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Part Two: Finding the ‘Holy’ in the Holy Land in Holy Week

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When Fr Robert Christo, Vicar of Communications, joined a pilgrimage to Jerusalem during Holy Week, he witnessed how different religious groups simultaneously compete and co-operate to share the same sacred space.


There, Catholics are not the sole custodians of the holy sites where Jesus died, was buried, and later Resurrected. Instead, they share that responsibility with three major Christian communities – the Greek Orthodox, the Franciscan Order and the Armenian Church.

Much religious collaboration occurs at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where, on the evening of Good Friday, Fr Christo witnessed a unique and profound devotional practice, the funeral procession of Jesus Christ.

Led by the Franciscan friars of the Holy Land, the procession begins when a statue of Christ nailed to a crucifix is taken from their Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament to Calvary and His crown and nails are removed before His burial in the tomb.

One voice. One chorus. One.

I stood mesmerised as one angelic chant permeated throughout the walls of the crammed chapel around the foot of the cross at Golgotha. The cacophony of many languages and different rites soothed me. My heart throbbed. This devotion echoed Jesus’ last words and death wish, “Father may they be one.”

The sound of foot bells tingled in the air. Amidst thick, white, bellowing clouds of incense, a giant, ornate crucifix emerged at the front of the procession. A protruding crown of thorns and macabre nails pierced Christ’s hands and feet. Silence.

Bang! Bang! Bang! The silence is broken by the loud pounding of a hammer. It hits the wooden cross three times before each nail is removed and Christ’s arms swing limply downwards. Pinchers clasp the thorns, wrenching them out of His crown.

The church bells toll. Solemnly. Christ’s corpse is lowered from the cross and carried in a white linen cloth to a slab of white marble, the Stone of Unction (or Anointing). Lights from the myriad cellphones and live-streaming cameras lit up the corpus like a spotlight. There, on the stark marble slab, Custos priests anoint His body with oils, gently. Fragrances perfume the air. Veiled women rush forward with white handkerchiefs and prostrate themselves before the altar, to sap up the excess oils that had dripped from His body.

The Patriarch incensed the body. A homily implores the Jerusalem Church to witness to His death. High-pitched wailing begins as four priests move the linen-wrapped body from the slab and carry it inside the tomb where it rests. Ironically, at dawn on Holy Saturday, the Easter Vigil is celebrated.

This funeral procession highlights the sharing of sacred spaces and remains a striking example of Christian unity, tolerance and universality since its occurrence requires the permission of those in charge of the Golgotha chapel, the Greek Orthodox Church.

This is the only time of the year when, in solidarity, the Greek Orthodox Church facilitates this re-enactment and allows Catholics to conduct a Service there, at a side altar.

Jerusalem afforded a glimpse into Jesus’ life from the grave to the cradle, from the tomb to the womb. The physical proximity of Jesus’ death to where He once lived hit me while staying at a rather “bland” religious stone house.

There, we were invited to a tour beneath our bedrooms, where archaeologists had recently unearthed a first century home, believed to be that of the Holy Family.

I thought of Jesus as a child in that place, in that family. That night, cradled above the ruins of the house of the Holy Family, I dozed off, wondering what made a family holy. My dream whispered – doing God’s will makes a family holy.

What an epiphany! I shifted my focus from places to people, seeing every living being “like a stone — a living stone.” I began to treat each local and pilgrim, as part of the holy history.

Locals and pilgrims have such different experiences of this old city. Locals live amidst the Stations of the Cross and are involved in the pains and joys of its bustling market space. They carry on the traditions, memories, and holiness of Jesus’ life and ministry. However, the fleeting tourists and pilgrims only glimpse the scene and participate in its surface realities.

I wanted to absorb the place and the people and everything in-between the rich liturgies. I wanted to understand the locals’ insights and experience life alongside them, so I immersed myself in conversations amidst the threat of Covid-19 and the looming attacks of terrorists around the borders.

I accepted the hospitality of those offering Arabic coffee or Sabbath meals. I learned that these “living stones” have hope. They can live in harmony. They pray for peace — whether they identify as Christian, Muslim, Coptic, Jewish, or something else. There is harmony in diversity and diversity in harmony. Co-inherence, the idea that “things exist in essential relationship with another, as innate components of the other” is demonstrated at all levels of reality in this old city, which resonates with invisible threads that intertwine and like the Trinity, that interrelatedness is unrehearsed.

I desired this interrelatedness. That’s why I tolerated being squeezed and pushed to watch Jesus’ strange funeral procession. I found myself falling asleep like the disciples, because I had bustled about on autopilot, packing in many church services, conversations with pilgrims and participation in holy commemorations.

Moved by the discomfort of Jesus’ extreme suffering and His cry, “Father, may they be one,” I shuddered. I could imagine myself disbelieving Him. Betraying Him.

Jerusalem was an overwhelming, chaotic whirlwind — yet what a beautiful, ‘holy mess’ Jerusalem is! Bubbling just under its surface, lies a rich multireligious and spiritual joy, a story that parallels its political, social, and cultural narratives.

Nothing is straightforward, clean, or certain. But the interrelatedness of every story etched in the past and present, person and place, shares a vulnerable truthfulness of the colourful fabric that is the “Holiness” in the Holy Land during Holy Week.

Yalla [let’s go on]!

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