Pilgims enteing the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem
This ancient ecumenical feast, celebrated by Christian churches throughout the world, originated in Jerusalem at the place where Jesus died and rose again. A great church called the Anastasis ( Resurrection) or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built by the Emperor Constantine, was dedicated there on September 13, 325 AD, It’s one of Christianity’s holiest places.
Liturgies celebrated in this church, especially its Holy Week liturgy, influenced churches throughout the world. Devotional practices like the Stations of the Cross grew up around this church. Christian pilgrims brought relics and memories from here to every part of the world. Christian mystics were drawn to this church and this feast.
Tomb of Jesus
Pilgrims today visit the church and the tomb of Jesus, recently renovated after sixteen centuries of wars, earthquakes, fires and natural disasters. They venerate the rock of Calvary where Jesus died on a cross. The building today is smaller and shabbier than the resplendent church Constantine built, because the original structure was largely destroyed in the 1009 by the mad Moslem caliph al-Hakim. Half of the church was hastily rebuilt by the Crusaders; the present building still bears the scars of time.
Scars of a divided Christendom can also be seen here. Various Christian groups, representing churches of the east and the west, claim age-old rights and warily guard their separate responsibilities. One understands here why Jesus prayed that ” All may be one.”
Egyptian Coptic Christians
Seventeenth century Enlightenment scholars expressed doubts about the authenticity of Jesus’ tomb and the place where he died, Calvary. Is this really it? Alternative spots were proposed, but scientific opinion today favors this site as the place where Jesus suffered, died and was buried.
In the 4th century the Emperor Constantine and his successors built churches over important biblical sites in the Holy Land. Christian pilgrims, celebrating in these early churches, celebrated the same mystery in their own church when they returned to their homeland. The Feast of Mary’s Birth, celebrated September 8, is one of those mysteries.
Mary’s Birth was first celebrated in a church built in the 5th century over the ancient pool of Bethesda, near the Gate of St. Stephen, just north of the Jewish temple. John’s gospel pointed out this place: “Now there was in Jerusalem at the Sheep Gate, a pool in Hebrew Bethesda, with five porticoes. In these lay a large number of the blind, lame and crippled,” (John 5,2) At this healing place, where pagan gods like Asclepius and Serapis were honored, Jesus healed a paralyzed man.
In the last century archeologists uncovered the ancient healing pool with its porticoes, parts of an ancient church and ruins of a temple of Asclepius (2nd-4th century) ..
The church over the ancient healing pool became associated with Mary, the mother of Jesus, early on. Traditions from the 3rd century placed her home in this area of Jerusalem, and so Mary’s birth and early life came to be remembered here.
Mary’s mother was Anne and her father Joachim, who provided sheep for the temple sacrifices, early traditions said. But they were looked down upon, because they were old and childless. Then, angels told them they were to conceive a daughter. Their faith, like that of Abraham and Sarah, was miraculously rewarded.
The Birth of Mary and stories of her childhood strongly influenced the spirituality and devotional life of all the early Christian churches. Mary’s birth is celebrated September 8 in the churches of east and west. Her parents are honored September 9 by the Greek Church. The Roman Church celebrates their feast July 26th.
When the Crusaders conquered the Holy Land in the 11th century, they rebuilt the small church over the healing pool, fallen into ruins, and built a new, larger church honoring St. Anne, the mother of Mary, southeast of the pool.
The present Church of St. Ann, today one of the most beautiful of Jerusalem’s churches, stands overlooking the remains of the old church and the healing pool, a favorite destination for pilgrims today.
