Friday, April 22, 2011


This post is about a virtually unique pactice, the Burial of Christ Crucified, a "paraliturgy" that is performed on Good Friday evening. I understand it is not unique to the Holy Sepulche, but is also done at "Holy Land Shrines" thoughout the world, such as that of the Franciscan Church of the Custody in Washington D.C. But, first, a picture of the crowds waiting for the beginning of this very unusual Holy Week liturgy: you can see two of us, the Dominicans, waiting in the crowd. We will later be in the procession. You can get some idea of the crowds present for this in such a small space.

This liturgy is a representation of the deposition of Jesus from the Cross, of his anointing and his deposition in the Tomb. This «mimesis» unfolds in the very same places of the Passion where which these events actually took place, namely from the summit of Calvary (which is below the Golgotha Chapel) and the edicule of the Tomb (in the Holy Sepulcher Church proper).

The ceremony is is as follows. First, the procession of the Franciscans of the Custody leaves the sacrsity in procession (this year, four Dominicans were present this year in the procession – including yours truly). At the end of the procession came the new custos or minister provincial of the Custody, Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, with his ceremonial deacons, the incense, spice, and oil bearers (you can see the silver containers in the pictures), and the friar carrying the Cross with the image of the Crucified. The Custos wore a spendid black cope and the deacons, black dalmatics, as this is a kind of funeral service for our Lord. The Cross used as a special wax effigy of Jesus that can be removed from the cross, as you will see in the pictures. You will also notice that the custos is a "mitred" provincial and also wears a pectoral cross. I don't think I know of any other mendicant friar provincial that does this. We Dominicans don't have anything like that. I think it is unique to the Custody of the Holy Land.

The procession then goes around the Holy Sepulcher Church, singing the chant Parce Domine. At stations around the church, the Gospels of the Passion are read by assigned deacons or priests in the various languages of the world: I noticed: Latin, Arabic, Italian, French, Spanish, German, and Polish. Finally, the procession goes up the very narrow stair to the Golgotha Chapel, directly over the Rock of Calvary. It would be hard to describe how crowded this is; no "personal space" here. The Golgotha Chapel has a Latin Catholic side on the right and a Greek Othodox side on the left. Both are over the Rock, but the Greek side has the hole down to the Rock under the altar. We Latins get use of the Greek altar once a year for this ceremony, although they have a (rather bored looking) Greek priest on duty to "guard" it during the ceremony. I hurried over and stuck a cloth through the hole under the altar and touched the Rock of Calvary. More on that cloth later.

The Cross is raised over the altar by the two deacons, and one of the friars ceremoniously removes the Crown of Thornes, and the Nails, showing each to the crowd. Using a cloth, the Body of the Lord is then lowered from the cross and wrapped in a shroud, to be taken downstairs to the Stone of Unction. This stone is in the church proper, just inside the door. There it is laid on the stone and the custos pours oil and spices over it. He then incenses it, as the friars sing various lamentation chants. Finally, it is wrapped in the shroud, taken up, and carried in procession to the Holy Sepulcher itself in procession. (After it is removed, the faithful present all rush to the stone to soak up the oil and spices with cloths they have brought with them–since I was right there with the friars, I was one of the first!)

When the procession arrives at the Sepulcher, the image of our Lord is laid in the Tomb and the door is shut. "Guards" are then left on duty: a Franciscan of the Custody, and (of course) two Greek Orthodox priests to make such we Latins don't do any funny business. Here are some pictures of the ceremony.
The Cross of Our Lord about to be carried in procession:

The procession of friars going around the chruch:

One of the priests reading the Gospel (in Latin this time, I think):

The Custos taking at the end of the procession (note white mitra simpex):

Our Lord being taken from the Cross over the "Greek" Altar at the Golgatha Chapel:

The Custos incensing the Body of the Lord on the Stone of Unction:

The Body of Our Lord laid in the Tomb:

"And they put (Franciscan and Greek) soldiers on guard":

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