Jerusalem: The Birthplace of our Church
The story of God becoming man culminates in Jerusalem. In the eighth part of his series on the recent Pilgrimage of the Peacemakers, Günther Simmermacher visits the Holy City.
On top of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, a little mosque marks the place of Jesus’ Ascension. It wasn’t always a mosque.
Once the tiny building was part of a large Crusader basilica. After the fall of the Crusader kingdom in the 12th century the church was destroyed, except the central chapel which was retained and turned into a mosque, since Muslims regard Jesus as a prophet and share our belief in his ascension.
But remarkably, it was never used for the purposes of Muslim worship. Seeing how Christians still came in great numbers to venerate the site, the Muslims instead built another mosque next door.
This is the kind of magnanimity which counters the idea that religious intolerance is an intrinsic essence of Islam. As it is with Christianity, both characteristics—generous acceptance as well as religious chauvinism — can be observed in the practice of Islam.
That contradiction in the religion of Mohammed can be traced right to the beginning of its presence in Jerusalem.
When the Muslims conquered the Holy Land in 637 AD — just five years after Mohammed’s death — Jerusalem’s besieged Christian rulers negotiated a surrender rather than see great bloodshed and pillage. But Patriarch Sophronius insisted that he’d surrender only to the caliph, Umar ibn Al-Khattab (or Omar).
The caliph was a warrior but also known as a just and astute man. He acceded to the patriarch’s demand and duly came to Jerusalem to accept the surrender.
Things must have gone very smoothly because Sophronius invited Omar to pray with him in the church of the Holy Sepulchre, the place of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. But Omar wisely declined because he wanted to avoid setting a precedent that might put at risk the church’s status as a Christian site.
Instead he prayed in the church’s courtyard. Today a mosque, built in 1193 and named after Omar, marks that spot.
Omar still claimed part of the basilica for Islamic worship, but also decreed that Muslims had no business in the rest of it.
But such tolerance was not always evident among the caliphs. In 1009 the malevolent teenage caliph Al-Hakim bi Amr Allah had the church of the Holy Sepulchre almost completely razed as part of his wave of religious persecution.
That event shook the Christian world for the entire century and served as one motivation for the call in the 1090s to reconquer the Holy Land, the Crusades.
The Crusaders did indeed vanquish the Islamic rulers in 1099, and Christians would rule the Holy Land for the next 88 years, until their defeat by al-Saladin in 1187.
The Crusaders built many churches throughout the Holy Land, usually on sites where previous churches had stood. After the Muslim reconquest, Saladin set out to erase much of the Christian character of Jerusalem. Thousands of Christians were enslaved.
The al-Aqsa mosque, used by the Crusaders as the headquarters for the Templar Knights, and the Dome of the Rock, used by the Christians as a church, were restored as Muslim places of worship.
Saladin also appropriated churches. In the case of the destroyed site of the Ascension, as we see above, he was generous. But he also turned St Anne’s church, reputedly the birthplace of the Blessed Virgin, into a madrassa (or theological school). A sign in Arabic from 1192 above the entrance mentions Saladin by name.
The church became Catholic again in the 19th century and is a fixture on any good pilgrimage itinerary.
St Anne’s church is famous for its acoustics, and five members of the Pilgrimage of the Peacemakers group tested the sound with an African hymn. All groups that come there sing. As we were exploring the church, a large group of Vietnamese pilgrims sang with such gusto that they almost lifted the roof of this nine-centuries-old church.
In 1552, the sultan Suleiman the Magnificent took over the Crusader chapel that marks the Upper Room of the Last Supper and the first Pentecost on Mount Zion, known as the Cenacle, and turned it into a mosque. For almost 400 years Christians were not allowed there.The Cenacle is part of a complex that is holy to Christians, Muslims and Jews. The interest for the latter is the “Tomb of David”, which sports a big velvet-draped sarcophagus. But there is no David inside it.
The misconception was created by the Crusaders who mistakenly identified this southwestern hill as the biblical Mount Zion, and therefore extrapolated that King David was buried there. So they built a tomb in his honour.
The Bible says that King David was buried in the City of David (1 Kings 2:10), which we now know to be on the south-eastern slope of Temple Mount (that is, outside what we know as the Old City). In David’s time, present-day Mount Zion was uninhabited land.
But that won’t stop militant ultra-Orthodox Jews from demanding that Christians should be denied access to the Upper Room (or from frequently vandalising the nearby Dormition Abbey, where our Lady drew her last breath).
The misidentification of the tomb of David was also to blame for Suleiman taking over the Cenacle.
Suleiman is the Islamic rendering of Solomon, son of King David. By appropriating the supposed tomb of David and the church of the “Son of David” (namely Jesus), the sultan presented himself—and the Islamic faith—as Solomon, the heir to both the Jewish and Christian traditions.
