Combine one of the holiest and solemn times in the Christian calendar (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter) with one of the happiest and noisiest holidays on the Jewish calendar (Purim), at the only place holy to Christians, Jews, and Muslims (the area around David’s Tomb on Mt. Zion), and it could be a recipe for trouble.
But there was hardly any, thanks to the Israeli Police and volunteers from the Window on Mount Zion project.
Instead, hundreds of Christian pilgrims gathered in the Room of the Last Supper in the David’s Tomb complex to watch Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, ofm, Franciscan, Custos of the Holy Land for the Vatican, perform a traditional foot-washing ceremony for 12 outstanding students from the Arabic-speaking Catholic community in Jerusalem. This is one of the five prayers that Christians are allowed to say in the Room of the Last Supper according to current agreements. The ceremony re-enacts Jesus’ actions before the Last Supper, when he is said to have washed the feet of his twelve disciples, which took place on the Thursday before Easter. The ceremony symbolizes modesty.
This year, Holy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter, in the Catholic and Protestant calendars fell on the Jewish holiday of Purim. (Holy Thursday and Easter come much later on the Christian Orthodox calendars.). Purim in Jerusalem is celebrated a day after most others (called Shushan Purim), so the traditional reading of the Scroll of Esther (Megilat Esther) at the synagogue in the David’s Tomb complex was scheduled to take place shortly after the foot-washing ceremony. Since Purim is often accompanied by loud and joyous celebrations, there was indeed great potential for inter-religious tensions and clashes.
Because both were important events for each religion, Window on Mt. Zion volunteers were on hand to help the pilgrims and tourists who had come to Jerusalem from all over Jerusalem, Israel and throughout the world, giving them explanations and helping the police make sure that order was kept.
The ceremony began with a traditional procession that began at the New Gate, through Zion Gate and ended at the Room of the Last Supper. The procession was accompanied by Kavasses, ceremonial guards that have been accompanying religious processionals since Ottoman times.
There were a few challenges, but the police, assisted by “Window” volunteers, did a superb job of keeping order. A small number of Jews demonstrated against having the ceremony next to David’s Tomb. In addition, demonstrators played shofarot (traditional ram’s horns) through speakers in order to disrupt the ceremony. The police worked quickly to regain quiet. In the video below you can hear the shofarot outside, but inside the ceremony continued as planned.
The ceremony ended after about an hour, and that same speaker system this time blasted lively Purim songs. These songs actually created a lighter atmosphere and reminded us all that Jews and Christians were celebrating important holidays at the same location. A number of Jewish residents expressed regret that attempts were made to disrupt the Christian service, further adding to this atmosphere of peaceful coexistence. Shortly after the end of the foot-washing ceremony, Jews gathered in the synagogue at David’s Tomb for the reading of Megilat Esther.
Here’s a few minutes of the ceremony: