When the disciples returned to Jerusalem after Jesus’ Ascension, “they went to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren.” – Acts 1:13-14
The Upper Room – which is also known as the Cenacle – has been getting a lot of press these days. Even before Pope Francis arrived in Jerusalem for his recent 3-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land, more than 200 Orthodox Jews had gathered to protest his plan to celebrate Mass at the holy site. According to the NBC News report, they objected to his visit because “letting Christians pray there is in direct conflict with their religious teachings. … ‘Under Jewish law, it is a big problem’,” said their leader, Rabbi Avraham Goldstein. “‘Basically they (Christians) are taking over the place’.”1
Despite assurances by Israel that there is no plan to transfer ownership or authority of the Upper Room to the Vatican, tensions have been high. There have been a string of vandalism attacks on Christian sites, allegedly carried out by far right Jewish groups. Another incident occurred the day after Pope Francis celebrated Mass in the Upper Room. A fire was set between the pews of the neighbouring Dormition Abbey, traditionally believed to be the place where the Blessed Virgin Mary lived after the Resurrection of Jesus and fell into eternal sleep.2
But to understand all of this, we need to look at a bit of history. The Upper Room is not just a place of significance for Christians; it also carries great meaning for people of the Jewish and Muslim faiths. The Jewish people venerate it as the site of the Tomb of King David; they believe that the tomb is buried in the ground beneath the Upper Room. But it is also the site of a 16th century mosque.
The Cenacle – which was originally a second floor room in a Jewish synagogue – has been subject to a lot of change over the years. In the 11th century, the Crusaders built a five-aisled basilica dedicated to Mary that included the site of the original synagogue and Cenacle. According to tradition, the church was built over the house where Mary had lived among the Apostles after the Death and Resurrection of Jesus.
Part of that church was destroyed in 1219, but the section containing the Cenacle was spared. The Franciscans took over the care of the building in the 1330s, but the Ottomans evicted them in 1552. The Upper Room was turned into a mosque, and it was not until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 that Christians were allowed to return to worship. Today, the State of Israel owns the historical building. But because the Franciscans still hold the original deed, they have sought to regain control of the property. This is one of the issues at the heart of recent Jewish protests.
The Upper Room has great significance for Christians because it was here that Jesus ate the Last Supper with His disciples, the place where He instituted the Eucharist. Jesus appeared to His followers here after the Resurrection, and it was here that the Holy Spirit descended on them at the Feast of Pentecost. It was the place where the disciples usually stayed when they were in Jerusalem – the place where the Church first began. One of the most moving symbols in the room is found on the capitol of a small pillar in the corner near the staircase: a pelican is depicted, piercing her breast in order to feed her young. It is a symbol of the Lord feeding us in the Eucharist, a reminder of the sacrifice that He made in order that we might have life.
Perhaps no one speaks more eloquently about the significance of the Upper Room than our Holy Father, Pope Francis. I have included the text of the homily from his recent Mass in the Cenacle below. I pray that the “sharing, fraternity, harmony, and peace” of which he speaks will always be a distinguishing mark of our relationships with one another.
– Sharon van der Sloot
Text of Pope Francis’s Homily during the Mass at the Cenacle:
Address of His Holiness Pope Francis
Meeting with Ordinaries of the Holy Land
Upper Room, Jerusalem, 26 May 2014
It is a great gift that the Lord has given us by bringing us together here in the Upper Room for the celebration of the Eucharist. Here, where Jesus shared the Last Supper with the apostles; where, after his resurrection, he appeared in their midst; where the Holy Spirit descended with power upon Mary and the disciples. Here the Church was born, and was born to go forth. From here she set out, with the broken bread in her hands, the wounds of Christ before her eyes, and the Spirit of love in her heart.
In the Upper Room, the risen Jesus, sent by the Father, bestowed upon the apostles his own Spirit and with this power he sent them forth to renew the face of the earth (cf. Ps 104:30).
To go forth, to set out, does not mean to forget. The Church, in her going forth, preserves the memory of what took place here; the Spirit, the Paraclete, reminds her of every word and every action, and reveals their true meaning.
The Upper Room speaks to us of service, of Jesus giving the disciples an example by washing their feet. Washing one another’s feet signifies welcoming, accepting, loving and serving one another. It means serving the poor, the sick and the outcast.
The Upper Room reminds us, through the Eucharist, of sacrifice. In every Eucharistic celebration Jesus offers himself for us to the Father, so that we too can be united with him, offering to God our lives, our work, our joys and our sorrows… offering everything as a spiritual sacrifice.
The Upper Room reminds us of friendship. “No longer do I call you servants – Jesus said to the Twelve – but I have called you friends” (Jn 15:15). The Lord makes us his friends, he reveals God’s will to us and he gives us his very self. This is the most beautiful part of being a Christian and, especially, of being a priest: becoming a friend of the Lord Jesus.
The Upper Room reminds us of the Teacher’s farewell and his promise to return to his friends: “When I go… I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (Jn 14:3). Jesus does not leave us, nor does he ever abandon us; he precedes us to the house of the Father, where he desires to bring us as well.
The Upper Room, however, also reminds us of pettiness, of curiosity – “Who is the traitor?” – and of betrayal. We ourselves, and not just others, can reawaken those attitudes whenever we look at our brother or sister with contempt, whenever we judge them, whenever by our sins we betray Jesus.
The Upper Room reminds us of sharing, fraternity, harmony and peace among ourselves. How much love and goodness has flowed from the Upper Room! How much charity has gone forth from here, like a river from its source, beginning as a stream and then expanding and becoming a great torrent. All the saints drew from this source; and hence the great river of the Church’s holiness continues to flow: from the Heart of Christ, from the Eucharist and from the Holy Spirit.
Lastly, the Upper Room reminds us of the birth of the new family, the Church, established by the risen Jesus; a family that has a Mother, the Virgin Mary. Christian families belong to this great family, and in it they find the light and strength to press on and be renewed, amid the challenges and difficulties of life. All God’s children, of every people and language, are invited and called to be part of this great family, as brothers and sisters and sons and daughters of the one Father in heaven.
These horizons are opened up by the Upper Room, the horizons of the Risen Lord and his Church.
From here the Church goes forth, impelled by the life-giving breath of the Spirit. Gathered in prayer with the Mother of Jesus, the Church lives in constant expectation of a renewed outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Send forth your Spirit, Lord, and renew the face of the earth (cf. Ps 104:30)!3
1 “Jews Protest at Last Supper Site Ahead of Visit by Pope Francis,” NBC News [news online]; available from http://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/jews-protest-last-supper-site-ahead-visit-pope-francis-n102996; Internet, accessed 3 June 2014.
2 Pope Francis celebrated the Mass of the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room during his visit to Israel, on Monday, May 26th, 2014.
3 Pope Francis, “Pope Francis: Homily in the Upper Room,” Vatican Radio [radio on-line]; available from http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2014/05/26/pope_francis_homily_in_the_upper_room/1101035; Internet, accessed 3 June 2014.