Readings for the feast of Mary’s Birth see her birth awaited by all her ancestors. The gospel, St.Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, begins with Abraham. Mary fulfilled his hopes and the hopes of generations before him by bringing Jesus Christ into the world.. “We commemorate the birth of the blessed Virgin Mary, a descendant of Abraham, born of the tribe of Judah and of David’s seed,” (Antiphon, 1st Vespers, Roman rite)
“This feast of the birth of the Mother of God is the prelude, while the final act is the foreordained union of the Word with flesh. Today, the Virgin is born, tended and formed and prepared for her role as Mother of God, who is the universal King of the ages…
Today the created world is raised to the dignity of a holy place for him who made all things. The creature is newly prepared to be a divine dwelling place for the Creator.”
(St. Andrew of Crete, bishop, Office of Readings, Roman rite)
This feast of Mary is the first great feast in the calendar of the Orthodox Church, which begins in September. Their calendar begins with Mary’s birth and ends with the feast of her Dormition, on August 15th.
The Orthodox liturgy sees Mary as the mysterious ladder that Jacob saw in a dream reaching from earth to heaven. (Genesis 28,10-17) She is the way the Word comes down to earth’s lowest point, death itself, and returns to heaven having redeemed humanity. The Orthodox liturgy also associates Mary with the miracle of the paralyzed man at the Pool of Bethesda. She has a role in healing our paralyzed humanity.
August 24th is the feast of the apostle Bartholomew, also identified as Nathaniel, from Cana in Galilee, only a few miles from Nazareth. Like Nazareth, Cana attracted little interest in Jesus’ time, yet it played a major role in Jesus’ early life and mission.
In John’s gospel, Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding in Cana, his first “sign” that God’s kingdom would come. (Jn 2, 1-12) The family faced a wedding nightmare: the wine was running out and embarrassment was sure to come.
Catholic Church, Cana
Was the family related to Jesus? Or Bartholomew? At least they were close. Why else would Jesus, his mother and his disciples be at the celebration?
The miracle was special,. More than saving a family from embarrassment, it’s a sign in John’s gospel of God’s great love for ordinary people in ordinary towns everywhere. God delights in them, says the Prophet Isaiah, whose words often accompany the Cana miracle, Cana signifies poor Israel, whom God loves with all the ardor of a “young man marrying a virgin,” God’s love, bountiful, restoring, overflowing with delight, goes out to this poor place, as well as poor places everywhere.
Jesus performed another miracle at Cana, John’s gospel says, another sign of the coming kingdom. Besides the miracle at the wedding, Jesus cured the dying son of a government official from Capernaum, whose ” father came to Cana because he heard that Jesus was there. (John 4.46-54) Jesus saved his son from death.
Through the centuries Cana hasn’t prospered much. It’s not much to look at today. In the late 19th century, a visiting English vicar described it this way:
“ (Kefr Kenna) lies on high ground, but not on a hill…A broad prickly pear led to the group of houses which perhaps represents the New Testament Cana. Loose stones were scattered around the slope. There may be, possibly, 150 inhabitants, but one cannot envy them their huts of mud and stone, with dunghills at every corner. Huge mud ovens, like great beehives, stood at the sides of some of the houses.
“ In one house a worthy Moslem was squatting on the ground with a number of children, all with slates on which verses of the Koran had been written, which they repeated together. It was the village school, perhaps like that at Nazareth eighteen hundred years ago.
“ A small Franciscan church of white stone with a nice railed wall, with a beautiful garden at the side, had over its doorway these startling words in Latin: ‘Here Jesus Christ from water made wine.’ Some large water jars are shown inside as actually those used in the miracle, but such mock relics, however believed in by simple monks, do the faith of other people more harm than good.”
Cana’s still a poor town. Like other poor places in the world it’s waiting to be raised up to share in the splendor of the heavenly Jerusalem. God loves poor places like this, the Cana miracle says. Bartholomew came from here.
One of the disciples was about to betray Jesus (John 13:21-30). Another was forewarned that he would deny him thrice before cockcrow (John 13:38). The disciples had reasons to feel uneasy. Yet immediately after these predictions, Jesus exhorted them to stand firm in faith.
