Holy Thursday in Jerusalem: a very intense day

Thursday, April 17th. Since seven o’clock in the morning, the courtyard in front of the Holy Sepulchre is under assault: security barriers and Israel police officers are in place, along with cameras and journalists. This Thursday morning in Jerusalem, and throughout the world, the Paschal Triduum begins. The delegation of the Latin Patriarch makes his entrance into the Holy Sepulchre and then proceeds to the washing of the feet and the commemoration of the Last Supper. The first notes of the organ sound out and the Custody choir, joined by the Hungary Saint Angela choir from Budapest, intone the antiphon God, may all the nations praise you together! The communion is quite real. Around the basilica the Greek Orthodox are celebrating their liturgy at the same time. Inside, we find a real mosaic of humanity standing around the tomb in a pious silence that is a marked contrast with other days. Those who were able to get the liturgy booklet follow all the steps of the celebration: readings, homily, the washing of the feet of the faithful by the Latin Patriarch in front of the tomb, the clergy’s renewal of their promises, the blessing of the oil for the ill and the catechumens, and finally the Holy Chrism that will bestow an indelible character on the forehead of the newly baptized, confirmed and those ordained to the priesthood.

In the absence of a sound system, you have to be very attentive to hear the voices that succeed one another, but that is not central. In today’s unique ceremony, the Latin Christians participate in a tradition that the Franciscans began: celebrating Holy Thursday in the Holy Sepulchre. While many people still think that they go there because they are prevented from celebrating it in the Upper Room, Fra Stéphane tells us, “The Franciscans chose to celebrate in the Holy Sepulchre because Holy Thursday is not a costume play that mimics Christ’s last supper in the Upper Room. No, it has a much stronger meaning: it is a finger pointing to the paschal mystery, to Calvary. By our presence, we make present what Christ wanted to indicate to his friends.”

A few hours later, the friars make way for tradition. Every Holy Thursday since the middle of the 19th century, the Franciscans have had the privilege of taking possession of the key to the Holy Sepulchre and opening the doors of the basilica, which will then be closed for the time of adoration. Since the city’s conquest by Saladin, the key to the Holy Sepulchre has been entrusted to two Muslim families of Jerusalem. For the opening ceremony, representatives of the two families come to Saint Saviour Monastery, where they meet the Custodial Vicar, Fra Dobromir, who invites them for coffee and a few delicacies. Several generations gather around the table: the younger generation has to learn the ritual and the importance of the tradition. In a warm, friendly atmosphere they discuss the latest news of the neighborhood. “This is truly a symbolic gesture. It is a sign of good relations and respect between the communities,” explains Fra Dobromir.

The little group moves to the Holy Sepulchre. As they reach it, an old ladder is pushed through a small, square opening in the imposing wooden doors. The porter climbs the ladder to reach the first lock, then moves to the second. Slowly, the two heavy doors swing open before the hundreds of pilgrims who have been impatiently awaiting this moment.

The delegation has barely reformed when it is time to think about moving again in procession, this time to the Cenacle, the Upper Room. Through the little roads crowded with the Jewish and Christian faithful, the municipal police manage the movements. Upon arrival at the darkened Cenacle, the Franciscans begin the prayer. After the readings, the Custos washes the feet of twelve parish children who will soon have their confirmation. The traditional site of the Last Supper is filled to overflowing, but there is no jostling for position, only a sense of communion in the prayer that is spoken in several languages.

From here the group moves at a brisk pace to the Armenians’ Saint James Monastery. The pilgrims try to keep up, careful not to be left behind by the friars. The traditional stop to visit the Armenians is a reminder of the lodging that they offered the friars after their expulsion from the Cenacle in the 16th century. One chapel after another… it’s easy to get lost in the maze. No visit to the Syriac church this year. As the Franciscans pass in front of Saint Mark Monastery, they are celebrating the washing of the feed in turn. At five thirty in the afternoon, it is the Latin parish that takes up the baton. Another church filled to bursting. Here the prayer is entirely in Arabic. Here again, Custos washes the feet of parishioners, six fathers and their sons to mark the year of the family.

As the celebration is completed, another is ready to begin: the grand night at Gethsemane.

Night falls, and pilgrims stream to the Church of the Nations, next to the Garden of Gethsemane. They have all come to be with Christ for a Holy Hour of prayer and recollection before tomorrow’s Passion. Beneath the golden archways of the church, the ceremony begins. The atmosphere is calm, quiet, but vibration with emotion. As the choir’s voice rises, the Custos approaches the stone on Jesus sweat drops of blood while he prayed even as his disciples did not have the strength to watch at his side. The Custos scatters the stone with symbolic rose petals. Reading, prayers and song fill the crowded church for this hour. At the end of the ceremony, the pilgrims come forward for a last prayer at the Stone of Agony. They kneel, kiss it, collect a few petals.

Outside, people gather and candles are distributed for the torchlight procession to Saint Peter Gallicantu. Slowly, each one comes forward, each community sings hymns and prays and mounts to the ramparts of the Old City. The atmosphere among the groups varies: some sing lively songs, accompanied by guitar, while others are silent. A group of Ethiopians says the rosary in a single, sweet, deep voice. Their prayers are psalmody; the rhythm, mesmerizing. After the long day of carefully orchestrated ceremonies, the procession is a kind of emptying of self. The candlelit faces of the faithful are visibly moved by the prayer. Along the walls of the Old City, the procession meets dozens of Orthodox Jews who are returning from their own night of prayer. They stop and watch, silent and respectful, stunned at the long file of Christians singing different songs. Arriving down at Saint Peter Gallicantu, everyone stops for a last prayer by the light of the candles. It is time to leave. Tomorrow we rise at dawn to be present at the Passion of Christ.

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