At the Holy Sepulchre
Women from yesterday and today on the pilgrimage of pilgrimages
It is Saturday morning. The sun is already high in the intensely blue sky over Jerusalem, which is reflected on the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. The small square is semi-deserted. Two years after the beginning of the pandemic, there are still no pilgrims journeying to the Holy Land. The ancient wooden door is wide open. On the threshold, there are only two women. They have a white veil, which covers their heads and bodies and acts as a pouch for the two newborn babies they carry on their shoulders. They take off their shoes, kneel down and kiss the stone doorpost of the entrance portal of the Church of the Anastasis, the most beloved holy place in all Christianity. The pilgrimage in the footsteps of the passion and resurrection of Christ continues, inside, barefoot. A sign of poverty of the heart that for the Ethiopian Christian women of the Holy City is also material poverty. They live with little or next to nothing, because their community has very few means to sustain itself, yet their faces do not express sadness. They have become familiar presences to the few faithful who gather in prayer in the Basilica shrouded in silence. A daily occasion in the place where, until March 2020, people were scandalized by the noise and disorder of the throngs of tourists and pilgrims. Then people paid less attention to those bodies wrapped in white, praying, standing apart. The Christian women of Ethiopia possess an almost instinctive modesty, but there is something profoundly moving in their physical need for dialogue, identification and questioning of those who are certain to find consolation in the place where Christ saved humanity for good. Nobody is excluded. They touch and kiss every stone, whisper litanies for hours, to be readmitted into the intimacy of love of the Lord, who forgives all. A journey of conversion that has lasted for 2000 years. At the entrance, above the anointing stone, consumed by the pilgrims’ handkerchiefs to collect the perfume of blessed nard, mosaic panels show the group of women from the Gospel who never abandoned Jesus. They were at the foot of the cross on Calvary, they went at dawn on Saturday morning to mourn him at the Sepulchre; and, they were the first to contemplate his transfigured face.
“It is not just of Mary Magdalene, but a group of women, who then passed into tradition. So much so that of these groups other places of memory have been created, not only at the Holy Sepulchre” explains Father Eugenio Alliata, who literally knows every single detail of these stones. Present and past. A Franciscan, who is 71 years old, 40 of these spent as an archaeologist in the Holy Land. In addition, he is a professor and director of the archaeological collections of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum in Jerusalem.
“In the Gospel it is also said that Jesus appears to the women on the road as we were returning from the Sepulcher. That is why between the Basilica and Mount Zion there was a place of memory, where pilgrims of the somewhat more modern era often speak. Places of memory mentioned in the diaries of pilgrims from 1500 until 1900. Today, we no longer know where they were. These are a group of women, of whom Mary Magdalene is the best known. Some see in this an early form of pilgrimage, and going to the Sepulcher will later become a technical term for pilgrimage par excellence. These women were the first. It is the first news of Jesus’ Sepulcher without the body as a place. The whole history of pilgrimage is based on the places, on the attraction they have. Because in the place there is no longer Jesus, sometimes not even something specific that binds the place with the teaching of Jesus. They may have become places with a meaning contrary to what they had at the beginning, but they maintain their attractive force”.
In the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, there are three places of memory of Jesus’ encounter with Mary Magdalene. Each of the communities that inhabit and guard the Holy Sepulchre today has its own altar dedicated to the first witness of the Risen Lord. The Greek Orthodox have dedicated to her the parish church outside the Basilica, where the Sunday liturgy is celebrated; and, the Armenians have a small shrine with candles always lit to the left of the Anastasis. On the other side is the Latin altar, there are two circles drawn on the marble, a short distance from each other, which recall the decisive event for the Christian faith.
“Noli me tangere”, do not hold me back. Because on that morning when the women - according to the Synoptics - when Mary of Magdala - according to the Gospel of John - see the Risen Lord, their first instinct is to embrace him, to embrace his feet, so as not to lose this Lord who they were convinced had been consigned to death and who instead opened up a new hope.
During the pandemic, the surveillance at the Wayside Shrine of the Holy Sepulcher has been less severe. The vigilant Greek Orthodox monks have not been stationing themselves at the entrance to keep an eye on pilgrims, and tick them off if necessary. From the sacristy, they cast an eye on those who enter to kneel in prayer, almost all of whom are Orthodox women. In the antechamber, the Angel Room according to tradition, a candle placed on a stone pillar is always burning.
Father Alliata explains, “To be mentioned here is this overturned stone. Today, in the Angel’s Room there is a fragment of stone in the aedicule, which according to tradition is said to represent the stone that rolled away from the tomb. Throughout history, it has been referred to in different ways, but the memory that remains is that of the toppled stone. In the Cathedral of Monza, in the antique ampullae that is preserved there, for example, there is the image of the aedicule as it was at the time of Constantine. In front of the entrance we see a sort of crooked square. That is the image of the stone that rolled away. These were a gift that Pope Gregory the Great, who died in 604, made to the Lombard queen, Theodolinda. Much of the cathedral treasure comes from then, and there are also 11 ampullae from the Holy Land containing oil from the lamps that burned at the Holy Sepulcher.
The Armenians keep a much larger stone in the Convent of St. Savior at Mount Zion, called the prison of Christ, which they venerate as a section of the stone that rolled away from the Sepulcher”.
Today, we have to knock on the door of the Armenian sacristan to go down to a place that preserves one of the rare memories of pilgrims who arrived at the Holy Sepulchre before the Emperor Constantine and his mother Helen. Next to the chapel dedicated to the Empress, there is a small locked door, which is where, according to tradition, with her feminine tenacity; she found “the true cross of Christ”. With an Armenian sacristan guide, we can enter the stone quarry from the time of Jesus. Less than 100 years ago, an image of a sailboat engraved on the rock with an inscription in Latin, dating between the first and fourth centuries, was discovered here. The mast is broken, perhaps indicating the dangers of the sea or the arrival at the destination. Merchants or pilgrims. According to Father Bellarmino Bagatti, the Franciscan archaeologist and director of the most important excavations in the Holy Land, the Latin inscription means Domine ivimus, Lord we have arrived. Instead, a letter - found by Father Bagatti - speaks of the first woman pilgrim to the Holy Land.
“The letter sent from Asia Minor to Bishop Cyprian of Carthage, dating from the third century, speaks of a woman who traveled barefoot and baptized. This poses a problem for ecclesiastical practice. In itself, a woman could baptize, but it was not common practice. The text says that she walked barefoot, as if from Judea and Jerusalem. She presented herself as a pilgrim, a prophet. A decidedly unusual fact for that time. She went around in Asia Minor baptizing and probably preaching, saying that she had been to Judea and Jerusalem. We know very little about the daily life of the early church, but, according to Bagatti, she is the first known pilgrim. Perhaps an early apostle, certainly an important witness who indicates interest in the holy places even before the arrival of Constantine”.
Text and photos by ALESSANDRA BUZZETTI
A Middle East Correspondent for Tv2000 and inBlu2000