“Believe in God; believe also in me,” an alternative translation reads. Pisteuete (believe) can be read in either the indicative or imperative moods.
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?
“My Father’s house” evoked a world of images and ideas that shaped the character of Israel from ancient times. Psalm 122 celebrates a pilgrim’s journey to “the house of the LORD,” Jerusalem, which means “foundation of peace (shalom).”
I rejoiced when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD.”
The same word for house, oikia, is used in John’s Gospel and in the Greek translation of the Psalm. Shalom, shalom, shalom—the Psalm resounds thrice (verses 6-8). The house of the LORD is a city of peace, an assembly of praise, and a citadel of justice.
There are many mansions or dwelling places (moné) in the house of the LORD, room enough for all. The Son of Man who had “nowhere to lay his head” on earth, poorer than foxes and birds, threw open the doors to his Father’s house of plenty.
And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.
Jesus will ultimately triumph over death; the grave cannot hold him prisoner. Christ will “come again” and live forever with his disciples. A little later, Jesus locates the Father’s dwelling (moné) in the hearts of believers:
Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.
Way (Hebrew derek and Greek hodos) is a central idea in Mosaic law and liturgy. “Walking” (halak) in the way of the LORD is an idiom for living righteously in the sight of God.
Be careful, therefore, to do as the LORD, your God, has commanded you, not turning aside to the right or to the left, but following exactly the way that the LORD, your God, commanded you that you may live and prosper, and may have long life in the land which you are to possess.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386), whose feast is celebrated March 18th, was bishop of Jerusalem. The Holy Land then was a center for Christian pilgrims; scholars, like St. Jerome and St. Paula, came to pray and study at the places where Jesus was born and died and rose again. Cyril’s church influenced liturgical, catechetical and devotional life in churches throughout the world. The Stations of the Cross originated here. He’s honored as a Doctor of the Church.
Here’s an excerpt from one of his catechetical sermons, preached in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, near where the relic of the cross and the tomb of Jesus were honored.
“The Catholic Church glories in every deed of Christ. Her supreme glory, however, is the cross. Well aware of this, Paul says: God forbid that I glory in anything but the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ!
“At Siloam, there was a sense of wonder, and rightly so: a man born blind recovered his sight. But of what importance is this, when there are so many blind people in the world? Lazarus rose from the dead, but even this affected only Lazarus: what of those countless numbers who have died because of their sins? Those miraculous loaves fed five thousand people; yet this is a small number compared to those all over the world who were starved by ignorance. After eighteen years a woman was freed from the bondage of Satan; but are we not all shackled by the chains of our own sins?
“For us all, however, the cross is the crown of victory. It has brought light to those blinded by ignorance. It has released those enslaved by sin. Indeed, it has redeemed the whole of mankind!”
The relic of the cross honored by Cyril in this church was not just a grim reminder of the suffering of Jesus; it was bathed in the glorious memory of Jesus’ resurrection celebrated close by in his empty tomb.
READINGS Our readings from John’s gospel continue today with the healing of the paralyzed man at the pool at Bethesda (John 5,1-18). Compare him with the official in our previous story who came from Capernaum to Cana looking for a cure for his son. The official was obviously an important man. He knew how to get things done and came to get Jesus to do something for him. He’s resourceful.
The paralytic at Bethesda, on the other hand, seems utterly resourceless. For 38 years he’s come to a healing pool– archeologists identify its location near the present church of St. Anne in Jerusalem– and he can’t find a way into the water when it’s stirring. Paralyzed, too slow, he can’t even get anybody to help him. He doesn’t approach Jesus; Jesus approaches him, asking: “Do you want to be well?”
Instead of lowering him into the water, Jesus cures the paralyzed man directly and tells him to take up the mat he was lying on and walk. The man has no idea who cured him until Jesus tells him later in the temple area. He’s slow in more ways than one.
“God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in this world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God,” St. Paul tells the Corinthians.
