April 7, 2017

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

A large procession down the Mount of Olives on Palm Sunday

John F. FinkLongtime readers of this column know that I spent three months studying in Jerusalem in 1997 after retiring as editor of The Criterion. I was there during Holy Week, so I participated in the Christian celebrations during that time.

They began on Palm Sunday, with a gigantic procession with everybody carrying palms or olive branches. It began in Bethany, where the tomb of Lazarus and the Church of Martha and Mary are located, and continued to Bethphage at the top of the Mount of Olives. There, a priest representing Jesus mounted a donkey for the ride down the Mount of Olives.

The top of the Mount of Olives is 300 feet higher than the Old City of Jerusalem, so it provides a wonderful view not only of the city itself but of the Judean hills. This is usually where pilgrims begin their tours of Jerusalem. Many Jews are buried on the Mount of Olives, including the prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.

The procession proceeded down the Mount of Olives, as Jesus did every time he went to Jerusalem from Bethany or anyplace else to the east. Halfway down we stopped at the Dominus Flevit Church, which commemorates Christ’s weeping over Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday (see Lk 19:41). (“Dominus Flevit” means “The Lord Wept.”) The church, built in 1891, is shaped in the form of a tear. It’s a small church, much too small for everybody in the procession to go inside, but we did stop there.

There are two churches at the bottom of the Mount of Olives, but the procession did not stop at them because they weren’t associated with Palm Sunday. The first is the Church of All Nations at the Garden of Gethsemane, built between 1919 and 1924 over a huge rock on which Jesus probably suffered his agony before his arrest. It got its name from the fact that 16 nations contributed to its construction.

The Garden of Gethsemane itself today appears much as it did 2,000 years ago, with some olive trees so old that they are either the direct descendants or the actual trees there when Jesus and his Apostles came to this garden.

The other church at the bottom of the Mount of Olives is Mary’s Tomb. Actually, the crypt is all that’s left of a Byzantine basilica built in the fourth century, but pilgrims still descend a flight of 44 steps to reach the tomb in a dark, dungeon-like atmosphere. It’s believed that Mary was assumed into heaven from this spot.

On the first Palm Sunday, Jesus rode to the Temple, but now the procession ends at the Church of St. Anne, located just inside the Lions Gate, the nearest gate to the Mount of Olives. It’s the best preserved of all the churches built by the Crusaders and has magnificent acoustics. This is where tradition says Joachim and Anne had their home, and where Mary was born.

It’s inspiring to hear Christians of many denominations and languages sing and pray together in this church, as they do on Palm Sunday. Patriarchs speak and lead the prayers.

(John Fink’s recent series of columns on Church history is now available in book form from Amazon. It is titled How Could This Church Survive? with the subtitle, It Must Be More Than a Human Institution.)

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