I don’t know that I can put today’s experience into words. And whatever I write is just from my own perspective. I do know that today – specifically from about 5:30 to 8:00 this morning – will never be forgotten by any of the 21 pilgrims in our group. How is it possible to ever experience our faith the same way after celebrating Mass within the Holy Tomb of our Lord Jesus Christ? But some words I will try, at least to convey what our day looked like.
We left the hotel at 5:15 this morning to go to the Old City of Jerusalem just as the town was beginning to wake so that we could walk the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross, in the relative peace of quiet and fairly empty roads. We walked along the path that Jesus took to his death, praying all along the way. For me, one particularly moving insight came as I realised that the day was dawning and light was getting brighter even as we were remembering the growing darkness and suffering that Jesus endured. The cross ends in the Resurrection. We finished the stations right in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built over both Calvary and the tomb. We immediately climbed the stairs that lead to the Chapel built over the place where Jesus was crucified. Each of us was able to kneel in front of what would have been the foot of the Cross and place our hand in the hole in the rock where the Cross had been placed. We then visited the rest of the Church, including the rock of anointing and the Chapel of Adam. And then it was time for Mass.
Apparently it is a rare privilege for a pilgrimage group like ours to be able to celebrate Mass at the Holy Tomb. The chapel built over the tomb where the body of Jesus was laid is divided into two chambers – a small outer chamber just about the right size to accommodate our size of group, and an even smaller inner chamber that only a few people can fit in. To enter the tomb itself – the inner chamber – you have to go through a very small narrow door in the rock. Inside is the slab of stone on which the body of Jesus was laid. Above the slab is an altar. Deacon Jeff Powell and I were in the tomb itself, with the rest of the group in the outer chamber. On that altar, above the Holy Tomb, we celebrated the Mass of Easter Sunday – the Mass of Resurrection – in the very place where the Son of God was raised from the dead, conquering death itself, and opening for us the gates of heaven. No words can describe the power of that Mass.
Our day and our pilgrimage could have ended then and there. But it didn’t. After a stop back at the hotel for breakfast and a short rest, we went to the Mt. of Olives, where we followed the Palm Sunday route of Jesus down the hillside toward Jerusalem. We then visited the Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of the Agony, recounting along the way the events from the Passion Narrative that happened at each place. The afternoon was spent in the Old City of Jerusalem, visiting the excavations outside the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, the Stone Pavement where Jesus was judged by Pilate, the Church of St. Anne and the birthplace of Mary, and the Pools of Bethesda. If it sounds like a full day, it was! We are now back to the hotel a bit earlier than usual to begin the packing process since we check out of our hotel tomorrow morning. But since our flight doesn’t leave until late tomorrow night, we still have a full day around Jerusalem tomorrow – including the house of Caiaphas and St. Peter in Gallicantu Church, the Israeli Museum and the Shrine of the Book, and Bethany, home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.