The Daily Procession at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem

One of the great privileges of my life has been to bring pilgrims to the Holy Land and to introduce them and encourage them to participate in local liturgical functions that will stir their imaginations, evoking dazzling beauty and sentiments of devotion and reflection.  As I bring pilgrim groups several times a year I am ever pleased to inform people of a little-known devotional exercise for Latin Rite pilgrims - a daily evening procession held at 4:00 p.m. at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.  This procession is not to be missed.  It is a totally unique and truly fascinating liturgical experience that is hosted by the Franciscans of the Holy Land, a procession like nothing anyone has ever seen before.  It takes the pilgrim on a journey through the basilica, solemnly visiting the holy sites, singing and praying with the Church's musical handmaid, Gregorian Chant.  I find that when pilgrims seek and participate in these events, they find and receive a message, carving out a spiritual experience, rhapsodizing the power of liturgy.  Since my first trip to the Holy Land in 2006 I have always said the procession is one of the best kept secrets of the Catholic world.  Each day countless pilgrims stumble upon it by chance (by grace), immensely satisfied to hear the solemn chants of the Latin Church while feeling at home at the holiest shrine in Christendom.

Photos by OC-Travel

The procession is led by the Franciscans of the Holy Land, the Order of Friars Minor of St. Francis of Assisi.  Many do not know that the Franciscans have their own Province in the Holy Land known as the Custodia Terrae Sanctae (Custody of the Holy Land), a Priory founded in the year 1217 by St. Francis himself.  The mission of these Franciscans is to guard the holy places sanctified by the presence of Our Blessed Lord as well as the pilgrims who visit them.  These Franciscans play a crucial role in the spiritual and liturgical life in the Holy Land, maintaining Catholic presence in the land while operating major shrines, assisting Catholic pilgrims that visit by the thousands from all corners the world.  One of the most important services of the Franciscans is the daily procession at the Holy Sepulchre, an unforgettable experience for anyone who witnesses it.  Some of the hymns are well-known to Catholics, such as the Stabat Mater, describing the sorrows of Our Lady at the Crucifixion, composed in the thirteenth century by the Franciscan friar Giacopone da Todi.  As from early Christian times, the Franciscans who act as the processional cantors are practiced singers who can read Gregorian Chant and sing the hymns and prayers from heart.  The observation of the procession is ancient, with Franciscans leading with laity following and singing as best as they can, appreciating chant as the musical art-product of the Latin Church, shaping their voices on the principle of unisonous melody.  Bystanders remark that there is no religious mood which has not found its poetic and devout expression in the daily procession with its chanted prayers and hymns in Latin.  Meanwhile, the Greeks and Byzantines have their own similar processions at other times of the day (i.e. Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Copts, etc.), also with chant.  Chant is something which the intellect does not have to reason to its acceptance, because chant is, in short, liturgical and most fitting for the liturgy and liturgical rites (it is most beautiful when performed well).  Regardless of the language, music has a power of its own apart from words.  To be sure, in the chant, music and poetry are closely linked while not everyone can understand the meanings of the words sung in Latin (or classical Greek, for that matter).  Yet we know from experience that a message is often best communicated in music when the literal sense of the words are not fully apprehended, such as with the best loved operas, operatic masterworks in nineteenth century Italian that are channels to the soul stirring the deepest of emotions for peoples who do not speak Italian.           

