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Father Hartman Holy Land Father Louis Hartman - The "old" in preference to the "new".

Letter 7: Easter


Jerusalem, Jordan
Low Sunday, April 24, 1960


Dear Folks:

Now that it is a week since Easter, it is high time for me to give you an account of Holy Week in Jerusalem, in keeping with the promise I made to you in my last letter. Most of this past week, Easter Week, I celebrated by going; on a trip to Petra and Aqaba in southern Trans-Jordan; so this is ray first opportunity to write to you since Easter. But there is little danger of my memory of this glorious Holy Week fading from my mind so quickly. To be present at the various liturgical re-enactments of the mysteries of our Redemption at the very place where our Lord suffered and died and rose from the dead was for me an experience for which I will be ever grateful to God.

Evidently, thousands of other Christians also believe that to be in Jerusalem for Holy Week and Easter more than repays whatever expense and inconvenience the journey here may involve, for this city was literally overflowing with pilgrims and tourists. What complicated matters was the fact that this year the Eastern Christians celebrated Easter on the same day that we Western Christians did. This happens only once every three or four years. Because Eastern Christians have a somewhat different way of reckoning the date of Easter and because they still use the Julian calendar which is now thirteen days behind our Gregorian calendar (their Dec. 25th now falling on our Jan. 17th), in most years the Easter of the Eastern Christians is either one week or five weeks after the Easter of the Western Christians. This year, however, with all the Christians of both the East and the West observing Easter on the same day, there were more pilgrims and tourists here for Holy Week and Easter than at any other time of the year. According to the figures published in our new little English-language daily, "The Jerusalem Times," the Jordan Tourist Department estimated their number at about fifteen thousand. Of course, the hotels here can accommodate only a small fraction of that number. But, since most of the pilgrims were Eastern Christians, the problem of housing all these visitors was solved by the age-old law of Oriental hospitality. The various old religious groups, such as the Greeks and the Armenians, whether Orthodox or Catholic, who still live mostly in closely knit communities in special "quarters" of the Old City, gave lodging to their coreligionists who came from foreign parts. Even our small communities of Coptic and Abyssian Christians played host to a certain number of their compatriots who came from Egypt and Ethiopia--or from the "Other Side," where there is still an Abyssian monastery. The many extra planes that the air lines ran were used principally by the tourists from Europe and America. The vast majority of the Eastern Christians came by chartered busses--not only from Syria and Lebanon, but also from Turkey and especially from Greece. Their dozens of gaily decorated busses, adorned even with big pictures of the Resurrection, were parked all along the northern wall of the Old City from the Damascus Gate to Herod's Gate. There was also a large contingent of Greek Christians from Cyprus, who had sailed from there by ship to Beirut (probably as "deck passengers") and then came here from Beirut by bus. Most of these good people were elderly men and women, who looked as if they had come in the same clothes that they wore on their farms back home. Probably they were spending all they had saved up in many years of hard work for this one great pilgrimage of their lives. They had rather astonishing ways of demonstrating their strong, simple faith: they would kneel down and kiss the ground of some sacred site over and over again, or they would rub their hands over some holy object and then stroke their faces to bring this holiness into their bodies. Yet you could not help feeling that they had a certain special right to this tremendous faith of theirs; they were the descendants of heroic men and women who had remained true to Christ during centuries of Persian and Arab and Turkish persecution, the direct descendants of the men and women who had been converted by the Apostles themselves.

Palm Sunday was a day of joyful celebration in Jerusalem. Though the Passion according to St. Matthew is the "gospel" of the Mass on this day, which the new "restored" Roman Rite also calls "Second Passion Sunday," the spirit here was much less concerned with our Lord's sufferings than it was with His triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Olive branches were as much in evidence as palm branches, because here, as also in Rome, olive branches rather than palms are blessed in church. After all, it is only the Gospel of St. John that speaks of the people carrying palm branches as they accompanied Christ in triumph to Jerusalem; the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark merely say that the people broke branches from the trees on the Mount of Olives, and these would naturally be olive trees. The people with the palms on the first Palm Sunday must have brought these up with them from Jericho for the Passover celebration in Jerusalem. Palm trees are rare around Jerusalem; the winters on these heights are too cold for them. Many people, however, now buy palms at the florist stores in Jerusalem and bring these to church to be blessed. These bought palms are often heavily ornamented with their fronds woven into elaborate designs and decorated with lilies and other flowers. But these palms, which are of the same kind as those used on Palm Sunday in America, are imported here, perhaps from the West Indies and the southern United States. They are really palmettos or fan palms. The native Palestinian palm, such as those that grow in big groves at Jericho, are all date palms, and their branches consist of just one long center stem with small leaves or fronds in a row at each side--the traditional "palm of victory" type.

