Gethsemane - Basilica of the Agony, Jerusalem, 5 April, 2012
The event-filled day of Holy Thursday turns into evening. Every hour of the day has been preparation for this solemn moment of evening prayer that the Latin Christian community passed, following tradition, at the Basilica of the Agony in Gethsemane on the slopes of the Mount of Olives. A place of silence, meditation and contemplation where the Franciscans also have a hermitage next to the basilica to receive pilgrims and others who wish to make a short retreat in prayer and solitude. Jesus, too, liked to come here to pray. It was here that, after celebrating the Passover with his disciples, he passed the last hours before his arrest and the beginning of his Passion. Here, alone, he sought the comfort of his Father in those moments of profound agony that preceded the betrayal of Judas and his capture; here, prostrate on the rock, he suffered the agony and sweated blood. In this garden where the olive was pressed and turned precious oil, Christ himself became oil, medicine, perfume for the salvation of the world. Just as Adam was created in a garden and was tempted and defeated by the devil in the garden, so Christ went into a garden and was thrown suffering to the ground by the devil, but was victorious over temptation. The hour has come: Jesus is ready to drink the cup of the Father's will.
And in this evocative location, Christians remember the dramatic events that took place here, praying together during the Holy Hour that started at 9:00 p.m. on Holy Thursday. The Custos, Brother Pierbattista Pizzaballa, presided over the ceremony, surrounded by the many assembled members of the Franciscan community of the Holy Land and other religious. Also present was the Apostolic Nuncio of Israel, His Excellency Mgr. Antonio Franco, and the Apostolic Nuncio of Jordan, His Excellency Mgr. Giorgio Lingua. The Basilica was crowded with the faithful, even outside the church.
The meeting opened with adoration of the Stone of the Agony, which lies at the foot of the main altar, surrounded by a low wrought iron enclosure. Brother Pizzaballa scattered red rose petals on the stone that witnessed Jesus suffering and praying and that absorbed the blood he sweat during the agony while he was waiting, evoking Christ's blood that dropped on the rock during that tragic night. The liturgy is in different languages to underline the universality of the Church, and is divided into three parts, each composed of a psalm, a reading from one of the synoptic gospels on one of the themes of that tragic night in Gethsemane that started the Lord’s Passion, and a prayer in common. The three themes commemorated in the liturgy are the announcement of Peter's betrayal, Jesus' prayer in the Olive Garden and Jesus' arrest. The music and arrangement of the songs and psalms was composted by Brother Armando Pierucci, director of the Magnificat, the Franciscan Custody's music school in Jerusalem. Brother Armando also provided the organ accompaniment for the Custody's Magnificat choir, which sang the hymns and the antiphons for the psalms under the direction of Hania Soudah Sabbara. In each of the three parts of the liturgy, with its recitation of psalms and proclamation of a gospel passage in three different languages, the faithful knelt in solemn prayer, asking for a firm faith, to be united with God in suffering and joy, and to be free of the wiles of the devil and able to serve God in love and liberty.
In the last part of the vigil, the Custos censed the Stone of Agony to the accompaniment of Psalm 21 (22) about the suffering and hope of the just. Aside from the stone of Gethsemane, two other stones are venerated in the Holy City: the stone of Calvary, where Jesus died on the cross, and the stone of Mount Moriah, where Isaac was tied to be sacrificed to the Lord. Like Isaac, Jesus, on the night of his arrest, was tied and taken to the High Priest with bindings on his wrists, like a sacrificial lamb without blemish.
After the Prayer of the Faithful, the recitation of the Our Father and the final blessing, the Franciscan friars venerated the Stone of Agony, bending to kiss it to the sound of the Hymn to the Cross that ended the service. This was repeated by most of the faithful present, each of whom wanted to approach the stone, touch it, kiss it, meditate alongside it, collect a few of the rose petals the Custos had scattered. At the end of the Holy Hour, a group of young people from the Jerusalem parish went in procession from Gethsemane to the Church of Saint Peter in Gallicantu on the east side of Mount Zion to continue praying together.
We are in the holy Triduum: after the Good Friday celebration on Calvary, on Saturday believers begin to evoke the resurrection of the Lord. The grain of wheat that fell to the ground will soon bear the fruit of the resurrection: Jesus did disdain death in order to make us participate in his immortal life (Saint Ignatius of Antioch).
Text by Caterina Foppa Pedretti
Photos by Stefano Dal Pozzolo