My All-Night Vigil in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
It can happen in the life of a Christian, and especially in the life of a priest, that he receives favors from the loving Providence of God which exceed all his expectations and which he never sought or even imagined. I do not mean the supernatural graces to be expected through that progress in the life of prayer, penance, and works of mercy which is the common and blessed lot of all who take the practice of the faith to heart. I mean rather unexpected consolations, discoveries, I might even say “perks,” along our way here below. In this narration, I will share with you just such a kind bonus I received from the “Giver of every good gift.”
In Lent of the year 2011 I led a pilgrimage to the Holy Land of some faithful who were knights and dames of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. I am a Knight Commander of this order, which, since I am a priest, means that I am also a titular canon of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. St. Pius X, by the way was a member of this order as a bishop and patriarch, and then was the Grand Master of the order as pope. There have been a number of sainted knights and dames. The order began in the 12th century at the time of the first crusade and the recovery of Jerusalem, and still thrives, despite the twists and turns of history, to the present day. Blessed Pius IX reorganized the statutes of the order, bringing it directly under the Holy See. This was in part to provide the popes with a means of honoring nobles, gentlefolk, and professionals, since after the French Revolution and its Napoleonic aftermath these means were much restricted throughout Europe. This engaged the honored knights and dames and canons in the work of helping the Church in Palestine, then still under the Ottoman Turks. The order was no longer to fight crusades, but to provide material support for the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. In our time this is a very important and urgent work indeed, given the desperate situation of Christians in the Middle East. If I may be so bold, in the last and present century, secular states supported a kind of crusade, but without the cross, establishing the State of Israel there, which is still the focus of violent struggle in the region. Everyone on all sides recognizes this. The effects of this state of affairs on Christians and Christian works and enterprises there is thus the occasion of much effort in the crusade of charity of the contemporary Order of the Holy Sepulchre.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which contains both Calvary and the Tomb of the Savior, is the chief object of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. With what excitement did I greet the day we arrived there from Galilee!
On the way up to Jerusalem, we all prayed together the Gradual psalms, which the Jews of old recited when going on pilgrimage there at Passover or on the feast of Tabernacles. The holy family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph recited these psalms, an office for the pilgrimage, many times. And now, finally, as one of these psalms exclaims, “Our feet were standing in thy courts, O Jerusalem!”
Our pilgrimage hostel was not far from the Holy Sepulchre, and so not being able to wait until our official entry in the morning, I slipped out before supper with a confrere of my abbey who was with me on the pilgrimage to find the church. Now what happened next requires a little back-story.
In the hostel where we were staying, there had been a change of ownership; one of the terms of the change was that some residents there would be grandfathered in, and not be moved out. One of these folks was a man whom we found in the lobby as we came in. He was exceedingly friendly, even expansive, chatting up each new group of pilgrims. This bigger-than-life character seemed to make the present administration of the hostel a bit nervous. He hastened to make my acquaintance and was very interested in the white habit of my religious order, and my Roman hat, I recall. We went upstairs, and put our things away, and then came down to seek out the church.
As we were walking along looking for indications of the narrow roads to take, suddenly the friendly resident I had met swung out of the door of a little bar, and apparently “feeling no pain” as we say, he called out “If you are going to the Holy Sepulchre, you should know that you can make an all-night vigil there.” I asked “How?” He shouted as he swung back inside “Ask the friars in the Catholic sacristy!”
Socrates tells us that children and the inebriated speak the truth. Now granted, he was not St. Alphonsus Ligouri, but there is something to this. Angels, I am sure, can help with moving a weak or distracted mind such as children and drinkers have, since they do not put up much resistance to their present impulses, sometimes even good ones. Of course, this is risky business, since the demons can do the same for evil tendencies. Angels, however are channels of grace. In this case the gushing hospitality and good cheer of this man occasioned a great grace for me, infallibly foreseen by Providence. If he hadn’t swung out of the door, I would never have known of this utterly unadvertised vigil. After all, at Cana the apostles drank their fill with everyone else, and gladly recognized the revelation of the glory of Christ and first believed in him. The Savior is able to bring good effects out of a party, without anyone sinning. We may not be so fortunate, and should not fool ourselves about excess, but in this case what I am saying is true, so there you are.
