The Tomb of Lazarus: “Here there is no room for despair.”

Continuing the Lenten pilgrimage cycle, the Franciscans of the Custody experienced two pilgrimages this week.

The first of them in this third week of Lent took place on Wednesday afternoon at the Convent of the Flagellation in Jerusalem, the Second Station of the Way of the Cross. Father Najib, guardian of the sanctuary, celebrated Mass and Father Vincenzo Lopasso, visiting professor of exegesis at the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, gave the homily. Father Vincenzo emphasized how the prophets prefigured the Passion of Jesus. The second reading offered the opportunity to rediscover what it means to be a servant of God today: faithfulness and steadfastness. Then the gospel reading. “Even though we are not little copies of Christ, the gospel invites us to look at, experience, and confront suffering, whether or not it is violent. Living through or sharing suffering then becomes an occasion to show ourselves to be consistent with our convictions and to witness to them.”

Christ experienced suffering and pain, including that of seeing his friends in pain or distress. The second pilgrimage, on Thursday morning at Bethany, reminds us of this at Bethany, site of the tomb of Lazarus.

Before the bus with the friars and a few friends arrives, the Father Secretary of the Custody, currently Fra Sergio Galdi, has the privilege of celebrating a 6:30 a.m. mass inside the tomb of Jesus’ friend. Inside this cramped space, only a few people can have the privilege of gathering around the portable altar that is erected for the occasion and to hear Father Sergio’s beautiful homily: “In the face of death, Christians have no room for despair. Yes, we can suffer the pain of separation, longing for times spent with loved ones, but we have the certainty that in heaven there is Father, a dear Father, who waits for us with a loving plan.”

Father Luca Grassi preached at the 7:30 mass, which was celebrated by the Custodial Vicar, Fra Dobromir Jasztal. After the celebration, the friars moved in procession to Lazarus’s tomb. From there they could easily have continued on the Mount of Olives to the Mount of the Ascension, on the facing hill. However, the Israeli security forces had hermetically sealed the route; instead of walking two kilometers, it was necessary to re-board the bus to drive fifteen kilometers to the chapel. The friars then closed the morning’s pilgrimage at the Carmel Monastery of the Pater, according to tradition.

While the others returned to Jerusalem, Fra Michael Sarquah and Fra Eleazar Wroński stayed in Bethany. Fra Michael is guardian of the site. For seven years now, they have welcomed the pilgrim groups who come here, groups who should be commended for following the steps of Christ even when it isn’t the obvious choice. Bethany is not on the road to anywhere; you have to want to go there.

For Fra Marcelo Cichinelli, the constant presence of the Custody in the places it protects is of capital importance. “Some villages like this one were at times completely deserted. The friars stayed, continuing to safeguard and maintain not only the buildings, which are secondary, but the memory of the events of Christ’s life that took place here. It is always this memory of Christ that guides our actions. There is no risk or danger in coming to Bethany; at most, there is the inconvenience of a detour. But risk and inconvenience are an integral part of pilgrimage. As for the friars’ perseverance, it bears fruit. The most outstanding example is the site of the baptism of Christ on the Jordan River. The friars persisted on making pilgrimage to the site while it was closed, and today is permanently open for the largest number of people.”

For his part, Fra Michael says, “It is hard to tell the number of groups who come each month or each year. It’s maybe around 5000 pilgrims a month? But they come from everywhere and it’s true that they enliven the sanctuary. I like receiving them.” With 5000 people coming in the pilgrimage season, the sanctuary receives 30,000 to 40,000 pilgrims a year, far behind sites like Bethlehem, which receives close to two million—an average of over 5000 per day.

But the Custody watches for the thirty or forty thousand because at Al Azariya, Lazarus’s place (the Arabic name of the biblical village of Bethany), there is room, not for despair, but to receive Christ.

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