Pentecost: a day of contrasts

“I say, then: live by the Spirit.” On Sunday morning, the words of St. Paul echoed powerfully at Saint Savior’s church in Jerusalem. In tune with the universal Church, the Latin Church of Holy Land celebrated the feast of Pentecost, the giving of the Spirit to the whole world.

Everything came together for the joy of the feast to be tangible. First, the liturgy. Red ornaments, the choir that was impressively decorated for the occasion with a superb silver ensemble representing the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples, incense, and specific songs for this feast: Veni Creator and Veni Sancte Spiritus.

The assembly who gathered in the church of the Custody also recalled the Twelve came together in the Upper Room around Mary. The mass presided over by the Custodial Vicar Brother Dobromir Jasztal was celebrated in Latin, Arabic and Italian, recalling that Pentecost also includes the gift of tongues, thus expressing the universality of the Gospel message. Reading the Acts of the Apostles, he said: “How is it that each of us hears them in his own dialect, his mother tongue? We hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.”

The only thing missing was the “historic” sending of the Holy Spirit. But the Upper Room, located on Mount Zion, is no longer accessible for the celebration of mass. It lies in the heart of the place that makes up the monastery built by the Franciscans in the fourteenth century and from where the friars were expelled in the early sixteenth century. Muslims transformed the room—that tradition says is the the upper room of Pentecost—into a mosque. The indulgences granted to the place of the Upper Room were transferred to Saint Savior’s Church in Jerusalem.

In the Middle Ages, a tradition places King David’s tomb inside a room on the ground floor. Since 1948, all of the buildings were on the Israeli side of the line that divided the city, and Jews became accustomed to going there on pilgrimage. From that point on, they were in fact closer to the Western Wall (Kotel) and to the esplanade of their Temple that at the time could not be entered.

In recent years, the Upper Room has become a place of contention due to its proximity to what is known as David’s Tomb. While the right to enter it has been discussed in the context of the current agreement between the State of Israel and the Holy See, some Jews wrongly claim that the agreement could cause them to lose access to their Davidic sanctuary. Others, more virulently believe that any Christian prayer “desecrates” their holy place by making it “unclean.”

Tensions were at their peak last year when Pope Francis, on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, had attended the exceptional celebration of the Eucharist. Because, if Catholics are only able to have two different celebrations a year (Holy Thursday afternoon in memory of the washing of the feet and the institution of the Eucharist, and the day of Pentecost for the second vespers of the feast) they can never actually celebrate mass.

This year, Jewish (Shavuot) and Christian Pentecost celebrations fall on the same day, and some Jewish factions declared that Christians—whom they feel have no right to the Upper Room—came to pray by provocation. So, with sustained police intervention in the afternoon, the Franciscans left Saint Savior’s Monastery to the sound of the kawas’ staffs and headed toward Mount Zion. Before leaving, Brother Sergio Galdi, Secretary of the Custody, informed the religious that they were expected and reminded them—just in case—that in case of provocation, they were not to respond under any circumstances.
The police’s vigilance singularly contrasted with the friars’ serenity. Once they passed the Zion Gate, the tension was palpable, and through the booing of some teenagers who were kept at bay by a police rope, the friars went up to the Upper Room of the Cenacle. Vespers took place quite normally, even though outside an adult minyan (the quorum of 10 men required for prayer) held a prayer of mourning .

After vespers, still under the watchful eye of the police, the Franciscans and pilgrims left the premises and returned to the monastery of the so-called little Cenacle (cenacolino).
Despite tensions and a press campaign orchestrated in some circles, everything went well and for Christians it is the joy and spirit of the feast that will remain the most memorable parts of this day.

Nk and Mab

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