Here’s one of the weak, the lowly, the nobodies God chooses, and he wont be the last. The mystics saw weakness differently that most do. It’s a time God acts, St. Paul of the Cross say it that way:
“Be of good heart, my good friend, for the time has come for you to be cured. Night will be as illumined as day. As his night, so is his day. A great difference takes place in the Presence of God; rejoice in this Divine Presence. Have nothing, my dear one; allow yourself to be deprived of all pleasure. Do not look your sufferings in the face, but accept them with resignation and satisfaction in the higher part of your soul as if they were jewels, and so they truly are. Ah! let your loving soul be freed from all that is created and pay no attention to suffering or to enjoyment, but give your attention to your beloved Good. (Letter 41)
like the paralytic I wait for you,
not knowing when or how you will come.
But I wait, O Lord,
however long you may be.
You have not approached that which could be touched and a blazing fire and gloomy darkness and storm and a trumpet blast and a voice speaking words such that those who heard begged that no message be further addressed to them, for they could not bear to hear the command: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so fearful was the spectacle that Moses said, “I am terrified and trembling.”
Formless and invisible God Donned lightning, fire and smoke. Soundless and inaudible God Out of dark thunder spoke.
Mount Sinai inapproachable, No creature could draw near. Moses, though irreproachable, Trembled and quaked with fear.
No, you have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and God the judge of all, and the spirits of the just made perfect, and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and the sprinkled blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel.
Formless and invisible God Took flesh in Mary’s womb. Soundless and inaudible God Cooed love songs of a Groom.
Mount Zion, Gate of Paradise— The Ark of Noah’s flood— Saved the cosmos at a bride price, Redeeming Abel’s blood.
He summoned the Twelve and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits. He instructed them to take nothing for the journey but a walking stick—no food, no sack, no money in their belts. They were, however, to wear sandals but not a second tunic. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave from there. Whatever place does not welcome you or listen to you, leave there and shake the dust off your feet in testimony against them.” So they went off and preached repentance. They drove out many demons, and they anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
Formless and invisible God Found a home in persons. Soundless and inaudible God Sang songs through poor orphans.
As the Twelve preached and healed the sick, God’s Body grew and grew. Two by two, with voice prophetic, They poured out Heaven’s dew.
There are minor variations in detail in the account of the Mission of the Twelve in the Synoptic Gospels. See Matthew 10:5-15 and Luke 9:1-6.
We’re reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews these days at Mass. Raymond Brown calls the work “a conundrum” in his “Introduction to the New Testament”. Who wrote it, where and when it was written, to whom, why? Hard to figure out.
Indications are the letter was written after the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD to Jewish-Christians, perhaps in Rome, who wanted to reconstruct the temple and renew worship there. Martin Goodman’s “Rome and Jerusalem” (New York 2008) offers an interesting picture of the longing Jews and Jewish Christians had afterwards to rebuild the temple and revive its rites.
Our letter sees Christ as fulfilling the Jewish past and creating something new. Without dismissing the past, he completes it.
Do we face something like this today as our world and our church face change, drastic change? We hang on to the past, not knowing the future and afraid of what it will bring, yet we can’t recreate what has been, something new lies before us.
The Letter to the Hebrews tells us to face the future bravely, and keep before us the One who holds the key to what is to come. Remember his struggle. It’s ours.
“Keep your eye fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith, For the sake of the joy put before him, he endured the cross, despising the shame, and has taken his place at the right hand of the Father. Consider how he faced such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.”
“To what shall we compare the Kingdom of God,
or what parable can we use for it?” ( Mark 4, 30) Jesus turned to the land he lived in to answer that question. It was a changeable land. If you stand on the roof of the Passionist house in Bethany near Jerusalem, as I did some years ago, you can still see olive trees growing beneath you. The Mount of Olives just west of us.
Then, looking eastward to Jericho and the Dead Sea, it’s barren desert. Then, as you go from Jericho to Galilee the land turns from desert to lush farmland. A changing land.