In the Latin, or Catholic sacristy of the church, I found the Franciscan sacristan. He was the one who vetted those who would make the vigil. There is a limit of twelve per night. He gladly put me on the list and told me when I could come. The brown Franciscans have the care of the shrines and holy places of the Holy Land. This is an arrangement which the Turkish sultan made with the popes throughout their domains. The Turks did not want a regular Catholic hierarchy, but only the Franciscans, to care for the Catholics under their rule. This “custody” of the Holy Land has continued even after the Turkish empire fell apart after World War I, and is still very much a reality.
In the mid-nineteenth century the Ottoman Sultan established a protocol for dealing with the various Christian groups in the Holy Land; this is commonly called the Status quo. As the name implies, this keeps in place the customary rights of each of the confessions who have historically had claims on the holy places. Modern regimes, including the State of Israel, have maintained this. In the church of the Holy Sepulchre there is a fixed routine that governs each and every day of the year and each and every hour of every day in the church. The Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox, and the Roman Catholics are the most privileged groups at the Holy Sepulchre. Each has the right to a sung Mass in the Lord’s tomb every day, the Greeks first, at midnight, the Armenians later around three in the morning, and the Catholics at around five in the morning, starting with private Masses and with the sung Mass at about six-thirty. At Calvary the Greeks have the actual altar over the rock of Calvary, but the Latin Catholic altar of the Deposition is right by it for private Masses mostly. The Catholic Masses must be in Latin and on the original altars since the Orthodox do not countenance dramatic changes in anyone’s practices; this is how the Status quo protects the Catholics from themselves. So accidentally, but efficaciously, Providence used the Muslims and the Orthodox to keep us in line! So the sung Mass is in Gregorian Chant, in Latin, a votive Mass of the Resurrection, Resurrexi, every day. (Even the ceremonies of the Triduum have to be in the morning, as in the Holy Week rites before the Venerable Pius XII. So the Muslims and the Greeks support ultra-traditional arrangements.)
I arrived the evening of my vigil as directed, after three stiff little cups of Turkish coffee. The first thing I witnessed inside was the locking of the principal door at sundown. Representatives of the Greeks, Latins, and Armenians watch as a man from a Muslim family which has held the keys since the eighteenth century locks everyone in. He will unlock the doors early the next morning.
The Franciscan friar addressed the Catholic vigil makers (by the way, it seems that only the Catholics have this privilege). He warned us that we were not to sing out loud, or to fall asleep (“The Greeks will come and shout at you if you do!” he said.) Otherwise we were free to pray and to move about as we pleased all night. Amazing, I thought, free to wander about in the labyrinth of side altars and shrines, in addition to Calvary and the Tomb. And there were only two other vigil makers on that night. Two Italian ladies, who unaccountably stayed completely out of sight in the chapel of Adam beneath Calvary, so I really was alone.
The Tomb of Jesus
Altar of the Crucifixion, where the rock of Calvary is encased in protective glass
Calvary was, of course the first place to go. I was there from seven to ten. Alone! I mean all alone, with no one around at all. The church is unbelievably crowded during the day. I was able to kneel right over the rock of Calvary before the Greek altar, and reach down to touch it through the shrine opening under the altar. All alone. . .and Our Lord knew when he thought of my many sins and faults in Gethsemane and on the Cross that he was preparing for me that I would be there two millennia later. He had been waiting for me to come there all those years, and I had no idea. Truly, as St. Paul says “He loved me and gave Himself for me.”
On Calvary I recited the whole breviary office of Good Friday from beginning to end. I decided I would pray the Triduum offices in the different places. Place trumps time, and it is always in place, in any season, to pray the offices of the mysteries of Redemption in the places where they were accomplished.
At ten I went into the Holy Sepulchre and prayed the office of Holy Saturday in the antechamber, the “chapel of the angel.” Then I went in to the tomb itself, and kneeling there before the slab covering the limestone where Our Lord’s body was laid and on which Mass is celebrated, I prayed a bit, until a Greek monk came in and politely asked me to leave since they were setting up their Liturgy for midnight.
