Postcard From Passion Sunday

The Mount of Olives

Another postcard from the past: St. Egeria’s description of the celebration of Palm Sunday in Jerusalem, c. 383 A.D. – 1,630 years ago today. The diagrams (from Wikipedia) below depict the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. This was built at the order of Emperor Constantine as two connected churches, which Egeria refers to as the “Anastasis” and the “Martyrium.”

But on the next day – that is, the Lord’s day – which begins the Paschal Week, called here the Great Week, they proceed from cock-crow to go through the usual ceremonies in the Anastasis, and at the Cross until the morning. Early on the Lord’s day they proceed, as usual, to the Great Church, called the Martyrium. It is so called because it is in Golgotha – i.e., behind the cross where the Lord suffered, and so is a Martyrium or Testimony. When all things have been celebrated, according to custom, in the Great Church, before the dismissal is given the archdeacon raises his voice, and says first: ‘During the ensuing week – that is, from to-morrow – let us all meet at the ninth hour at the Martyrium’ – i.e., in the Great Church. Again he raises his voice a second time and says: ‘To-day let us all be ready at the seventh hour in Eleona.’ Then the dismissal having been given in the Great Church – i.e. at the Martyrium – the bishop is conducted with hymns to the Anastasis, and there the ceremonial having been gone through which is customary in the Anastasis on the Lord’s day after Mass at the Martyrium, everyone goes home and hastens to eat, that at the seventh hour, now beginning, they may all be ready in the church in Eleona – i.e., in the Mount of Olives. The cave in which the Lord used to teach is there.

So at the seventh hour all the people and also the bishop go up to the Mount of Olives (i.e., Eleona) to the church; hymns and antiphons suitable to the day and place are sung and lections read in like manner. And when it begins to be the ninth hour they go up with hymns to the Imbomon – that is, to the place from which the Lord ascended into heaven – and there they sit down. For all the people are always bid sit down in the presence of the bishop; only the deacons always remain standing. Hymns and antiphons suitable to the place and the day are sung, and in like manner lections and prayers are interspersed. And now when it begins to be the eleventh hour, that place from the Gospel is read where the children with branches and palms met the Lord, saying: ‘Blessed is He that Cometh in the Name of the Lord.’ And forthwith the bishop arises and all the people, and they go down on foot the whole way from the summit of the Mount of Olives. For all the people go before him, responding the while with hymns and antiphons: ‘Blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord.’ And all the children in those parts are there holding branches of olive-trees or palms; even those who cannot walk because of their tender years are supported on the hill by their parents. And thus the bishop is escorted like as the Lord was in former time. From the top of the hill to the city, and from thence to the Anastasis, throughout the whole city, they all go the whole way on foot, lords and ladies alike; thus they escort the bishop, singing in response, but slowly and gently, so that the people may not be wearied. When they have come, although it is late, they have vespers; then a prayer is said at the Cross, and the people are dismissed.

Once more we vicariously participate in a 4th-century Catholic aerobic workout, this time up and down the Mount of Olives! Bishops back in those days must have been made of some pretty sturdy stuff! They were certainly held in great esteem as a symbol of the unity of the body of Christ. As Egeria writes: “And thus the bishop is escorted like as the Lord was in former time. From the top of the hill to the city, and from thence to the Anastasis, throughout the whole city, they all go the whole way on foot, lords and ladies alike; thus they escort the bishop….”

St Cyril of Jerusalem

St. Cyril of Jerusalem was the bishop at the time of Egeria’s sojourn, and fortunately much is known about him. He was a tough old guy, about 70 when Egeria was visiting, and believe me, he had to be tough. He was embroiled in the Arian controversy, and was banished from his see by the Arian Emperor Valens. He was deposed several other times on the charge that he had sold Church property, and was indeed guilty as charged – he sold sacramental ornaments and imperial gifts to feed the poor. He must have been a stirring speaker; Egeria tells us that sometimes when he was explaining the mysteries, the applause from the assembled was so loud that it could be heard outside the church. Here is part of his Catechetical Lecture 13 on the crucifixion. I count 16 quotes from Scripture, not counting the allusions (and this isn’t the whole text).

On the words, Crucified and Buried.

Isaiah 53:1, 7

Who has believed our report? And to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?…He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, etc.

Every deed of Christ is a cause of glorying to the Catholic Church, but her greatest of all glorying is in the Cross; and knowing this, Paul says, But God forbid that I should glory, save in the Cross of Christ. (Gal 6:14) For wondrous indeed it was, that one who was blind from his birth should receive sight in Siloam ; but what is this compared with the blind of the whole world? A great thing it was, and passing nature, for Lazarus to rise again on the fourth day; but the grace extended to him alone, and what was it compared with the dead in sins throughout the world? Marvellous it was, that five loaves should pour forth food for the five thousand; but what is that to those who are famishing in ignorance through all the world? It was marvellous that she should have been loosed who had been bound by Satan eighteen years: yet what is this to all of us, who were fast bound in the chains of our sins? But the glory of the Cross led those who were blind through ignorance into light, loosed all who were held fast by sin, and ransomed the whole world of mankind.

And wonder not that the whole world was ransomed; for it was no mere man, but the only-begotten Son of God, who died on its behalf. Moreover one man’s sin, even Adam’s, had power to bring death to the world; but if by the trespass of the one death reigned over the world, how shall not life much rather reign by the righteousness of the One (Rom 5:17-18)? And if because of the tree of food they were then cast out of paradise, shall not believers now more easily enter into paradise because of the Tree of Jesus? If the first man formed out of the earth brought in universal death, shall not He who formed him out of the earth bring in eternal life, being Himself the Life? If Phinees, when he waxed zealous and slew the evil-doer, staved the wrath of God, shall not Jesus, who slew not another, but gave up Himself for a ransom (1 Tim 2:6), put away the wrath which is against mankind?