Jesus experienced a changing landscape as he left Nazareth for the Jordan River and then the Sea of Galilee; it influenced the way he spoke. His parables are rich with the language of the sower and the seed. Like us, he was influenced by the place were he lived.
In a book written in the 1930s Gustaf Dalman, an expert on the geography and environment of Palestine, observed that when Jesus went from the highlands of Nazareth, 1,100 feet above sea level to the fishing towns along the Sea of Galilee, 680 feet below sea level, he entered a different world.
For one thing, he ate better – more fish and nuts and fruits were available than in the hill town where he grew up. He looked out at the Sea of Galilee instead of the distant hills and valleys of his mountain village. He saw a great variety of birds, like the white pelicans and black cormorants that challenged the fishermen on the lake. He saw trees and plants and flowers that grew abundantly around the lake, but not around Nazareth.
Instead of the chalky limestone of Nazareth, Jesus walked on the hard black basalt around the lake. Basalt was the building material for houses and synagogues there. It made for sturdy structures, but they were dark and drab inside. They needed light. Light on a lampstand became one of his parables. (Mark 4,21)
Basalt also made for a rich soil in which everything could grow. “… here plants shoot up more exuberantly than in the limestone district. Where there are fields, they yield a produce greater than anyone has any notion of in the highlands.” (Dalman, p123)
Farmland in Galilee
The volcanic soil on the land around the lake produced a rich harvest. Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, praised that part of Galilee for its fruitfulness, its palm trees, fruit trees, walnut trees, vines, wheat. But thistles, wild mustard, wild fennel grew quickly too and could choke anything else that was sown. The land around the Sea of Galilee was fertile then; even today it has some of the best farmland in Palestine.
Soil near the Sea of Galilee
The weather in the low lying lands was not the same as in the mountains, warmer in winter, much hotter and humid in summer, which begins in May. “It is difficult for anyone used to living in the mountains to work by day and sleep by night…Out of doors one misses the refreshing breeze, which the mountains along the lake cut off…one is tempted to think that Jesus, who had settled there, must often have made occasion to escape from this pitiless climate to his beloved mountains.” (Dalman, p. 124)
These observations aren’t found in the gospels, of course, but they help us appreciate the world in which Jesus lived and the parables he drew from it. Jesus was influenced by where he lived, as we are.
And what about us? We’re experiencing climate change now, aren’t we? It’s going to influence our spirituality, how we see, how we live, how we react to the world around us.
Lord, help us appreciate the land we live in, and gain wisdom from it.
Some Pharisees came to Jesus and said, “Go away, leave this area because Herod wants to kill you” (Luke 13:31).
From the bare text alone, it is difficult to determine the true motive of this warning from “some Pharisees.” Interpretations range from friendly and good-willed to guileful and hostile.1 The latter seems more likely since they approach Jesus as a group. In the exceptional cases of Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin, and Nicodemus, a Pharisee, Jesus is approached alone and even at night for fear of their peers (Matthew 27:57; Mark 15:43; John 19:38; John 3:2). It took a lot of courage to stand alone against majority opinion.
Prophets have had to escape violent rulers for good reasons. David hid from Saul (I Samuel 19:1-17) and Elijah fled from Jezebel’s vengeful wrath (I Kings 19:1-4). But Jesus marched onward in the face of Herod’s threats.
He replied, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and I perform healings today and tomorrow, and on the third day I accomplish my purpose. Yet I must continue on my way today, tomorrow, and the following day, for it is impossible that a prophet should die outside of Jerusalem’ (Luke 13:32-33).
The crafty, fox-like Herod (alópéx) had no power over Jesus whose only goal was to do the Father’s will. Jesus sought no overthrow of earthly kingdoms, but prepared hearts for the kingdom of heaven. His kingship was not of this world, his army consisted of “lambs among wolves” (Luke 10:3), and his greatest weapon was love even unto death on the Cross.