There was plenty of opportunity for me to attend religious services during Holy Week. The church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is on the original site of Christ's Crucifixion and Resurrection, is shared by the three major groups--the Latins, the Greeks, and the Armenians--while the three minor groups--the Syrians, the Copts, and the Abyssians--have certain lesser privileges here. During the past generations an arrangement has been worked out whereby each of these groups is allotted certain specific times in the rotunda at the Holy Sepulcher. These fixed hours could not be changed without causing hopeless confusion. That is why the Latin services here are still held according to the older rite at the old hours, that is, in the morning of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday--the only place, as far as I know, which the Pope has dispensed from using the new rite in the afternoon or evening hours of these days. All the other Catholic churches here must, of course, use the new rite, at the newly specified times. I could thus attend most of the Latin, services twice: once, according to the old rite at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and once, according to the new rite in one of the other Latin churches of Jerusalem. Besides, I had the possibility of witnessing as a spectator some of the other rather bizarre services of the Eastern Christians and of hearing something of their weird chants.

On Palm Sunday, after my own private Mass, which I said as usual in the nearby Church of St. Stephen, I stayed in this Dominican church for the blessing of the palms, or rather, of the olive branches, and took part in its dignified procession. The similar Latin service at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was held at a slightly later hour, so after breakfast I thought I would attend this too. But it was impossible for me to get through the dense crowd of Greek Orthodox Christians who were waiting in the large courtyard outside this church for their own service that was soon to follow. These people were as closely packed in this courtyard as strap-hangers at rush hours in a New York subway. All the surrounding streets were likewise filled with pilgrims and tourists, and the shopkeepers were selling their gawdy souvenirs at a brisk rate.

In the afternoon of Palm Sunday I joined in the great Catholic procession that went from Bethphage over the Mount of Olives into the Holy City. There must have been several thousand in the procession, with even more people lining the sides of the road to see the colorful procession go by. In a certain sense, this was really a big Catholic rally, not too different in this regard from the St. Patrick's Day parade in New York. "Catholic" here does not of course mean only Latin Catholics; most of the procession was made up of the native Catholic men and women, many of whom belong to the various Eastern Churches which are in union with the Pope of Rome. Not only were there groups of priests and brothers, monks and nuns of the various religious orders who have houses in Palestine, but every Catholic lay organization and parish of Jerusalem and vicinity was well represented--the Third Order of St. Francis, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, the boy scouts, the boys and girls of the various schools and orphan asylums, and so forth. They were not all Jerusalemites; busses came for the procession from Bethlehem and other Catholic villages of Palestine. Most, of the groups had their own flags and banners. One of the most colorful was the group of Syrian Catholics from Aleppo; all of these people, even the little boys and girls, were dressed in white silk gowns with gold bands around their heads holding down their white silk headdresses. And they sung a rollicking Arabic hymn as they marched along in procession. Every one in the procession was given a long palm branch, genuine "palms of victory," that had been brought up from Jericho for the occasion. The people of each group sang hymns or prayed the rosary as they walked in procession. One of the hymns was the Arabic version of Psalm 147: "Glorify the Lord, 0 Jerusalem; praise your God, O Sion." And the children joined in with great gusto in the singing of the chorus after each verse: "Hoshanna libni Da'uud-Hosanna to the Son of David." I couldn't help think that it was especially the little children who on the first Palm Sunday greeted Jesus as the Messiah with this same cry and that He defended them against the Pharisees by saying that, if these kept quiet, the very stone would cry out. There was a real note of triumph in these cries of the modern followers of Christ, the joyful shout of victory in Christ's triumph over death. As these people proclaimed their Christian faith to the many Moslems who silently watched the proceedings from the sides of the road, you could almost hear an echo of the old song of the Crusaders: "The Christians are right, and the pagans are wrong!" My own groups of priests sang in two-part harmony and a stirring modern melody the Breviary hymn in honor of Christ the King, "Te saeculorum Principem." A printed leaflet with the words and music for this and other hymns had been handed out to us.

