Returning to the Upper Room for the Last Supper

Celebration in Jerusalem Marked With Reverence, Recollection

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JERUSALEM, APRIL 6, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Here is an account of Thursday's celebration of the Last Supper held in the Upper Room, where Jesus held his Last Supper with his disciples. The account is provided by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.

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By Caterina Foppa Pedretti

In the afternoon of Holy Thursday, a little after 3:00 p.m., the Franciscan friars of the Custody of the Holy Land, led by the Custos, Brother Pierbattista Pizzaballa, and the Custodial Vicar,Brother Artemio Vitores, left Saint Saviour's Monastery in procession for Mount Zion, location of the Cenacle, where Jesus celebrated the Last Supper, the Paschal meal, with his disciples before being captured that night in the Olive Garden. Many of the faithful, local Christians and pilgrims, who wanted to share this evocative moment of community prayer in one of the Holy Places most dear to Christian and Franciscan tradition, joined the friars.

According to tradition, the Cenacle was also the home of the first apostolic Church. In the second half of the fourth century, Christians replaced this little church with a large basilica that they called Holy Zion and Mother of All Churches because of its apostolic origin. It conserved the memory of the seat of James, first bishop of Jerusalem, and of the column of Jesus' scourging. This place also conserves the memory of the Last Supper, with the institution of the Eucharist and the Washing of the Feet, the appearance of the Resurrected Jesus, the impartment of the ministry of reconciliation to the apostles and the descent of the Holy Spirit on Mary and the Apostles, who were assembled here. The memory of Mary's Dormition was also present here until the seventh century. The Church of Holy Zion underwent many destructions and reconstructions, later being rebuilt during the Crusader period under the name of Saint Mary on Mount Zion. After the demolition of 1219, only the medieval chapel of the Cenacle remained standing, with David's Tomb below it, a commemorative cenotaph that to this day is dear to the Jews, who constantly come here to pray.

In 1335, the Franciscans took the sanctuary into their care, building a convent on the south side whose cloister can still be seen today. The Custody of the Holy Land had its origins here, receiving official recognition with the papal bull of 1342. Difficulties notwithstanding, the convent was inhabited until 1551, when the Turkish authorities forced the friars to move inside the city walls. The sanctuary remained in Muslim hands until 1948 and then, with the birth of the State of Israel, passed to the Jews. A new church to the west of Cenacle was consecrated in 1910, dedicated to Mary's Dormition, and confided to the Benedictines. In 1936 the Franciscans returned to the area of the sanctuary, adapting an old Arab house that became the little convent of Saint Francis of the Cenacle, also known as the "Cenacolino", the little Cenacle.

While the Cenacle room remains accessible to visitors, Christian liturgical ceremonies in its interior are only allowed on a few occasions. Holy Thursday is one of these occasions, when the encounter that is traditionally celebrated on the afternoon of this day takes on a special importance for the community of religious and lay faithful. Already quite a while before the arrival of the Custos, the Cenacle Upper Room, was crowded with pilgrims waiting in a climate of sincere recollection.

At 3:30 p.m. the Custos and the friars who accompanied him arrived, and the ceremony that with song and prayer commemorates the events that occurred here on the night of the Last Supper began with readings from the gospels of Saint John and Saint Mark that discuss the washing of the feet, the institution of the Eucharist, and the new commandment of love for one’s neighbor that Jesus wanted to transmit to the apostles. The actual act of washing the feet was repeated here by Brother Pizzaballa who bowed to wash the feet of a group of twelve children from the parish of Saint Saviour: one of the most significant acts with which Jesus showed the meaning and value of serving one's neighbor that the apostles were called on to imitate in their lives: "If I, your lord and Master, washed your feet, so you should wash the feet of one another. I have given you the example so that as I have done, you yourselves should do" (Jn 13:14-15). The liturgy concluded with the recitation of the Our Father, which each person said in his own language, uniting the assembly in a universal aspiration. 

After receiving the final benediction, the Franciscans and some of the faithful went in procession to the Armenian Church of Saint James, where tradition locates the martyrdom by decapitation of Saint James Major. Here, Brother Artemio explained, was located the palace of Caiaphas, the high priest before whom the religious trial of Jesus was held. After visiting the church, the Franciscans venerated another room, the Chapel of the Archangels, inside the Armenian convent where Franciscans, who had been expelled from the Cenacle in 1551, spent eight years as guests of the Armenians. As a sign of cordiality and gratitude, the Franciscans' Holy Thursday procession traditionally makes a stop in this place. Finally, before returning to Saint Saviour's Convent, a brief visit was made to the Chapel of Saint Mark of the Syrian Orthodox community.