“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up,” Jesus had prophesied (John 2:19). Destruction and construction must take place in the holy city Jerusalem, the center of temple worship and culture.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how many times I yearned to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were unwilling! (Luke 13:34)
Jerusalem is an address to the entire people of Israel, as in Jeremiah’s lament: “To what can I compare you—to what can I liken you—O daughter Jerusalem?” (Lamentations 2:13) Jesus compared himself to a mother hen who shelters her children under her wings. Against all evolutionary instinct, the divine hen does not run away from the ravenous fox. “Survival of the fittest” is transcended by kenotic suffering, death, and resurrection.
Behold, your house will be abandoned. But I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luke 13:35).
“A little while and you will no longer see me, and again a little while later and you will see me,” Jesus said to his disciples at the Last Supper (John 16:16), echoing these final words to the Pharisees. The fox will kill the hen, leaving the chicks abandoned for “a little while,” but for all who repent in the name of Jesus Christ and return to the Father, “your grief will become joy… your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you” (John 6:16-22).
St. Cyril of Alexandria reads the greeting, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” as a prediction of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem before his crucifixion (Matthew 21:9). St. Augustine, Theophylact, and Bede interpret the saying, originally from Psalm 118:26, as referring to Jesus’ post-resurrection glory.2
From the divine perspective, the house of Israel and Jerusalem is universalized to include the whole human race. So long as God continues to be stoned and killed in the hearts of human persons, spiritual desolation ensues. The “time” to welcome the Lord into our hearts is today (Hebrews 3:15).
1 Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J. conjectures that these Pharisees “are depicted giving Jesus sage advice; these at least are well disposed toward him.” He finds support in other modern commentators: “Indeed, J. B. Tyson (‘Jesus and Herod Antipas,’ 245) plausibly argues for the historicity of this incident from the fact that Pharisees appear here not as antagonists of Jesus but as friends.” See The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke (X-XXIV), Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1985, p. 1030.
William Barclay writes: “There may have been six bad Pharisees for every good one but this passage shows that even amongst the Pharisees there were those who admired and respected Jesus” (Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, 13:31-35).
On the other hand, the majority of classic Protestant commentaries of the last three centuries hold that these Pharisees had hypocritical and malicious intentions, and were possibly in league with Herod and Herodias in delivering the warning. These commentaries are all in the public domain:
Charles John Ellicott, Joseph Benson, Albert Barnes, Matthew Poole, John Gill, Heinrich Meyer, W. Robertson Nicoll (The Expositor’s Greek New Testament), F. W. Farrar (Gospel of Luke, Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges), John Albert Bengel (Bengel’s Gnomon of the New Testament), Joseph Exell (The Pulpit Commentary).
Patristic commentary is sparse on this verse, but St. Cyril of Alexandria finds these Pharisees ill-disposed toward Jesus: “Likely to lose their office of leaders of the people and already fallen and expelled from their authority over them and deprived of their profits—for they were fond of wealth, and covetous, and given to lucre—they made pretense of loving him, and even drew near, and said, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you’” (Commentary on Luke, Homily 100).
AUGUSTINE. (de Cons. Ev. ubi sup.) But as Luke does not say to what place our Lord went from thence, so that He should not come except at that time, (for when this was spoken He was journeying onward until He should come to Jerusalem), He means therefore to refer to that coming of His, when He should appear in glory.
THEOPHYLACT. For then also will they unwillingly confess Him to be their Lord and Saviour, when there shall be no departure hence. But in saying, Ye shall not see me until he shall come, &c. does not signify that present hour, but the time of His cross; as if He says, When ye have crucified Me, ye shall no more see Me until I come again.
BEDE. Ye shall not see, that is, unless ye have worked repentance, and confessed Me to be the Son of the Father Almighty, ye shall not see My face at the second coming.