At Christmas I wrote you that I was not a great stickler for being "on the very spot," and that I enjoyed my midnight Mass at Jerusalem as much as if I had been at the Midnight Mass in the crowded Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem. Since then I have changed my tune. There really is something in being "right on the spot." I could not help feeling moved at the thought as we walked in procession from Bethphage on the Mount of Olives that this was the very village where Jesus had mounted the little donkey and that it was over this very path down the Mount of Olives and across the Kedron Valley at Cethsemani and up the hill into one of the gates of old Jerusalem that Jesus Himself had gone in triumph with His followers at this same hour on the first Palm Sunday. Just as the Orthodox Christians who stood along the line of march kindly greeted us Catholic Christians by waving their own olive and palm branches at us, so also Jesus was welcomed by those people of Jerusalem who more or less believed in Him; and just as the Moslems, who covered the whole hillside below the walls of modern Jerusalem, watched us with silent curiosity, so in His day too the majority of the people of Jerusalem were indifferent towards Him. Yet I must give the modern Moslems of Jerusalem credit; they were at least quiet and even respectful towards us. Perhaps this was due in part to the excellent police protection that we were given. The whole police force of Jerusalem seemed to be on hand, to prevent any untoward incident. I must also say that I have always found the Palestinian police the kindest and most courteous cops that I have ever met with anywhere.

Our Palm Sunday procession, after entering the Old City at St. Stephen's Gate, ended up in the courtyard of St. Ann's Church, which is just a short distance inside the city walls. This is directly north of the Temple area, which Christ entered on the first Palm Sunday. Since the Temple area is now the Moslem "Haraam--Sacred Enclosure" of the Dome-of-the-Rock mosque, no Christian services can, of course, be held there; so St. Ann's, where the White Fathers of Africa run a Greek Catholic Seminary, is the next best place. This lovely Crusader church is on the traditional site of the home of our Lady's parents, and its large courtyard and garden include the unquestionably authentic site of the Pool of Bethesda, where Christ cured the man who was crippled for thirty-eight years. The pool with its five porticoes is still there! This big area therefore was large enough to hold all of us who were in the procession and had come in here for the closing Benediction. It was a glorious scene to see these thousands of people waving their palm branches and crying Out "Hosanna, Hosanna," while the priest carried in the Blessed Sacrament.

The same thrill of feeling that I was "on the very spot" I had at the morning services that I attended in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on each of the last days of Holy Week. There really is something to the ancient idea that the place where God appears to men on earth is sacred ground, and it was not without reason that Moses and Josue were told to take off their sandals as they stood at a place where the Lord came and spoke to them. This whole country is therefore rightly called "the Holy Land" because it is the only region on earth that can with full justice be called "God's own country"; and Jerusalem is rightly called "the Holy City" because it is the City of the Great King, the Son of God who here died and rose to save us. But of all Jerusalem, the most sacred spot is undoubtedly Golgotha, the place of Christ's Crucifixion and Resurrection. The identification of some of the other places in Jerusalem with events in Christ's life may be more or less uncertain. But there is absolutely no solid argument against the identification of the Church of the Resurrection in this city with the site of Calvary. It is true that it is now almost in the center of the walked city, whereas Golgotha at the tine of Christ was outside the walls. But it is the walls that have moved north in the course of the centuries, not the sacred site, which is now where it was originally. Three centuries after the Resurrection this site was pointed out by the local Christians as the authentic place of Calvary, and their memory of this most sacred spot would not have gone wrong in so-short a time. In 326 A.D. the emperor Constantine the Great, at the request of his mother St. Helena, had this place cleared of the rubble that had covered it after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D., and he destroyed the pagan temple which the emperor Hadrian had built here in 135 A.D. Then Constantine had a great basilica built here, on the hillside, just outside the wall that had formed the northern rampart of the city at the time of Christ. The ugly mass that now stands at this most sacred site in Christendom is a far cry from Constantine's great basilica. It is true that the little skull-shape knoll of rock that was once known as Golgotha, "skull-place," still lies at the side of the present church. But unfortunately nothing is now left of the original tomb of Christ in the center of the rotunda except the bed rock of which it once formed the upper part. Constantine himself unwittingly began the damage by having the surrounding rock cut away, so as to isolate the tomb itself from the rocky ledge into which Joseph of Arimathea had had it cut. Then in 1009 A.D. Hakim, the Fatimite Caliph of Egypt, ordered the tomb itself smashed to the ground with sledge hammers. The hideously reconstructed tomb of last century "marks the spots" where the original tomb once stood. But who has the heart to tell this to the poor peasant woman who spends her lifers savings to come here from Greece or Cyprus or Armenia, in order to wet with her tears and cover with her kisses the marble slab which she fervently believes is the very grave where "they laid the body of Jesus"? The present building covers less than half the length of the original basilica, and one reconstruction after another has been destroyed so often by wars, fires and earthquakes, that nothing but the foundations are left from Constantine's time, and only a few pillars and arches from the time of the Crusaders. Since the bad fire of 1949 the walls and roof of the present structure are shored up inside and outside with horrid girders and scaffolding of iron and wood. All in all, it makes a very sorry sight. Yet as I stood here during Mass on Holy Thursday and Easter Sunday or knelt on the pavement of Calvary for the solemn services on Good Friday, I could easily forget the unsightly surroundings, as the Latin Patriarch officiated in his splendid vestments and the incense rose to heaven with the evangelic harmony of the superb choir of boys and men. Here, I kept thinking, is where It all happened! And here too is where our spiritual ancestors worshipped in the brilliance of the Byzantine liturgy and in the glory of the Crusaders' faith!

