A meeting place yesterday and today: the Shrine of Bethphage on the Mount of Olives

A meeting place yesterday and today: the Shrine of Bethphage on the Mount of Olives

The shrine of Bethphage, restored in its present-day form in 1954, stands on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives. The crossroads of the three roads that lead to Jerusalem, Jericho and Bethany, it is here that the meeting of Jesus with Martha and Mary before resuscitating Lazarus and the entrance by Jesus into Jerusalem, amid the joy of the disciples and the crowd singing hosannas, are commemorated.

Fr. Silvio De La Fuente, Discreet of the Holy Land for the Spanish language, has been the Superior of the Convent of the Palms of Bethphage for three years: even in these difficult times and despite the absence of pilgrims, this small community remains faithful to its mission of looking after the places of the memory of the earthly life of Jesus and at the same time it becomes a place of encounter and fraternity.

Memory of encounter

The vocation of this place is encounter,” fr. Silvio stressed. “In the shrine, which is exactly at the crossroads of important means of communication between Jerusalem, the desert and the old road for Bethany, we remember the meeting of Jesus with Martha and Mary, his friends, who must have lived in this area: the village of Bethany, where the tomb is and the episode of the resurrection of Lazarus took place, is less than a kilometre away.”

This church still holds today the stone which already in the Byzantine era marked the memory of this encounter,” fr. Silvio explained, showing us the stone. “It is a rock that the Crusaders then cut into a square and painted. The stone, which had been forgotten, as for the subsequent Crusader church, was found by chance by a peasant and this was how in 1871 the Franciscans acquired the property and built a new church on it. On the southern side of the rock -  towards Bethany -  Martha, Mary and Lazarus resuscitated can be seen on the stone.”

The procession on Palm Sunday

The memory of Palm Sunday is also in this church: Bethphage is spoken of in the Gospels in connection with Jesus’s entering Jerusalem, and the tradition of the procession is very old, as witnessed from the 4th century by the pilgrim Egeria. This is why in the stone there are also the images of the crowd holding palm fronds and, the donkey and her foal freed of their ties in front of the eyes of the villagers.”

Life in the shrine today

“Today, despite the conflict that prevents the arrival of pilgrims and which makes the atmosphere more restless and relations more tense, we continue to represent an essential meeting point. The presence of the church and of the Christian community, of about 400 people, is important in this neighbourhood, where we have always tried to keep and good and peaceful co-existence with the Muslim community.

Our café is open every afternoon and lets people meet, children play, teenagers to have a safe place to meet: those who want, can pray the rosary which we recite every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 5 p.m. In this period, we have bought new equipment for the football pitch and the basketball court. Our hall is always available for social occasions of our parishioners and here the women take part in weekly meetings because we are giving them the chance to help them start small businesses. We are looking ahead and, with confidence,  we are trying to give hope, while always remaining a point of reference for our people.”

S. Giuliano