The Cenacle officially is still a mosque, albeit unused and under Israeli control.
Unlike David’s Tomb, the Cenacle actually might mark the accurate location of what it represents, the Last Supper and the first Pentecost, though the evidence for that is not conclusive.
Archaeologists have found beneath the complex what appears to be a first-century synagogue. On its plaster there are two inscriptions. One says, “Oh Jesus, that I may live…”, the other is a Greek acronym which may stand for “Conquer, Saviour, Mercy”. Of course, the early Christians were Jews, and their places of gathering and worship were synagogues.
A clue to indicate that this is indeed a Judeo-Christian synagogue resides in its orientation: not towards Temple Mount, as would be required in Judaism, but towards Golgotha, today the site of the church of the Holy Sepulchre.
This could be the “small church of God [that] marked the site of the Hypero-on” (meaning Upper Room) mentioned by Epiphanius of Salamis as having stood there in 130, and which Cyril of Jerusalem referred to in a sermon in 348 as “the Upper Church of the Apostles”.
And if this is indeed the place, then it is here that the Eucharist was instituted and the Church was born. What a thought!
Incidentally, our image of the Last Supper has been shaped by famous artworks, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic painting in Milan. But we can be certain that Jesus and the Twelve did not sit in a line along one side of a dinner table, with a Tuscan landscape behind them.
They would have been reclining on cushions at a low u-shaped table called a triclinium. If normal seating arrangements were observed, then Jesus, as the host, sat on the table’s left wing, second from the end.
Next to him were the guests of honour. Since diners rested on their left elbow and ate with the right hand, we can surmise that John was to Jesus’ right, since he rested his head on Jesus’ chest (Jn 13:3).
To Jesus’ left, the place reserved for the most honoured guest, might have been Judas.
The gospel account would suggest as much: Jesus gave Judas the bread dipped in the dish (Jn 13:26), an action that was traditionally administered to the guest of honour. And Matthew reports Jesus as saying that “someone who has dipped his hand into the dish with me will betray me (26:23), so Judas must have been in close proximity to Jesus.
The glory of the being in the Holy Land is to be in the places where all that is fundamental to our faith originated, and to gain a better understanding of it.
There are so many episodes in the gospels which we can geographically pinpoint, sometimes with absolute accuracy. We can touch the actual spot where Our Lord was born and where he was crucified, and pray in the place where he rose from the dead. We can stand in awe at the location where Jesus instituted the Eucharist and made his first post-Resurrection appearance to the disciples, and where the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples on the first Pentecost.
We can see the places where Jesus most likely taught the Lord’s Prayer, where he conversed with the woman at the well, where he healed and where he preached.
The Holy Land is often called the “Fifth Gospel” because through its sacred sites, history and landscape it illuminates the story of the gospel. A good guide — preferably Christian and local — will offer further enlightenment by explaining the cultural and scriptural context in which the gospels are set.
A pilgrimage to the Holy Land is a transforming experience. On a practical level, the pilgrim’s understanding of the gospel narrative is deepened by being able to contextualise the scene. But more profound, and more difficult to articulate, is the transfiguration of the pilgrim’s inner spiritual life.
Our pilgrimage took place during the northern winter, which even in the Holy Land can be quite cold in some areas. As it turned out we were blessed with lovely spring-like weather throughout, despite forecasts for rain.
Last year, when I was with a group in Venice, I appealed to St Scholastica, patroness for rain, for her intervention to stop the rain that had been forecast for the whole day. With perfect timing, the clouds opened just as we emerged from Mass and sightseeing in San Marco basilica, giving us a day of glorious sunshine.
I returned to St Scholastica during the Peacemakers pilgrimage — and the weather turned out to be wonderful.
Our final destination in the Holy Land, before moving on to Egypt, was the church of the Visitation, on top of a hill in Ein Kerem, west of Jerusalem. It marks the site of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth. The courtyard wall features tile plaques of the Magnificat in many languages; of course we recited the great prayer.
The church, built by the master Angelo Barluzzi, has two levels. The upper church is decorated with splendid frescoes depicting various scenes from the gospel. Our prayers had been said and the Holy Land leg of the programme had been completed. And only then did it begin to rain.
Next week: Christianity in Egypt. Catch up with previous articles on pilgrimages by Günther Simmermacher
Last Week: Can There Be Peace in the Holy Land?
Günther Simmermacher is the author of The Holy Land Trek: A Pilgrim’s Guide, published by Southern Cross Books. Join The Southern Cross on the Year of Mercy Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in October, led by Fr Larry Kaufmann CSsR. Details and illustrated itinerary