Let us then not be ashamed of the Cross of our Saviour, but rather glory in it. For the word of the Cross is unto Jews a stumbling-block, and unto Gentiles foolishness, but to us salvation: and to them that are perishing it is foolishness, but unto us which are being saved it is the power of God. For it was not a mere man who died for us, as I said before, but the Son of God, God made man. Further; if the lamb under Moses drove the destroyer (Ex 12:23) far away, did not much rather the Lamb of God, which takes away the sin of the world (Jn 1:29), deliver us from our sins? The blood of a silly sheep gave salvation; and shall not the Blood of the Only-begotten much rather save? If any disbelieve the power of the Crucified, let him ask the devils; if any believe not words, let him believe what he sees. Many have been crucified throughout the world, but by none of these are the devils scared; but when they see even the Sign of the Cross of Christ, who was crucified for us, they shudder. For those men died for their own sins, but Christ for the sins of others; for He did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth. It is not Peter who says this, for then we might suspect that he was partial to his Teacher; but it is Esaias who says it, who was not indeed present with Him in the flesh, but in the Spirit foresaw His coming in the flesh. Yet why now bring the Prophet only as a witness? Take for a witness Pilate himself, who gave sentence upon Him, saying, I find no fault in this Man (Lk 23:14): and when he gave Him up, and had washed his hands, he said, I am innocent of the blood of this just person (Mt 27:24). There is yet another witness of the sinlessness of Jesus—the robber, the first man admitted into Paradise; who rebuked his fellow, and said, We receive the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing amiss ; for we were present, both you and I, at His judgment.

Jesus then really suffered for all men; for the Cross was no illusion , otherwise our redemption is an illusion also. His death was not a mere show , for then is our salvation also fabulous. If His death was but a show, they were true who said, We remember that that deceiver said, while He was yet alive, After three days I rise again (Mt 27:63) His Passion then was real: for He was really crucified, and we are not ashamed thereat; He was crucified, and we deny it not, nay, I rather glory to speak of it. For though I should now deny it, here is Golgotha to confute me, near which we are now assembled; the wood of the Cross confutes me, which was afterwards distributed piecemeal from hence to all the world. I confess the Cross, because I know of the Resurrection; for if, after being crucified, He had remained as He was, I had not perchance confessed it, for I might have concealed both it and my Master; but now that the Resurrection has followed the Cross, I am not ashamed to declare it.

Being then in the flesh like others, He was crucified, but not for the like sins. For He was not led to death for covetousness, since He was a Teacher of poverty; nor was He condemned for concupiscence, for He Himself says plainly, Whosoever shall look upon a woman to lust after her, has committed adultery with her already (Mt 5:28); not for smiting or striking hastily, for He turned the other cheek also to the smiter; not for despising the Law, for He was the fulfiller of the Law; not for reviling a prophet, for it was Himself who was proclaimed by the Prophets; not for defrauding any of their hire, for He ministered without reward and freely; not for sinning in words, or deeds, or thoughts, He who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth; who when He was reviled, reviled not again; when He suffered, threatened not (1 Pet 2:22-23); who came to His passion, not unwillingly, but willing; yea, if any dissuading Him say even now, Be it far from You, Lord, He will say again, Get behind Me, Satan (Mt 16:22-23) .

And would you be persuaded that He came to His passion willingly? Others, who foreknow it not, die unwillingly; but He spoke before of His passion: Behold, the Son of man is betrayed to be crucified. But do you know wherefore this Friend of man shunned not death? It was lest the whole world should perish in its sins. Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and the Son of man shall be betrayed, and shall be crucified ; and again, He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem (Lk 9:5). And would you know certainly, that the Cross is a glory to Jesus? Hear His own words, not mine. Judas had become ungrateful to the Master of the house, and was about to betray Him. Having but just now gone forth from the table, and drunk His cup of blessing, in return for that drought of salvation he sought to shed righteous blood. He who did eat of His bread, was lifting up his heel against Him ; his hands were but lately receiving the blessed gifts , and presently for the wages of betrayal he was plotting His death. And being reproved, and having heard that word, You have said (Mt 26:25), he again went out: then said Jesus, The hour has come, that the Son of man should be glorified (Jn 12:23). Do you see how He knew the Cross to be His proper glory? What then, is Esaias not ashamed of being sawn asunder , and shall Christ be ashamed of dying for the world? Now is the Son of man glorified (Jn 13:31). Not that He was without glory before: for He was glorified with the glory which was before the foundation of the world. He was ever glorified as God; but now He was to be glorified in wearing the Crown of His patience. He gave not up His life by compulsion, nor was He put to death by murderous violence, but of His own accord. Hear what He says: I have power to lay down My life, and I have power to take it again : I yield it of My own choice to My enemies; for unless I chose, this could not be. He came therefore of His own set purpose to His passion, rejoicing in His noble deed, smiling at the crown, cheered by the salvation of mankind; not ashamed of the Cross, for it was to save the world. For it was no common man who suffered, but God in man’s nature, striving for the prize of His patience.

“I confess the Cross, because I know of the Resurrection!” A sermon fit to grace an Evangelical pulpit, and yet this was the 4th-century Catholic Church of the Holy Sepulcher,
steeped in liturgy, which heard the Scriptures boldly proclaimed to them by a bishop who braved banishment in defending the truth that Christ is “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, consubstantial with the Father.”

Go figure….


On Passion Sunday

Deo omnis gloria!

Photo credit: Mount of Olives by Yair Haklai

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