Text and images on this page are from our 2014 pilgrimage. Click on the pictures to see them in larger format.
I think that our last full day in Jerusalem is one of the most meaningful times in the entire pilgrimage. The sites we visit recall the events of Holy Week and Jesus’ suffering and sacrifice. It’s a long and challenging day, but that’s OK. Because it gives us just a tiny taste of what it would have been like to really live out those events. No matter how many times I’ve traveled this part of the journey, it never fails to remind me of the price Jesus paid to forgive and redeem me, to free me from my sin, and give me the gift of eternal life.
The morning starts in the Mt. Zion area. South of the Armenian Quarter and just outside Zion Gate, it is the one of the highest points in the city. During Jesus time it was enclosed within the city walls and the residence of Jerusalem’s wealthier citizens. A group of Essenes — whose monastic members in the desert probably wrote and preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls — is also thought to have lived nearby.
Some scholars, notably the late Bargil Pixner, believe that early believers built a Judeo-Christian synagogue/church here that may have been the site of the First Jerusalem Council reported in the biblical book of Acts — the one which decided to welcome gentiles into the new covenant. Later, during the early part of the Byzantine Period (300s – 1400s AD), Emperor Constantine built the Holy Sion Church on the site of the older facility. Archeological excavations suggest that the massive structure encompassed the area that now includes the Church of the Dormition, the Cenacle or Upper Room and David’s Tomb.
The Church of the Dormition, a Roman Catholic sanctuary that commemorates Mary’s “falling asleep” or dying, is the largest building. (Other Christians believe that she died in Ephesus, Turkey where she was living with the Apostle John.)
There is a life-size statue of King David playing his harp outside in the courtyard near David’s Tomb and the Upper Room.
Sometimes local musicians also join him.
You climb up a set of stairs to the Cenacle or traditional Upper Room, and that’s a tip-off that the current building is not the original. Anything in Jerusalem that is close to Jesus’ time is buried a story or two below ground. But this Crusader-era structure (later turned into a mosque) has beautiful arched ceilings and great acoustics. There were a number of other pilgrim groups visiting at the same time, so we found a quiet corner to listen once again to the story of Jesus’ last evening with his beloved friends and to sing and pray.
Riding down the hill and across the Kidron Valley to the Mount of Olives, our next stop was the Garden of Gethsemane. Gethsemane means “olive oil press” in Greek, and in Jesus’ day much of the hillside would have been covered with olive groves. Enclosed gardens on both sides of the roadway are all that remain today. And though the olive trees there aren’t old enough to have witnessed Jesus’ agony, guides will tell you that they may be the “children” or “grandchildren” of the originals. Though visitors are usually not permitted among the trees, it isn’t hard to imagine Jesus getting away from the bustle of the Holy City in order to find a peaceful place for prayer.
The most popular garden is part of the grounds of the Franciscan Church of All Nations. There is statuary throughout to help pilgrims remember and honor Jesus’ agony — when he asked his Father to remove the cup of suffering from him yet nonetheless agreed to fulfill his mission of suffering and death.
The Church of All Nations, which is also called the Basilica of the Agony, is another of the many sacred buildings that were designed by Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi. It is built over the remains of earlier Crusader and Byzantine ruins. The exterior of the church is classical in design with a beautiful golden mosaic just under the front roof line.
This is how the Franciscan custody website describes the interior:
The church was conceived as a single unique space, interrupted only by two rows of six columns, in which the interior light would be filtered through scarlet-toned opalescent glass, in memory of the night of Jesus’ agony. The mosaics decorating the apses were inspired by the events that took place at Gethsemane: the agony, the arrest with the kiss of Judas, and Ego Sum (I am he). The decorations on the vaults and small domes bring to mind the olives in the garden and the starry night, while the golden dome above the presbytery alludes to the heavenly mystery. Everything is conducive to meditation and prayer, with the focal point being the bare rock visible near the altar, testifying to Jesus’ suffering prayer in Gethsemane.
An innovation was the decision to reproduce the original floor mosaics and to mark the location of the perimeter of the walls of the original church with its drainage channels, cistern and tombs in the atrium. The exterior follows the lines of classical architecture, with a solemn pronaos (inner area of the portico) supported by columns and surmounted by a tympanum; the architect’s stylistic choices were a conscious attempt to resist the nationalistic tendencies of the time which led many countries to build their own churches in the Holy Land. The Church of All Nations should indeed represent them all.
After spending some time inside for prayer and quiet personal reflection, we gathered on the portico steps for our Bible study. The busy street directly beyond our feet reminded us that Jesus’ own quiet time and prayer would soon be interrupted.
After Judas kissed him and he was arrested, Jesus was taken from Gethsemane to the home of Caiaphas, the High Priest, to stand trial for the first time before the Sanhedrin or Jewish High Council. (Matthew 26) While watching out in the courtyard, Peter denied Jesus three times, a fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy. Though it was probably somewhere on Mt. Zion — where archeological excavations have discovered other wealthy Jewish homes from the period — the actual location of the site is contested. Catholic church tradition places Caiaphas’ home at the Assumptionist Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu (St. Peter of the Cock’s Crow) while Armenians honor an alternative site — St. Saviour Church.
We always visit St. Peter in Gallincantu, both for the beauty of the church and for the way it sparks the imagination. Outside in the rear of the church, for example, archeologists have uncovered a Roman-built stepped roadway that leads down to the Kidron Valley. It’s the most likely route for Jesus’ walk from the Upper Room to Gethsemane and back.
The church itself is built on three levels and as you descend to the bottom each layer gets older and darker. Entrance is off the plaza and through the uppermost, modern church, which was designed and built in the 1920s and 30s by Assumptionist Father Etienne Boubet.
Boubet also designed the decorative mosaics that adorn it outside and in. Those on the four outer facades portray various aspects of Jesus’ trial — his claims to be the Messiah, his descent into the dungeon, and his mocking by members of the Sanhedrin.
The mosaic over the altar area of the uppermost, modern church depicts Jesus telling Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin that he is the Son of God, while angels carry his cross to heaven for the approval of the Father. (The latter part from Augustine.)
Descending to the middle church and the crypt below it are like going back in time. The back wall of the middle church is built right into the hillside and there are two indentations that may have been the corners of an earlier Byzantine church. It is a stark reminder of what the courtyard could have looked like in Jesus’ day.
At least four different structures have been built through the years over a sacred pit that has been honored both as the cave where Peter hid after denying Christ or the possible dungeon where Jesus’ was held during his trial. Byzantine crosses painted on or carved into the walls attest to the site’s early veneration, and a large hole near the ceiling reminds pilgrims of the practice of lowering captives into their prisons by rope.
How awesome it was to read a psalm together and reflect once again on Jesus’ sacrifice for sin.
Click here for more pictures of Mt. Zion and the Garden of Gethsemane.