CHURCH OF BEITPHAGE

Catholic - Franciscan Order
Located on the eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives
[#2 on the Mount of Olives map]


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"As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away."
This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: "Say to the Daughter of Zion, 'See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.'" The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them."

MATTHEW 21:1-7

During construction of a Franciscan monastery in the year 1876, a wondrous stone was revealed. Shaped like a cube and covered in plaster, the rock had been an integral part of a twelfth-century Crusader church once located in the ancient village of Beitphage. The Crusaders believed that Jesus used this rock to mount the colt before taking that last fateful journey to Jerusalem. It is called the Stele (stone monument) of Beitphage.
Yet the site where the stone was discovered had been considered holy for hundreds of years before the Crusaders constructed their sanctuary. In fact, there was already a shrine in Beitphage in the fourth century. That chapel commemorated the encounter between Jesus, Lazarus, and Martha.

"Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. 'Lord,' Martha said to Jesus, 'if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.' Jesus said to her, 'Your brother will rise again' "(John 11: 18-23).

The Crusaders built their church on top of the Byzantine remains and decorated the stone - which had probably become detached from the rest of the rocky slope - that stood on the site. Ancient Latin inscriptions on the rock relate to biblical events which occurred in the area and specifically mention Jerusalem and Beitphage.
In 1950 the once splendid paintings on the stele were restored; five years later frescos were drawn on the walls of the nineteenth-century sanctuary. Overwhelmingly desert-like in their many shades of brown, the frescos portray New Testament-era folk preparing for the procession. On one wall a group of high priests holds a scroll. It contains the second part of the phrase from John 12:19, in which the Pharisees say to one another, "See this is getting us nowhere.. ." It reads, in Hebrew, " Look how the whole world has gone after him!" Around the windows are the words, in Latin, which Jesus spoke on that momentous ride to the Holy City.
Of course the main focus of the church is the Stele of Beitphage, set apart by decorative wrought iron railings and illustrating events that occurred here and in nearby Bethany. Behind the rock is a mirror, so that visitors can easily see the drawings on all four sides.
On one side there is a drawing of the meeting between Jesus and Martha; a second holds a picture of two disciples bringing Jesus an ass and a colt. A third painting represents Lazarus rising from the dead. And on the fourth side of the rock, facing the altar, is an illustration in which the crowds hold palms much like those which the people waved in front of Jesus.

"The next day the great crowd that had come for the Feast heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, 'Hosanna!' 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!' 'Blessed is the King of Israel!' " (John 12:12-13).

Like pilgrims of today, the Crusaders held a Palm Sunday procession which began at the medieval Beitphage Church.
Crusader foundations are easily visible near the floor of the apse which contains the altar. Behind the altar, facing you as you enter, is a picture which illustrates the biblical account of Jesus riding a donkey to the Temple, accompanied by the disciples. Interestingly, the altar is of a type no longer common in Catholic churches, for modern-day priests face the multitude. Indeed, it seems to be backwards: priests officiating at mass must stand with their backs to the worshippers as they did in previous centuries.
Beneath the altar are three arches, resembling an element in the contemporary entrance. There, within a tall and slender twentieth-century tower standing on exposed early foundations, an arcade of three arches forms a miniature second-story portico.
I was quite taken with the church ceiling, which features scattered drawings of flowers and leaves. They are rather whimsical, and reminiscent of rose petals that are strewn before an important personage. Most likely, they symbolize the foliage so evident in the biblical procession.

Visiting hours: Daily 8:00-11:30; 14:00-16:30
Extra information: to enter the gate, pull the rope. A guard will let you in.

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