The more time I spend here the more places I seem to find that give glimpses into the things around which our faith is built. As a result of a lecture I attended a few days ago I had decided to try and find the grave of Queen Melisende, who was Queen of Jerusalem during part of the Crusader period, from 1131 to 1153, and regent for her son between 1153 and 1161. Her magnificent psalter is in the British Library (note to self – go and see it). She is buried alongside the stairs leading down to the Tomb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I had spotted the chapel before but hadn’t realised who was laid to rest there.
However, heading there I noticed that the door was open to the Church of St Stephen in the Greek Orthodox Monastery that is between St Stephen’s (Lion) Gate and the Garden of Gethsemane. I’d tried to get in there before so the open door beckoned me to enter. It’s a 19th century building with a few good icons and it was good to at last get in.
After having found the tomb I was searching for I then saw a sign to the Gethsemane Grotto which is to the right of the door into Mary’s Tomb. As the name suggests it is another cave and the explanation for pilgrims was that it was probably a place that Jesus used to as a place of retreat, a place of private prayer and where he took his disciples. But an interesting side note was that this could have been the place where Jesus met with Nicodemus. It is St John who tells us about that meeting, towards the beginning of his Gospel.
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. (John 3.1-2)
It was an important meeting and it seems entirely reasonable that the meeting would have taken place outside the city walls and where better than this olive grove with its convenient caves where a private conversation could take place out of sight and out of earshot of others. It was Nicodemus who subsequently was prepared to stick his neck out for Jesus at a meeting of the Sanhedrin when as John tells us
Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked, ‘Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?’ (John 7.50-51)
He appears again after the crucifixion. It is John once again who tells us
Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. (John 19.39)
This is no small gesture. Pope Benedict XVI commented that
The quantity of the balm is extraordinary and exceeds all normal proportions. This is a royal burial.
In this cave, at night, this Pharisee of means and high standing beheld the man and beheld a king and it changed his life, to the extent that he would speak up for him, to the extent that he would act for him, just as Stephen would do so close to that same spot. Jesus has an extraordinary impact on our lives.
I made my way through St Stephen’s Gate and up to where the Via Dolorosa begins. There is a new audio-visual presentation at Stations I & II in which you can see elements of the Antonia Fortress that have been discovered, capitals, mouldings and columns. That led me to the Ecce Homo Convent. I had been there on many occasions but when I was last there the basilica was in use by a group and I could only see into it through the glass screen. So I asked if I could go into the church. My reason for wanting to do this is that this is where you can see the remains of the arch close up.
It is called the Ecce Homo arch in recognition that in this area Pilate stood before the crowd and said ‘Ecce Homo’, ‘Behold the man’. At one stage it was thought that the arch had been part of the gate of Herod’s Antonia Fortress. However, archaeological investigations have discovered that the arch is in fact a triple-arched gateway, built by Emperor Hadrian as an entrance to the eastern Forum of Aelia Capitolina, as Jerusalem was then called. Inside the church the arch forms the reredos to the sanctuary. There is a small side arch, a niche and then the main arch, which continues outside in the street, springs from the masonry. It all makes sense! To get a good idea of what it would have looked like the arch at Jerash in Jordan dates from a similar period and was also the work of Hadrian.
It was good though to think about that declaration, ‘Ecce Homo’ and the whole debate about truth and kingship which took place in that area. Nicodemus had recognised Jesus’ kingship as Pope Benedict suggests. Pilate saw the man but also saw, perhaps, something of the king gently threatening, challenging his own authority.
Almost next door to the convent and the arch is another door that is often closed but that today was open. This was the ‘Prison of Christ’ in the Praetorium. It is part of a Greek Orthodox monastery. The claim is that this was the prison in which Jesus and Barabbas were kept. In fact there is little evidence that this was a prison and it may well have been a stable. But going down in the level of caves that are beyond the door gave me the opportunity to think about the figure of Barabbas.
The early gospels name him as ‘Jesus Barabbas’ and as we know, in Aramaic, Bar means ‘Son of’ and Abbas means ‘Father’. So this bandit who was offered for release alongside Jesus was called ‘Jesus, Son of the Father’. In later versions of the gospels the prefix ‘Jesus’ was omitted as being confusing or an heretical interpolation into the text (modern versions have now restored it – see below). But the confusion of names is intriguing.
Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, ‘Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?’ For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. (Matthew 27.15-18)
I left the prison and got back onto the street. There was the arch again, proclaiming ‘Ecce homo’, ‘Behold the man’. ‘Ecce Agnus Dei’ we say, ‘Behold the Lamb of God’. Who do we see when we look at Jesus?
Jesus, Lamb of God, have mercy on us.
Jesus, bearer of our sins, have mercy on us.
Jesus, redeemer of the world, grant us peace.