The history of the procession dates to the early days of Christianity, long before the arrival of the Franciscans.  Historians believe it owes its origins to the ancient liturgies of the Church in Jerusalem.  In fact the oldest part of the Church's music in lyrical psalmody.  It is, as it were, a bequest left by the Jewish Church, before its fall as a political and religious power to the rising Christian Church.  We are fortunate to have a detailed account of the complete service as it was celebrated in Jerusalem around A.D. 385.  This early source describing the liturgies at the Holy Sepulchre is found in the diary known as the Peregrinatio Etheriae of the famous pilgrim nun from Spain to the Holy Land, the abbess Etheria (formerly called Sylvia or Egeria).  In the 300's she made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and gave a detailed account of the liturgy she found there, mentioning daily processions at the tomb of Christ.  Etheria gives a precious historical report, informing us of the "operatio singulis diebus cotidie in locis sanctis" (the order of the liturgy day by day in the holy places).  Here we find most interesting details of the full Office prayed daily at the Holy Sepulchre (Vigils, Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, and Vespers) with Psalms, Antiphons, Hymns, Lessons, Responds, and Collects.  She also confirms an incipient early cycle of the liturgical year including Christmas, Lent, Holy Week, Palm Sunday, Easter and Pentecost.  While most of the information given by Etheria is of liturgical character, we catch a glimpse of the music that accompanied the processions when she says for nearly every office: "dicuntur ymni et antiphonae aptae diei ipsi" (Hymns and Antiphons proper for the day are said).  Other similar remarks include: "dicuntur ymni et psalmi responduntur, similiter et antiphonae" (Hymns are said, and Psalms are sung with responses, and also Antiphons), or "dicuntur psalmi responsorii, vicibus antiphonae" (responsorial Psalms are said, in alteration with Antiphons).  This all brings to mind the Franciscan procession of today.  The 300's was a time of influence and formation of the liturgies of the Latin and Greek Churches.  It was the century that celebrated the liberation of the Church under Constantine (Edict of Milan, 313), and the century which created the great basilicas, including the Empress Helena's construction of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.  It also inaugurated an artistic development of liturgical chant and processions.  The liturgical forms of the 300's quickly developed and an artistic psalmody spread over the world.  With enthusiasm saints such as Gregory Nazianzen and John Chrysostom spoke of the general psalm-singing of the whole community without distinction of age or sex, and the Council of Nicea allowed the laity to take part in the Church Chant.  Thus the origins of the the procession are from noble antiquity.  From Antioch psalmody in alternating chorus is said to have spread over the whole Christian world, both in Greek and Latin Churches.

Later mention of the procession is found in the fourteenth century, with accounts that it took place on certain days and under certain circumstances.  In those days the procession was held together with other religious communities that were also officiating at the Holy Sepulchre.  By 1431, an Italian pilgrim by the name of Mariano of Siena stated that a procession was held by the Franciscans in their own right.  Historical records indicate that this procession was, although similar to the one held today, a slightly shorter version.  Each station included moments of silent meditation while recalling particular aspects of the passion of Our Lord.  Already included in each processional station were antiphons, a verse and a prayer.  Three stations included a hymn.  Over the years various additions and innovations were made.  Sometime around the year 1623 a definitive revision (Ordo Processionalis) was approved by the Franciscan Fr. Tommaso Obicini, OFM, the Custos of the Holy Land at that time.  This order of procession remained for three-hundred years until slight changes were made in 1925 when the hymns were revised so as to be the same as those found in the Roman Antiphonal, while the number of stations was fixed at fourteen similar to the Stations of the Cross. 

The official name of the daily procession is the Ordo Processionis Quae Hierosolymis In Basilica Sancti Sepulcri Domini Nostri Iesu Christi A Fratribus Minoribus Peragitur Custodia Terrae Sanctae.  The procession consists of 14 stops at various altars to pray, reciting short prayers, versicles, antiphons, parts of psalms, canticles, and hymns.  In the solemn recitation, the prayers are said or sung antiphonally; that is, the verses are taken alternately by each half of the choir of Franciscans as the lay faithful join in, processing behind the dozen or so Franciscan friars leading the procession.  The lay faithful follow with a booklet, while holding for the duration of the procession a lit beeswax candle given to them minutes before the procession begins.  The booklet offers the official Latin text along with translations in English, Italian and Spanish.  Incense is used.  The celebrant is generally a bearded Franciscan dressed in simple surplice with a preaching stole that is interchangeable white - violet.  He is accompanied by a few friars acting as his acolytes, dressed in surplices; two carrying candles and one the thurible.

