Bethany, 22 March 2012
On the morning of Thursday, the twenty-second of March, the Latin Christian community of the Holy Land prepared to relive the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus in the very places that were the scene for these events more than two thousand years ago. Today was the memorial of the resurrection of Lazarus, Jesus' friend and the protagonist of this extraordinary event, together with his two sisters Mary and Martha, in the little village of Bethany, a short distance from Jerusalem on the rode that descends from the Mount of Olives to Jericho.
This is the site of the Franciscan sanctuary commemorating the house of the Lord's friends and the site of Lazarus' tomb. The church, built by the Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi in the first part of the twentieth century, stands on Byzantine and Crusader ruins that in turn conceal earlier structures, among which a small group of houses can be seen: the village where the family of Lazarus, Mary and Martha lived. In fact, they are probably the ruins of Martha’s house where, as we read in the Gospel, Jesus often came to rest and enjoy the warmth of human companionship. The present church, in the form of a Greek cross, has a central dome covered in golden mosaic that, with the beams of light coming from above, presents an open perspective, recalling the story of Lazarus, who was able to taste the true Light from which we receive eternal life. The walls of the four arms of the Greek cross that proceed from the central dome feature beautiful mosaics depicting gospel events that involve the family in Bethany: the precious hospitality offered by Mary and Martha, the resurrection of Jesus' friend Lazarus, the tender and prophetic gesture of Mary who poured perfumed oil over the Lord's feet and then wiped it with her hair, and the words that characterize the sanctuary: I am the resurrection and the life (Jn 11:25). These events recreate the climate of family, acceptance and friendship that even Jesus, in his life on earth, wanted to experience.
After the first Holy Mass, which took place at 6:30 a.m. in the place indicated as the tomb of Lazarus, about fifty meters from the Franciscan sanctuary, at 7:30 a.m., the sung Solemn Mass preceded by Morning Prayer was celebrated in the Church of Bethany. Brother Artemio Vitores, Custodial Vicar, was the principal concelebrant, and among the concelebrating priests was Brother Jerzy Kraj, the director of the Franciscan Media Center, the Custody of the Holy Land’s Multimedia Center. The local Franciscan community was well represented, along with many male and female religious from the various congregations of the Holy Land, as well as friends, volunteers and coworkers of the Custody and a few Christians from the local Arabic-speaking community.
At the conclusion of the celebration, after a simple moment of fellowship in the Franciscan convent that is attached to the Bethany sanctuary, the traditional procession took place, punctuated by passages from the gospel, songs and prayer, moving from the area in front of Lazarus' tomb and passing along the Mount of Olives, with stops at the Aedicule of the Ascension of the Lord and at the Church of the Lord’s Prayer. Here the pilgrimage ended with an intense moment of prayer, during which particular mention was made of the difficult situation that the population of nearby Syria has been enduring in recent months.
According to the Gospel of Saint John: "Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. They gave a dinner for him there." (Jn 12:1-2). Pope Benedict XVI wrote: “The Gospel account impresses an intense paschal atmosphere on our meditation: the supper at Bethany is a prelude to Jesus' death in the sign of his anointing by Mary, a homage she pays to the Teacher which he accepts as foretelling his burial (cf. Jn 12: 7). However, it is also an announcement of the Resurrection through the very presence of Lazarus restored to life, an eloquent witness of Christ's power over death. Not only pregnant with Paschal significance, the narrative of the supper at Bethany is imbued with an anguishing resonance filled with love and devotion, a mist of joy and pain: festive joy at the visit of Jesus and his disciples, at the resurrection of Lazarus and at the Passover now at hand; deep sorrow because this Passover might be the last". Let us follow, then, the Lord along the road that from Bethany will soon take him once again to Jerusalem, through the days of his Passion all the way to the glory of the Resurrection, of which the words and events of Bethany are announcement and anticipation.
Text by Caterina Foppa Pedretti
Photos by Bro. Giorgio Vigna