Most of the Orthodox services I did not have the time or inclination to attend, even though some of these are among the most colorful events of Holy Week in Jerusalem. I did indeed see a part of the Foot Washing ceremony of the Orthodox Greeks, since this long re-enactment of most of the events of the Last Supper, which takes place on an elevated platform in the courtyard of the Church of the Resurrection, was not yet finished when our Latin Holy Thursday Mass was over within the Church. But I did not go to the most famous of the Greek Orthodox services, the Holy Fire ceremony of Holy Saturday morning. Both the church and the courtyard is then packed with Greeks, who shout with joy when their Patriarch strikes the new fire and who struggle in the mob to light their candles from the sacred flame that is passed from hand to hand. Likewise, I did not go on Holy Saturday night to the Abyssinian ceremony of the "Searching for the Body of Christ," which they say is one of the quaintest things of all. Strange to say, this ceremony is held on the roof of the Church of the Resurrection, which is the only part of the building that this poor little Christian community has as its own.

Among the other Latin ceremonies that I attended was the Holy Hour, from eight to nine, in the evening of Holy Thursday at Gethsemani. I have often gone on Sunday afternoons for Benediction at this fine modern church at the foot of the Mount of Olives. At these times the church was almost empty, though the girls from the orphan asylum of the Italian Franciscan Sisters should draw a better congregation by their lovely singing. On Holy Thursday night, however, this large church, which has no pews, was packed to the doors with devout worshippers. There was literally "standing room only"; no place even to knell down. The almost complete darkness in which the church was kept added to the solemnity of the hour. In the sanctuary, which includes the bare rock on which Jesus prayed in His agony, a Franciscan priest chanted in a powerful voice all the parts of the Latin Gospels which tell the story of Christ's prayers and arrest on this spot. This chanting was divided into at least a half dozen sections; after each section another priest read the same Gospel passage out loud in Arabic, after each of these Arabic readings a men's choir sang in four-part harmony (with no organ, of course) similar Latin extracts from the Gospel account of the Agony in the Garden. Finally, between each of these parts a few minutes were left for silent meditation. Some of my Protestant friends of the American School who attended this service with me said that it was one of the most deeply moving religious experiences that they had ever had.

