"You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified.
He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. " (Mark 16,5)


Reform of the Holy Week Liturgy at the Holy Sepulchre

Enrico Bermejo Cabrera ofm
Professor of Liturgy at the Studium Theologicum Ierosolymitanum
President of the Liturgical Commission of the Custody of the Holyland
translated by Fr. Lionel Goh ofm

The edicule on the Tomb of the Lord
in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre

For a long time now, the Custody of the Holyland had desired to introduce a reform of the present liturgical practices of the Latin Catholic Church according to the directives of the 2nd Vatican Council. It is not without difficulty that the franciscans, diocesan clergy, local christians and pilgrims try to participate in the solemn and evocative celebration of Holy Week in Jerusalem according to the pre-Vatican rite. Finally in 1997, the project of reforming the liturgy of Holy Week at the Holy Sepulchre (carefully prepared several years before) was realized with the approval of the Holy See for a 5 year period "ad experimentum". Due to the "status quo" of the Holy Sepulchre which adheres to pre-Vatican II practices, little was actually achieved. It should be noted that in the Holy Sepulchre, greeks, armenians, copts and syrians also officiate and any change on the part of the Latin Church must take into consideration these communities.

Attempts at reform and difficulties

According to the authoritative word of Paul VI, pilgrim to the Holyland in 1964, the mission of the franciscans is to promote the "perennial cult in the name of the Catholic Church" in the holy sanctuaries. The Holy Father John Paul II, on the occasion of the 650th anniversary of the franciscans' custody over the Holyland, recalled "The franciscans have never interrupted their beneficent presence, despite many difficulties, of generously conserving the ancient traditions, erecting new sanctuaries, and by serving liturgically and welcoming pilgrims." From this it is deemed a great honour and responsibility for the franciscans to care for the liturgy in the sanctuaries of the Holyland. The following is a general overview of the development of the liturgical reform of Holy Week, and the various liturgical aspects that characterize the liturgy of the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre; also called "of the Resurrection" (Anastasis).

Since 1955 when the Holy See inaugurated the first liturgical reform of Holy Week, the franciscans adapted the liturgy in their friaries and parishes throughout the Holyland. Unfortunately it was not possible to do so in the Holy Sepulchre due to the lack of agreement with the other communities. For this reason the Custody of the Holyland obtained an indult from the Holy See granting the privilege of celebrating the pre-Vatican II rite in the Holy Sepulchre until such time when an agreement is reached.

A statue of the dead body of Christ
is laid to rest in the Tomb
after the funerary procession
which is celebrated
on Good Friday evening.

From 1986 the preparatory work for the renewal underwent a noticeable progress. The Liturgical Commission of the Custody of the Holyland was busy making a complete inventory of the existing liturgical celebrations and studying in detail its structure. At the same time, the Commission initiated studies in the ancient liturgy of Jerusalem which had influenced the liturgies of the other Churches. The pilgrim Egeria (381-384 AD) noted that the essential characteristic of the ancient Jerusalem liturgy was its adaptability according to the day and place.

During Easter 1991, the Apostolic Delegate Mons. Andrea Cordero di Montezemolo was personally interested in the matter and enquired if the reform was progressing so that the Holy Week celebrations may be celebrated as soon as possible according to the present rite of the Latin Church.

The Liturgical Commission, after concluding its study and having contacted various academics, local authorities and the Congregation of the Cult, presented its case and drew several fundamental criteria. This took place in the Spring of 1994. Two years later the project for reform and adaptation of the Holy Week celebrations was further elaborated. This project was presented to His Beatitude Mons. Michel Sabbah, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, and to the Holy See.

Characteristics of the celebrations

Some notes on the reformed celebrations particularly with regards to the Roman Missal of 1975 are now presented.

1. Palm Sunday - commemoration of the Lord's entry into Jerusalem

Mass is celebrated before the Tomb/edicule of the Holy Sepulchre in the morning and is followed by the blessing of palms in the Tomb and the procession around the Tomb. This procession in the Holy Sepulchre is liturgically unique, being celebrated in the Anastasis, as it anticipates the definite triumph of Christ through his resurrection. According to the reformed rite, the Gospel is proclaimed before the blessing of the palms, as was done in the ancient liturgy.

After encircling the Tomb for the 3rd time in the procession, the chanters enter the Tomb and intone the hymn "Gloria laus". Immediately after this, the bishop enters the Tomb and sings the response "Ingrediente Domino in sanctam civitatem...", as if Christ himself has entered into the place of his triumph, the place where death was defeated. Thence Mass is celebrated.

Palm Sunday Procession leaving the area of Bethfage on its way towards the peak of Mt. of Olives from where it winds down to Kidron Valley and up to the Old City of Jerusalem

In the afternoon, the blessing of palms takes place in the sanctuary of Betphage. The solemn procession then begins, down the Mount of Olives to the courtyard adjacent to the Sheep's Pool in the Old City of Jerusalem. It is the most important public manifestation of the Catholic Church throughout the year in Israel.

2. Maundy Thursday - Mass of the Lord's Last Supper

The liturgy of Maundy Thursday: Mass "in Cena Domini". The washing of the feet.

