Spirituality is not about bricks and mortar, but in my experience no one who has visited the shrines of the Holy Land finds that seeing them was not profoundly inspiring — especially during the observance of Holy Week.
Archeology has furnished fascinating details about virtually all the holy places — and quite compelling proof for the historical credibility of many. By the same token, scientific study has negated the claims of some places to a connection with the Messiah, but even in these less authentic sites, powerful spiritual lessons may be learned.
Just last year, Jesuit Father James Martin authored Jesus: A Pilgrimage (HarperCollins), still very much in print, and in several forms, that would be a very helpful read during Holy Week. It is about his own pilgrimage, and he not only gives good, scholarly comment on the physical circumstances of the important shrines, but also ponders the theological implications of the events that are said to have occurred at these various locations.
Another resource is the set of two volumes, Death of the Messiah (Yale University Press), by the now deceased Sulpician Father Raymond E. Brown. These books provide exegesis of the four Passion Narratives in exquisite detail, and painstakingly link the events of the first Holy Week with the Old Testament prophecies and prefigurements as well as with conditions in the Jewish and Roman worlds at the time of Christ.
Perhaps the extraordinary depth of the Brown books is daunting for some busy priests, but one paragraph well may supply good material for a fine Palm Sunday or Good Friday homily. (I was Father Brown’s student years ago at St. Mary’s Seminary at Roland Park in Baltimore. I still have the deepest respect for him as a priest and as a scholar.)
A good, solid spiritual reflection on the events recalled at the shrines is The Holy Land: An Armchair Pilgrimage, by Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa, known to many because of his appearances on EWTN. Published by Servant Books, this book is what it purports to be, a visit to the shrines without literally visiting them and drawing inspiration from the process.
Yet another helpful resource is The Holy Land (Oxford University Press), by Dominican Father Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, just recently deceased. Updated since its original appearance, it gives the amateur a good picture of what archeology has found at virtually all the shrines — or has not found.
Shrines, of credibility or not in the sense of any actual association with Jesus, abound throughout modern Israel and even in some places in Jordan.
Some lack proof, according to the experts, for what they claim to be, such as the Lithostrotos at the convent of the Sisters of Zion and the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu. Still, among my own visits to Jerusalem, an English nun who guided me at the Lithostrostos and a French Assumptionist priest who once was my guide at St. Peter in Gallicantu remain vividly in my mind — for the inspiration they gave me.
Two sites associated with Holy Week have high academic respectability.
Basilica of the Agony
Gethsemane is one. The Agony in the Garden begins the narrative specifically and precisely about the Lord’s saving death. The Agony in the Garden is a Synoptic tradition, Matthew, Mark and Luke all noting the event in some detail (cf.: Mk 14:26-42; Mt 26:30-46; Lk 22:39-46; Jn 18:1).
A church stands presently at Gethsemane, enshrining what will be said to be the rock upon which the Lord prayed and sweat blood. The church was consecrated in 1924, but a much more ancient church preceded it. Christians at least a millennium ago connected this spot with the Agony. Built in the Byzantine style, the church possesses majesty and architectural chastity. It is uncluttered and powerful in its simplicity.
Is it the very site where the Lord prayed with such fervor, while the Apostles slept? Did Judas kiss and betray Jesus here? No one can say for sure, but every historical indication is that the Agony, if not here, was not very far from this site.
The church is nestled among old olive trees. Did these very trees witness the Lord’s Agony. Almost certainly they did not. In A.D. 70, the Romans ruthlessly put down a Jewish revolt. The Romans played for keeps. Showing no mercy to the defeated rebels, the victorious Romans needed many trees to construct the crosses upon which to crucify Jewish dissidents, and they went after the woods surrounding Jerusalem, including the trees of Gethsemane, with a vengeance.
Even so, I heard a Franciscan guide at Gethsemane tell pilgrims that many of the present trees, obviously very, very old, rose from stumps and seedlings left by the Romans in their binge for executions, trees beneath which Jesus prayed in agony. Regardless, the terrain has not changed.
The event to ponder is the Agony in the Garden. On six occasions, the Old Testament refers to this place. Among the most important references is in 2 Samuel 15:30, in which King David went to this place to pray, and to grieve, in the wake of the mutiny led by his son, Absalom, who in turn was accidentally killed.