I went over to the choir chapel of the Franciscans, who invited me to enter the choir to pray Matins with them, in Latin of course. Before this the Greeks were censing all the altars in all the chapels of the church, both Catholic and Orthodox, in preparation for their Liturgy. As the hieromonk with the censer passed by me, he stopped and censed me as well, a fine liturgical courtesy. One of the Franciscan friars offered me a cup of coffee to help in my vigil, which I gladly accepted, and he showed me where the lavatories were, wryly pointing out, that after all, men are not angels.
Then I went out to the open space before the tomb, and assisted at the Greek Liturgy, taking the time to pray rosaries. It was Lent, so they had the Liturgy of St. Gregory the Great, better known as the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified. I watched the procession with the Blessed Sacrament coming from the high altar of the church into the Holy Sepulchre, the monks prostrating themselves to the floor. Jesus slain for us went into the tomb, and came out again as in a liturgical resurrection to offer himself in Holy Communion.
I was consoled by the thought that all the Masses in this church were ancient, Catholic liturgies, in spite of the schisms of the East. There was nothing in them of which a Catholic would not approve. The Savior’s true body and blood were there. How faithful He is to His word, even if men are not!
After the Greek liturgy was over, I went into the tomb, and alone, as always, prayed the office of Easter. Even though it was Lent, I said all the alleluias, figuring that I should, given where I was. As I said, place is before time! St. Thomas would agree. This was the place where the Redeemer rose alive, glorious, and impassible on Easter morning! And I was there kneeling up against it. And he knew I would come. I thought, “Why did he think I needed this singular grace?” The answer came, “Others are stronger than you, but you I have to spoil to get you to behave.”
I prayed a bit more, and soon enough an Armenian monk came in and politely asked me to leave now, since they would be setting up their Mass, shortly to begin. I went outside and began to pray rosaries. They had a full Mass, not the liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified. And other than the monks I was the only one attending, just as at the Greek Liturgy. The Armenians were rather friendly, they came up to me and made small talk about where they and their families had lived in the States. They were very kind, very charming. No wonder the Armenians do so well wherever they go, as long as they can escape their Muslim persecutors. Little changes in history for Christians of the Orient.
Then I went back into the tomb, and prayed the whole office of Our Lady, and then to the stone of the anointing where I prayed the office of the Dead. You see, I had learned from one other vigil I had made, that for this work one cannot engage in prolonged mental prayer (unless there were some special grace) all night; one has to pray vocal prayers to keep awake and remain attentive. So five whole offices, Matins in choir, and I don’t know how many rosaries were my effective way of staying up and making the vigil worthwhile. Vocal prayer, is prayer! It is not Catholic to despise or minimize its importance when we start learning about meditation and contemplation. We need all forms of prayer. Our Lord said many, many vocal prayers a day, and He taught us vocal prayer, and He is the model of prayer. He prayed vocally from the cross; psalm 21 was on His lips. Read the whole psalm yourself, and you will see Him on the cross and in his glory in its very words.
Finally, I went to the sacristy after the doors of the church had been opened again, and carried chalice and paten to Calvary to celebrate Holy Mass in the ancient rite there. I chose the votive Mass of the Passion. Here neither time nor place were the point. The Lord’s body and blood that day of March, 2011 were present as in a place in heaven, and under the sacramental signs substantially, in an unbloody manner in the same very sacrifice which He had offered in a bloody manner in the same very place so long ago. Time had stood still and our place was in the heavens. And this sacramental sacrifice conveyed His immolation and His risen and glorious body and blood no less truly, no less really, than had I been there in A.D. 33.
You see, I did not need to come to the church of the Holy Sepulchre at all to be on Calvary and in the tomb and even in the glory of heaven. All I needed was an altar of Catholic sacrifice anywhere. Indeed, this altar of sacrifice is not just a monument of the past, it is a living exposition of the mysteries “at all times and in all places.”
Love for the Holy Mass was the grace I received there, and the awareness that Jesus is still thinking of us in His Sacred Heart now with the same changeless charity he had then and there, on every altar and in every tabernacle where we find him in the Sacrament of His Love.
And this is no “perk,” it is a saving grace.