The celebration of the Lord's Last Supper follows the scheme and text of the 1975 Missal. For reasons of the "status quo", it takes place in the morning and is the only pontifical celebration allowed for that day. The readings are taken from the Roman Lectionary with some additions from the Armenian and Georgian lectionaries which reflect the ancient usage. The Washing of Feet which used to be celebrated in the afternoon is now inserted into the Mass. Not having reached an acceptable solution for everyone, the Chrism Mass is not celebrated. Instead the Blessing of Holy Oils also takes place during the Mass in the morning.

Maundy Thursday. Mass "in Cena Domini" celebrated in front of the Edicule.

For want of a better solution, the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament at the Tomb takes the place of the rite of the Washing of Feet in the afternoon. This is due to the "status quo" which has assigned specific liturgical times for the Latin Church.

Above: Maundy Thursday. Mass "in Cena Domini" - concelebrants.

Right: Adoration in front of the Edicule. Reading the Gospel "Ego sum panis vivus" (Jn 6,41-49).

The "Officium comitatus Domini" takes the place of the Office of the Tenebrae. This is inspired by the ancient usage of Maundy Thursday celebrated at the Eleona, the basilica on the Mount of Olives. Egeria mentioned that at the 1st hour of the night until the 5th hour, "they sang hymns and antiphons appropriate to the day and place; prayers were said alternately, and passages from the Gospel were read which spoke of the Lord teaching his disciples on that very same day, in the very same cave found inside the church" (Itinerario 35,3).

3. Good Friday - the celebration of the Passion of the Lord

Good Friday. On Calvary.
Celebrating the Passion of the Lord.
Kissing the relic of the
"Lignum Sanctum Crucis"
(Wood of the Holy Cross)
and listening to the Gospel proclamation.

This takes place in the morning at Mt Calvary and with respect to the Roman Missal, includes additions to texts and adaptations made due to the limited space of the sanctuary. It was not possible to recover some important and suggestive dynamic and theological aspects of the ancient liturgy from the time of Egeria as it would have modified the rite established in the Roman Missal. Because the celebration takes place on Mt Calvary, a relic of the Holy Cross in a precious, bejewelled, cross-shaped reliquary substitutes the use of a cross during the liturgy. Thus recalled Egeria when she spoke of the Wood of the Holy Cross. After the celebration, the relic is exposed for veneration at the Chapel of the Apparition.

Good Friday: Reading one of the Gospels of the Vigil in front of the Tomb of the Lord: Pilate knew that they had condemned Jesus and exchanged him with Barabbas because of their jealousy (Mt 27,1-56)

In the afternoon, the Commemoration of the Passion and Death of Our Lord substitutes the Office of the Tenebrae. This is inspired by the liturgy celebrated from Sext to None and witnessed by Egeria: "Thus for 3 hours the people were taught that nothing had occurred that had not been predicted, and nothing said that had not been verified" (Itinerario 37,6). The climax of the celebration is the proclamation of the Gospel of John: "After which, at the 9th hour, the part from John's Gospel was read which spoke of the giving up of his spirit" (Itinerario 37,7).

Good Friday: Commemoration of the Death of Our Lord. The celebration commences on Calvary and proceeds to the "empty tomb".

4. Holy Saturday - celebration of the Easter Vigil

This follows the structure of the Roman Missal with a few particular points. It takes place in the morning of Holy Saturday. The Service of the Fire takes place at the doors of the basilica, as was previously done, due to the "status quo". Hence the procession ends at the doors of the Anastasis.

Easter Vigil. Above: The Bishop kindles the Easter Candle
from a light which is burning within the Tomb of the Lord.

Below: Blessing the water with which the assembly is sprinkled
in remembrance of Baptism.

Upon arriving at the Tomb, the candle is prepared and the bishop lights it from the light which is inside the Holy Tomb; the Tomb in which reposed the True Light that illuminates every person. The bishop proclaims "Lumen Christi". The congregation responds "Deo gratias". At the 3rd proclamation, the celebrant intones the hymn "O Joyous Light". The Easter Proclamation is then sung, and this is followed by the liturgy of the Word. According to the ancient liturgy of Jerusalem, the Gospel of the Resurrection is not sung by the deacon but by the bishop himself, who in representing Christ, announces the resurrection in the very place, on the very day in which the Paschal Mystery is completed. The Blessing of Water and the Liturgy of the Eucharistic follow.

Holy Saturday - Easter Vigil.
The Bishop incensing the Gospel in front of the Tomb of the Lord
and proclaiming the Resurrection by reading the Gospel
exactly in front of the Site of the Resurrection of the Lord

These celebrations which the Congregation of the Cult had approved after much reflection, include various elements from the rich and ancient liturgical tradition of Jerusalem adapted to the venerated latin liturgy; the liturgy which the franciscans are bound, as was willed by St Francis. It is hoped that the approved, reformed liturgy is more adapted to the place and to the participants; and that the faithful may encounter more fully the Mystery celebrated at the very place where it historically occurred.

© copyright 1998

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