Jesus and King David
Father Brown found special significance in the fact that the Lord, following the Last Supper, went precisely to Gethsemane. He notes its history, seeing in 2 Samuel a certain prelude for the Gospel accounts. Similarities are several and powerful. The Lord and King David both were commissioned by God. David was the human instrument in the founding of the Covenant. Jesus, the Son of David, son of Mary in human nature and eternal Son of God, established the New Covenant.
What is the lesson here? In Salvation History, God again and again reached out to humankind, and to human beings individually, in love and mercy, calling them to life in Him. Also again and again, humans met obstacles in going go God, and they refused His outreach.
Fortitude is important. Conviction is important. Faith is critical. From the beginning of the Gospels’ Gethsemane story, treachery and doom stand boldly and constantly, as even more deliberately is the Lord’s utter obedience to God, come what may.
Realizing the horror of what was about to unfold, Jesus prayed most intently. He was alone and helpless — in the human sense — before the powers of the earth and the guile of human intrigue. His feelings were human feelings, not therefore a denial of the divinity of the Son of God but an affirmation of the Lord’s human nature. In this human nature, in the Incarnation, every human being possesses an intimate bond with Jesus. In the Incarnation also is the effectiveness of the Redemption.
The Agony in the Garden is about the Lord’s profound identification, in human nature, and in the breadth of Redemption, with each person. He suffered. We suffer.
Father Martin observes that the prayer of Jesus not only was human, but it also was honest. It was straightforward. It was unafraid, despite the setting of obvious anxiety about things soon to happen. Most of all, it was trusting. Finally, it was obedient to the superiority of God’s will and God’s plan.
His prayer at Gethsemane, and His prayer on the cross, were between Him and the Father, no others involved. At the moment of death, maybe at other times as lives unfold, everyone, every Christian, is alone with God, by choice or otherwise. Here so powerful is the Lord’s lesson of trust and obedience. It is the only answer.
These very qualities make it, for Christians, perfect prayer.
Another aspect of the Agony in the Garden story confronts all humans with a reality that most humans prefer to forget. Humans are fragile and fearful and therefore subject to bad judgment and coercion.
The fatigue of the Apostles accompanying Jesus is more than a charming literary subplot. They understandably faced the common human experience of weariness. After all, it was night.
Then, after the arrest, except for Peter, and he hardly appears in any praiseworthy sense, disclaiming as he did any knowledge of the Lord, the Apostles disappear. Did they abandon Jesus altogether or did they simply slip away into the crowd without a whimper?
Peter suffers from being a human, and while his actions when Jesus was arrested and soon thereafter speak of him personally, he may be seen as something of Everyman. Peter suffered from being a human. He repented, however. Consider in the Resurrection Narratives, his earnest proclamation of love of Jesus as Lord, a love confirmed by Jesus in his commissioning Peter to feed the sheep and to feed the lambs of the faithful flock (cf.: Jn 21:15-19).
In the weeks following Easter, readings from the Acts of the Apostles will occur continually, often mentioning Peter’s fidelity to the Lord. Indeed, every first reading at Mass during the Octave will be from Acts and will present Peter in the most favorable light.
Peter is Everyman
Peter is Everyman in the sense that, when push comes to shove, humans often cave. Alas, priests cave. Humans, however, can accomplish superhuman deeds, as did Peter as his life continued, indeed, according to ancient Christian belief, until his own crucifixion in Rome.
Without leaving the Passion Narratives of Mark and John, strength and utter dedication appear. These qualities sustained the mother of Jesus, Mary, and the mother of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene, and the Beloved Disciple, who defied the danger of being tagged as accomplices to a traitor to Rome, and bravely stood beneath the cross (cf.: Jn 19:25). They prompted the Roman centurion as he proclaimed that Jesus was the Son of God (cf.: Mk 15:39).
Such courage, insight and ability to rise above human limitations have been part and parcel of Christian devotion through all the centuries. Humans are not inevitably chained to their human inadequacies, not by any means.
Also, Father Martin notes that in the Passion Narratives, Jesus so often is utterly alone. He was alone as he prayed at Gethsemane. Judas betrayed him. Peter denied him. The very situation of being crucified was such a lonely experience. The people crying for his crucifixion, his tormentors, surely were more than a few, but they were not with him. He was alone.