The procession has special efficacy, because of its power to remit venial sin, the result of God's generous grace prompting the movements of the heart toward Christ's sorrowful passion and things holy, while exciting an increased love and fear of God and contrition for sin.  The Church has also blessed it with special indulgences.  Like the Way of the Cross, the procession is a sacramental, for the spiritual welfare of Catholics, encouraging pious dispositions while preparing the faithful for a more easy and effectual reception of grace.  In fact, prayer is always first among the sacramentals, especially public prayers of the Church such as processions.  The faith of the people is seen in the power illustrated especially in public processions, while holding blessed candles and meditating upon holy things.  The power of the procession is no less seen in the confidence the faithful have in the use of certain sacramentals such as the procession when threatened with danger from nature, pestilence or the elements.  For by permission from God, the evil spirit has certain power over the atmosphere, and is, for that reason, called in the Scripture the "prince of the air" (Ephesians 2:2).  Prayer, fasting and processions are examples of antidotes to curb the power of the evil one. 

The order of procession includes fourteen stations while it winds around the interior of the Basilica, including Mt. Calvary (Martyrium) and the empty tomb of Christ (Anastasis):

I: Ad Altare Sanctissimi Sacramenti (At the Altar of the Most Blessed Sacrament)

II: Ad Columnam Dominicae Flagellationis (At the Pillar of the Scourging of the Lord)

III: Ad Carcerem (At the Prison)

IV: Ad Altare Divisionis Vestimentorum Christi (At the Altar of the Division of Christ's Garments)

V: Ad Cryptam Inventionis S. Crucis (At the Crypt of the Finding of the Cross)

VI: Ad Sacellum S. Helenae (At the Chapel of St. Helen)

VII: Ad Columnam Coronationis et Improperiorum (At the Pillar of the Crowning with Thorns and of the Reproaches)

VIII: In Sacro Monte Calvario ad Locum Crucifixionis Domini Nostri Iesu Christi (At the Place Where Jesus was Nailed to the Cross)

IX: In Sacro Monte Calvario ad Locum Ubi Christus in Cruce Exspiravit (At the Place where Christ Died on the Cross)

X: In Eodem Monte Calvario ad Altare Beatae Maraie Virginis Perdolentis (At the Altar of the Virgin Mary, Mother of Sorrows)

XI: Ad Lapidem Unctionis (At the Site of the Anointing)

XII: Ad Gloriosum Domini Nostri Iesu Christi Sepulcrum (At the Glorious Sepulchre of Our Lord Jesus Christ)

XIII: Ad Locum Ubi Christus Apparuit Mariae Magdalenae (At the Place Where Christ Appeared to Mary Magdalene)

XIV: Ad Sacellum Apparitionis Christi Resurgentis Matri Suae Mariae (At the Chapel of the Apparition of the Risen Christ to His Mother Mary)

The procession is sung in Gregorian melodies.  This art form of Gregorian Chant denotes the universal liturgical chant of the Latin Church, starting from the practice of the first Christian centuries, ordered and fixed under Pope Gregory the Great (+604).  Gregorian Chant spread from thence to all churches of the Roman Liturgy, including Jerusalem, and was used everywhere even today.  One of the many reasons Gregorian Chant is still given pride of place is because it continues to acquire the profound admiration of learned musicians across the globe while being superior to any private or national custom. Meanwhile, the world has always accepted it as specifically liturgical and completely out of place anywhere outside church.  The melodies of the processional chant showcase solo and chorus music, in other words, responsorial and antiphonal music.  The procession, which embodies the tradition of more than 1500 years, still prescribes for certain parts of the service solos, and chorus for other parts.  The chant interprets all the different moods of the passion of Christ, helping to form the chief title to fame of this beautiful procession of the Latin Church.  

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