The popular climax of Holy Week in Jerusalem is no doubt the stupendous procession of the Catholics of both the Latin and the Eastern Rites along the Via Dolorosa, "the Sorrowful Way," at midday on Good Friday. The "Jerusalem Times" estimated the number of the people who participated this year in this public Way of the Cross at about nine thousand. While this may be an exaggeration, the number certainly was immense. All the cross traffic (pedestrians) in the Old City was stopped for about three hours, from the time the first contingent began till the last contingent was finished, which was quite a sacrifice for the Moslem merchants in the souq. The great crowd who made the Way of the Cross had to be divided into numberous contingents. Several of these, made up of the local parish and its various societies, used Arabic for the prayers at each Station. These were followed by contingents consisting of various language groups. Naturally, I went with the English-language group, in which there were about five hundred people. The Italian and the Spanish groups seemed to be much larger, but the German and the French looked smaller. There were also other Arab-speaking groups of Catholics, such as the Maronites from Lebanon, and the Melchites from Syria, and so forth. At the head of each group there was a, large cross carried in procession. Many of the groups had a life-size cross without a corpus on it, made of such heavy wood that it took several men to carry it. My own English-language group had a relatively small cross, and this one did nave a corpus, a fine woodcarving of Christ, on it. Between each Station we sang verses from the Stabat Mater, my group using a leaflet with an English version of this on it, or we said some decades of the rosary. The throng was too dense for the people to kneel down for the prayers at the different Stations. It took a very long time for the groups to make the last five of the fourteen Stations, since these five are all in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and there were just too many people in the procession to get in and out of this building. Once more, it was a thrilling experience to walk over the same streets of Jerusalem on Good Friday that Jesus had traversed, with His cross on the first Good Friday, even though the actual pavement of His time is now buried at least dozen feet beneath the pavement of the present-day city. Yet even this most solemn, occasion was not without a humerous incident for me. After my English-language group had said the prayers of the First Station in the modern schoolyard where once had been the courtyard of the Antonia Fortress, the praetorium where Pilate condemned Jesus to death, we walked out on the paved ramp that leads to down to the Via Dolorosa. I was walking on one side of the cross, with Father Patrick Coyle, O.F.M., of Baltimore, who was head of our group, walking on the other side, when all of a sudden my feet slipped beneath me on the smooth stones of the paved ramp. (The shoes I was wearing, which had been bought in Jerusalem, instead of having rubber heels, had iron cleats on the back of their leather heels, which made them as slippery as ice-skates.) I would have landed square on my seat and perhaps even banged the back of my head on the stones, had not the people right behind me caught me and broken my fall. One of the men there could not help whispering to me: "Wait a minute. Even our Lord has not yet fallen the first time under His cross."

For the Mass of the Presanctified on Good Friday afternoon, as well as for the midnight service of Holy Saturday night, I went to the local Arabic-speaking parish church of the Holy Savior, which is a little higher up the hill from Calvary. It is a fine big building, erected over two centuries ago, and its zealous Franciscan Fathers have charge of a large congregation of Arab-speaking Catholics of the Latin Rite. The new Roman Rite for Holy Week was carried out here in a most inspiring way. The whole congregation--men, women, and children--joined in the singing of the Gregorian music for the "Common" of the Mass. Instead of chanting the Passion in Latin on Good Friday and the Prophecies in Latin on Holy Saturday, a priest read these parts of the Scriptures in Arabic to the people. Of the ten-minute sermon in Arabic on Holy Thursday I could hardly understand a word. But for the renewal of the baptismal vows at the vigil service on Holy Saturday night leaflets were handed out with the whole formula on it in Arabic; since I had time to figure this out beforehand, I could follow it quite well and I joined in with the other people in saying the responses: "Na'am nakfur—Yes, we do renounce," and, "Na'am nu'min—Yes, we do believe." All the people in the church took up with great joy the festive Alleluias which the priest intoned. This is always a joyful moment for me anywhere in the world, but it was all the more so this year when these glad Allelujas rang out within a stone's throw of the tomb from which Christ rose in glory in the stillness of that first holy Easter night.

Easter Sunday was a very happy day for me, not only at the Solemn Pontifical Mass at the Holy Sepulcher, but also at our own big Easter dinner at home in the American School. An additional source of joy for me came from the many Easter cards that I received--more than I had ever before received at any Easter. My room is still gaily decorated with them. I regret that I could not write to thank each one individually for these lovely cards. My sincere thanks to you now for them.

Lest you may think that all my Easter happiness was solely of a spiritual nature, I must add that I spent most of Easter Week on a very enjoyable trip to the rose-colored city of Petra and even to Jordan's little port of Aqaba, where I had a wonderful swim in the deep blue water of the Red Sea. (That's right, the water of the Red Sea is really blue.) But this letter has gone on now long enough, and I shall have to save an account of that trip to Petra for a final letter, that I may get the spirit to write shortly before I leave Jerusalem on the first leg on my homeward journey on the first of June. For the same reason, I will not go into details here on the Samaritan Passover, which I witnessed on Mount Garizim on the evening before Palm Sunday. Besides, some of you might find too gruesome an account of how this small community in Samaria, who are really the only remnant left of the old Northern Kingdom of Israel, sacrificed their lambs amid much shouting and spattering of blood. But letters are not complete without a note about the weather. Of course, we had delightful sunny weather for all Holy Week and Easter Week. In fact, for the last month we have had only a few partially cloudy days with hardly enough rain to wet the ground. That one good storm we had when I last wrote to you was the only decent rainfall of the whole "rainy season." The drought this year is going to be very bad indeed.

Assuring you that I did not forget you in my prayers at the various religious services of Holy Week in the Holy City; and asking for a remembrance in your good prayers,

Devotedly yours,

Louis Hartman, C.SS.R.

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