On the top of Mount of Olives, east of the Holy City, local Christians and pilgrims pray and keep watch all night for the vigil of the Solemnity of the Ascension. Inside the small circular chapel, masses are celebrated until the morning. Only on the occasion of this feast, in fact, can the liturgy be celebrated in this holy place enclosing the rock from which, according to tradition, Jesus ascended to heaven.
The first religious building to be built on this site dates from the fourth century, destroyed by the Persians in 614. The Crusaders rebuilt a large sanctuary of which, with the Muslim return, only the existing edicule remains, now transformed into a mosque.
On this night of prayer and vigil, as every year, tents are set up around the chapel to serve as sacristy and welcome pilgrims. Many groups follow each other:
"We left Nazareth at 9 pm with a hundred people, arriving here at the Mount of Olives at one ... it’s an important moment for us, the place, the silence ... There is no confusion like during the day, all is silent, and there is enough time to pray."
"It was a very emotional experience, seeing that the church is alive, and that Jesus is present in our midst ..."
In the seventh century, Bishop Arculfo described the church of the Ascension, then uncovered since the dome was only added later by the Muslims, as an open site "to show to all the way to heaven." It’s a path that goes through the Incarnation, as explained by Father Diego, who presided over the first Mass of the night, citing the Acts of the Apostles:
Fr. DIEGO DALLA GASSA, ofm
"Men of Galilee, why do you look up there? The Lord, with the gift of his Passover, chose to live down here, he married our entire life... we could paraphrase that verse, saying, 'O men of Galilee, why do you look at the heavens when the heavens decided to live our own life? Celebrating the ascension means to celebrate the incarnation and the paschal mystery of Jesus, who reached out to every man and every person, to all of us."
Concluded by a solemn mass on Thursday morning, the feast of the Ascension began in the afternoon of the preceding day with the solemn entrance into the holy place of the Custodial Vicar, Father Artemio Vitores, together with the friars of the Custody. After the recitation of the First Vespers, the Franciscans and the faithful walked in procession around the small sanctuary, a place that recalls the moment when Jesus was seen by the Apostles for the last time. It’s a place of joy on a day of hope and joy, one in which, as Father Artemio recalled, "Jesus reached his destination... Jesus who not only became man and shared our humanity, but who took our humanity to heaven."
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