6: Waiting for ladder to fall
Occasionally I am asked about my favourite place in the Holy Land. It is a difficult question to answer. For me, there are three: the entire area around the Sea of Galilee (but especially Capernaum), the church of All Nations at the foot of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, and the church of St Peter in Gallicantu on Mount Zion.
St Peter in Gallicantu is a place of high drama. The name means literally Peter where the cock crowed. The church is dedicated to St Peter, but not in an honourable manner. Perhaps this is unique: are there any other churches that remember the humiliation of a saint? The church of St Hedwig of the Malicious Gossip, perhaps, or St Francis Sent Away By The Pope For Smelling Badly basilica (actually, I don’t know whether there was an indiscreet St Hedwig, but the loveable St Francis certainly was not overzealous in his maintenance of personal hygiene).
Peter’s failing is, of course, a common human trait: the betrayal and denial of those we love. Three times Peter was asked whether he was Jesus’ friend. Three times he denied that he was, all solemn promises to the contrary notwithstanding.
Some archaeologists believe that the church is built above the High Priest’s palace, where Jesus was tried by the Sanhedrin and held before being brought before Pontius Pilate. Indeed, there are prison cells in the excavated basement, and a water cistern that was never used for its purpose, but might have been Jesus’ prison cell.
If this indeed was Caiaphas palace (some suggest that he would have lived on top of Mount Zion, not halfway down), then Jesus would have passed the place of his judgment on his way to and from the Last Supper. Being based on the Mount of Olives or in nearby Bethany, there was only one possible way for Jesus and the disciples to reach Mount Zion. Part of that way included a flight of steps next to where today stands the church of St Peter in Gallicantu. These very steps, on which Jesus indisputably walked, are still there, and pilgrims can walk on them. To walk where Jesus actually walked
The Last Supper is commemorated on the upper floor of an old Crusader structure which also houses the supposed tomb of David (except that his bones are nowhere near the place). Called the Coenaculum (or Cenacle), the upper room used to be a Christian chapel, but after being appropriated by Muslims was turned into a mosque. It remains a Muslim possession. Even today, Catholics are not allowed to celebrate Mass there (special permission was given to Pope John Paul II to do so in 2000).
Instead, we had Mass in an adjacent Franciscan chapel. If we accept that the Last Supper (and then Pentecost) took place on the site of the Coenaculum, then this church is the nearest one can celebrate the Eucharist to the place of its actual institution. This is an extraordinary awareness as one receives the Body and Blood of Christ. It was the culmination of a dramatic day.
Earlier we had followed the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross, appropriately on a Friday. Last year our group began the way before sunrise. This year, despite his nickname Regimental Sergeant-Major (or RSM, awarded for his penchant for strict discipline in the areas of punctuality and shopping), tour guide Garret Edmunds OFM let our group begin the day in a leisurely fashion.
The logistics of shepherding a group of 45 through the busy, bustling Old City demand a certain degree of military precision. So while the RSM led the group from the front, it was my job to back up the procession. Happily, the operation succeeded smoothly. The last five Stations of the Cross are within the church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Our group had already visited the huge church two days earlier. On that day, we had visited the place of Jesus’ birth, and in the evening the place of his tomb the beginning and the end of his human incarnation.
It was more than a visit. Fr Garret had arranged something quite special for us: we were the exclusive guests at the Franciscans Solemn Entry to the holy sepulchre, the tomb. There the Franciscans sang, solemnly yet radiantly. The singing clearly softened up our pilgrims before they were allowed inside the sepulchre for a brief moment of prayer from which many emerged with tears in their eyes.
On our return to the church, there were no singing Franciscans, though the activities of the members of other denominations added to the din provided by the groups of pilgrims and tourists (not all of whom seemed to respect the holy character of the church).
Like the basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the church of the Holy Sepulchre is subject to the so-called status quo, a ruling by the Ottoman caliph that gave the Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches joint ownership of the two churches. Each of the three churches have their own territories inside these churches over which they enjoy sovereignty. But some areas are shared, requiring a roster for liturgical visiting rights. And there are areas where no agreement can be reached.
There is a ladder standing on the outside ledge of a window facing the courtyard. Doubtlessly left there by a careless artisan, it has stood on the spot, unmoved, since before the status quo was declared 1852. It will not be moved, because the churches cannot agree who has the authority to move the ladder. Perhaps one day a strong gust of wind the wind of change will topple the ladder, a symbol of our Christian division, signalling to all churches that God wishes us to be united.