The church at Gethsemane is called the Church of All Nations because Catholics around the world contributed to its construction. Festooning the church’s ceiling, in stunning mosaic, are heraldic symbols of the various nations from which believers sent donations.
American pilgrims look upward to find the American eagle. Brazilian visitors search to find the Southern Cross on their national emblem. Canadians look for the Maple Leaf, and so on.
On one of my visits, the Franciscan friar and guide observed that the seals of Ireland and Poland, perhaps coincidentally, were placed closest to the sanctuary. English himself, but very objective, he opined that this positioning was quite appropriate, because no other nations have withstood more in terms of religious persecution than have Ireland and Poland, both so rich and so firm in their historic Catholic heritage.
What a gift has Christianity been to the Irish and Polish cultures, infusing each with sweetness and stamina, with purpose and high principle. It is not just about nations. The same is true of Christianity’s enrichment of untold billions of individual persons over the centuries.
While never paradise, the world would be a very grim place indeed without Christianity.
An intriguing figure in the narratives about the garden is Malchus, the high priest’s servant (cf.: Mt 26:51, Mk 14:47, Lk 22:50-51, Jn 18:10-11). The story is familiar. Furious at all that was unfolding, Peter drew his sword and cut off the ear of Malchus.
Jesus corrected Peter, saying that the Savior must drink the chalice given him by Providence, and then Jesus healed Malchus. The unfortunate servant again was able to hear. God always heals the deafness if we truly wish to hear the Word.
The geographic center of the Passion Narrative is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Did Jesus die here? Did Jesus rise here? Father Murphy-O’Connor states that “very probably,” from the scientific point of view, Jesus died and was buried in the immediate area long since enclosed by this church. He is hardly is unique in holding this position.
He notes that Christians treasured this spot from very early times, prayed here and even risked death to come here. This very ancient, and consistent, reverence is convincing proof of authenticity in itself.
Disturbed by Christians’ attachment to this place, the Roman Emperor Hadrian (A.D. 76-138) ordered that a temple to the goddess Aphrodite be built on the site. Obviously, he hoped that this pagan house of worship, and all the eroticism associated with it, would cause people to forget the Christians’ attention to this very place.
Ironically, he marked the spot. When Christianity was legalized in the fourth century, and interest in the Holy Places could be pursued without fear, the Roman Emperor Constantine ordered that a Christian church be built on this site.
Even so, attaining into the right spiritual mood, of linking the church with the great events of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, is not always easy. Visitors, often many and surely not all pious pilgrims, move around, snapping pictures, telling jokes, loudly chattering in a cacophony of languages. It seems to be more like Babel or some Disneyland from the Middle Ages.
Originally it was a Roman Catholic church. Centuries ago the Muslim Turks, for their own political reasons, gave primary rights to be in the church to Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic communities, as well as Roman Catholic. These “partners” have resented each other more often than not, and they literally have fought, physically at times, and literally to the death.
No wonder four recent pontiffs, Blessed Pope Paul VI, Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, all prayed here for common cause and unity among Christians.
(Two sidebars: An Arab family owns the church, a prize awarded centuries past by one of the Ottoman sultans and the Israeli government studiously avoids taking sides and maintains the church’s security and physical integrity.)
The lessons of the Passion Narratives are profound, miraculous and unending. For the skeptics and irreligious, whom priests more and more often encounter, the Passion Narratives make clear that Jesus truly lived and died on this earth. He was real. It is fact.
For believers, the messages are over-powering. Before the ceremonies of Palm Sunday and Good Friday, priests, and all others for that matter, would benefit themselves by reading the Narratives carefully and quietly, maybe assisted by commentaries. Many Bibles even have good footnotes to enhance reading, by the way.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher also houses the site of the tomb in which the body of Jesus was laid, and where, on the first Easter, with breathtaking power, the Lord rose.
The Resurrection is essential to discipleship. It was victory. It is a victory in which we all hope to share and are promised a share.
Blessed be Jesus Christ, true God and true man!
MSGR. CAMPION is editor of The Priest magazine, and associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, Inc.