Good Friday: The Triumph of the Cross

On this Good Friday, “the doors will remain open for only a few minutes for those who wish to take part in the service,” announced Fra Athanasius at seven in the morning in front of the Holy Sepulchre. The Franciscans accompanying Patriarch Fouad Twal moved through the crowd to make their entry and the large doors closed for the three hours of the Liturgy of the Passion of Christ. Calvary, far too small to contain all the faithful, was quickly filled by the clergy, the Custody’s choir and the faithful who managed to make their way in. As the singing of the Passion in Latin began, the faithful spread throughout the basilica, seizing the opportunity to wander the almost empty aisles and kneel for long minutes at the Stone of Anointing. The only sounds, in unison or alternately, were the voices of the Latins and the Coptic Orthodox, who also celebrated the Passion, seated on rugs around their small chapel adjacent to the tomb.

Under the vaulted ceiling of the Franciscan Chapel of the Crucifixion, they kneel and venerate the relic of the Holy Cross. Fra Antonio, a seminarian from Croatia, explains: “It is a triumphant moment because in the gospel Jesus is reigning on this cross. He was elevated here, so when I kneel I do not feel only the pain of Christ, but also profound consolation for all mankind.” This is the consolation that the faithful of the Jerusalem parish and then the friars will relive as they join the immense crowd of people who are walking the Via Dolorosa today.

Even as the Passion of Christ is being remembered in the Holy Sepulchre, the streets of Jerusalem are filled with uncountable processions following the Via Dolorosa up to the basilica. Although it is the heady time of the Paschal Triduum, it is nevertheless difficult to recollect oneself and remember Christ’s suffering. The Israeli army and municipal police block routes to regulate the flow of pilgrims, it’s hot, the air is suffocating. Most of all, you have to be careful not to get walked on, everyone is pushing everyone else in an irresistible force. Bodies and emotions try to occupy the same space.

Procession follows procession, but none looks like another. Thousands of crosses invade Jerusalem, dozens of different religious garb from all the different rites. The holy city has become, even more than usual, a Tower of Babel where traditions and peoples meet and confront one another. Coexistence is from peaceful here, even today. Two Orthodox processions come to blows as they approach the Ninth Station; tension mounted between Israeli police and Jerusalem Palestinians on several occasions.

Around noon, the procession of the Franciscans of the Custody of the Holy Land seemed calmer, at least among the friars. Behind them, everyone was trying to get through the crowd, “You, stop cutting in front of me – I was first,” cries a tourist to a young man. “And I’m a Jerusalem Scout – this is my home,” returns the latter, annoyed.

In the afternoon, we see a spectacle that is, at the very least, a caricature. A potbellied man wearing a dirty loincloth and covered with fake blood, a coarse wig on his head, plays Jesus. He is accompanied by a colorful mob. Two Roman guards in armor and plumed helmets, women dressed in garishly colored, supposedly “oriental” clothing, with plastic jewelry – a masquerade that looks like a bad Hollywood production. As for the Franciscans, they arrive at the basilica, enter, and recollect themselves.

They are not done with the liturgies yet, though. The most symbolic of them on this Good Friday will see them again gathered in the basilica this evening: the funeral of Christ. Before this, however, the same service will be held in the crowded parish church, where the parishioners are invited to pray for their brethren in Syria.

It is 8:10 p.m. and the Franciscan procession is ready to set out from Saint Saviour, but the police who are to help them make their way through the crowd are late. When they finally arrive, the basilica is beyond full. During the ceremony, a cross with the corpus is borne in procession to Calvary and then to the Stone of Anointing. Following tradition, the body is taken down, laid on a white winding cloth, anointed by the Custos and brought into the tomb. The crowd is hysterical, pushing and shoving and trying to touch the statue that reminds us that Christ knew death. The Franciscans firmly continue their prayer, accustomed to the site and smile at the excesses of piety. “That’s how it is, this is the Holy Sepulchre. There has to be life here; if not here, then there isn’t life anywhere,” comments one of the sacristans who is back from fussing at some pilgrims who were standing on top of the security barriers, trying to balance. Now the Latins leave the sites and the noise and activity is replaced by the sweetness of an April night. For a few hours Jerusalem has regained its nocturnal calm.

At midnight, the New Gate is blocked by the police who are already preparing to regulate the waves of pilgrims who will try by any and all means through all the ways into the city to go to the basilica for the New Fire.

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