Abu Ghosh / Emmaus

Sunday 22nd June 2014

This morning we had a 30-minute bus trip to Abu Ghosh. This is one of four claimants to be Emmaus, well-known to Christians as the place to which two of Jesus’ disciples were walking after the events of the crucifixion, death and burial of Jesus, followed by puzzling and unconfirmed reports of his being alive. The story is told in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 24:

The Walk to Emmaus

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

The story is early church catechesis on the scriptures and the Eucharist as two places where we continue to meet the risen Lord and to be nourished and inspired by him for our Christian living.

There are other claimants to be the Emmaus referred to in the above story but there is no conclusive evidence for any of them. None of them seem to have had this name in the first century, and their claims were only made around the turn of the first millennium. So nothing can be either confirmed or denied.

Certainly, the Crusaders, thinking this was the site of Emmaus, built a church in Abu Ghosh in 1143 which was later abandoned. After centuries of neglect, during part of which time the locals used the building as a barn, the site was given to the French. The French Benedictines built a monastery there in 1900. In 1953 they handed it over to the Lazarist Fathers. Then, after twenty years, another group of French Benedictines monks took it over, and were joined by a group of French Benedictine nuns a year later. The two congregations continue their monastic life in separate monasteries there to this day, centred on prayer, work and study, but come together in the church each day to recite part of the Divine Office.

It was quite a hot day and the air conditioning in the bus was not too effective. The grounds of the Benedictine Church/Monastery have a lovely garden. On our arrival, the green lawns and beautiful flowers provided a haven of coolness which was very refreshing.

The Grounds of the Benedictine Church in Abu Ghosh

The Grounds of the Benedictine Church in Abu Ghosh


The Church nestles into the side of the hill. It is quite large, with three nearly equal naves.
Central nave of the Benedictine Church at Abu Ghosh

Central nave of the Benedictine Church at Abu Ghosh


You can see that the Word of God is central to the life of the monastic community. The lectern with the scriptures open is positioned in the centre of the church. The choir stalls of the monks and the nuns are along each side.

The two Benedictine communities, the monks and the sisters, encourage visitors to take part in the liturgical services. They sit in choir in the central nave, the monks to the right and the sisters to the left. We attended the Sunday morning ‘high’ Mass there. The Mass was in French and the parts of the Mass – the Kyrie, Credo, Lamb of God – were sung in Gregorian Chant. The combined choir of the monks and nuns was magnificent. Their singing was quite moving. The voices of the Gregorian chant rising up and down on a single syllable reminded me very much of the similar practice in the recitation of the “Azan” or Call to Prayer from the mosque. It made me wonder if the latter has been patterned on the former. Although the chanting was indeed magnificent, it confirmed me that I am not called to be a Benedictine monk and am quite happy to be a Columban missionary priest!!

The walls, pillars and ceilings of the church have some lovely frescoes. However, unfortunately, during a period of iconoclasm – hostility towards the use of images – many of them were defaced, literally, as the faces were erased.

Central fresco in the sanctuary of the Benedictine Church at Abu Ghosh

Central fresco in the sanctuary of the Benedictine Church at Abu Ghosh


From the remnants of the images, I am guessing it is the Christ figure with Mary, his mother, on the right and John the Baptist on the left. Below the main level of the Church is a crypt, in the centre of which is a spring.

After the Mass we enjoyed the gardens. After the ubiquitous white stone of Jerusalem, the green lawns and beautiful flowers were a tonic for the eyes and for the spirit. I continued observing the ancient bovine wisdom of taking time to eat the flowers!

Flowers in the garden of the Benedictine Church at Abu Ghosh

Flowers in the garden of the Benedictine Church at Abu Ghosh


Flowers in the garden of the Benedictine Church at Abu Ghosh

Flowers in the garden of the Benedictine Church at Abu Ghosh


Flowers in the garden of the Benedictine Church at Abu Ghosh

Flowers in the garden of the Benedictine Church at Abu Ghosh


I am always a bit amused when I see a millstone as a decorative piece in a garden. I have seen several of them, here, as in the above photo, and also in Jerusalem. For while the ancient millstone does look very lovely as a decoration piece, I am always reminded of the following verse from the Matthew’s Gospel 18:6

6 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.

In the light of this text, the millstone decoration suddenly becomes less lovely and more of a threat!

After walking in the garden, we boarded the bus and returned to Jerusalem. We had a free afternoon. I wandered around the Old City. I found a couple of shops for which I had been looking but they were both closed on a Sunday. Likewise, The Garden Tomb, another site claiming to be the burial place of Jesus, was also closed. I did spend a little time in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre but it was very crowded so I fled. I found a restaurant and had lamb shish kebab for lunch. Then after wandering further, I returned to Ecce Homo.

Tomorrow we head off on a four-day excursion to Galilee. I am very much looking forward to it. We have a very early start in the morning – breakfast at 5.30am!! – so I am planning on an early night tonight.

Shalom, Peace, Salaam!!!

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