here since 2010,” said Samir Hodali, a permanent deacon at the parish and a current resident. Bethpage is part of the Latin parish of Jerusalem, whose main church is Saint Savior’s. “We are proud to live here, and almost the entire community participates in the procession on Palm Sunday. And we prepare sandwiches for the scouts, who participate in the parade all afternoon.”
Palm Sunday is once a year. For the rest of the year, the community of Bethphage awaits your visit.