As Holy Week comes to a close, one priest’s telling of the familiar Easter story is a little different.
Father Eamon Kelly, L.C., Vice Chargé at the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, welcomed the week with an impromptu rundown of the biblical significance of the Old City’s sites, a tour of the center’s Shroud of Turin exhibition; and silly anecdotes gleaned from past tours. He covered Mark Twain’s opinions of the Old City, drunken Irish tour groups who enjoyed singing hymns — and Jesus’ trip to Bethany for tea and scones.
Kelly will tell you that although Israel is undoubtedly the Promised Land, he was born in the Holy Land — Ireland.
From the roof of the Notre Dame center, which overlooks the Old City, Kelly’s brogue came out as he pointed out that the roof had no formal name.
“We should invent a fancy name right now,” he said. “We could call it the ‘Old City View Terrace.’”
Kelly promised a three-minute rundown of the Holy Week and Easter, complete with an explanation of how the sites in Jerusalem and the Old City played in — but he needed a rehearsal first, he said.
“I will show you the entire Bible history and geography from our roof in three minutes,” he said.
He pointed out the Dome of the Rock first.
“Everyone knows the Dome of the Rock,” he said. “It’s what is on all the Jerusalem postcards.”
The site is particularly significant for Christians and Jews, he said, because it is where Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac, more than 3,000 years ago.
Next on the tour was Mount Nebo, where Moses stood and looked at the Promised Land — but don’t be too hasty on estimating the timing, Kelly said.
“Abraham was 3,800 years ago, so Moses was many years after,” he said. “We need [to account for] hundreds of years in Egypt.”
Kelly pointed out other sites, including the Mount of Olives, the Kidron Valley, the Dead Sea and the Garden of Gethsemane. He admitted that the visual tour from the rooftop did leave out a few spots, including Egypt, Babylon and Galilee — but for the most part, the view allowed a complete story to be told.
“Are you happy?” he said. “You can see the entire Bible’s history and geography from the rooftop of the Notre Dame.”
Kelly gives this rooftop tour often, and he says his telling is not meant to be irreverent. Rather, he hopes his use of humor will allow the story to touch his audiences. And if a particular group might be less likely to enjoy the jokes, he makes sure to dial them back.
In most cases, pilgrims who come to Jerusalem and experience Kelly’s telling of the Easter story and the Bible’s history enjoy it — sometimes, so much that they’ll break out into song.
“There was an Irish group,” Kelly recalled. “They’d had a couple drinks and were happy to sing.”
He rarely joins them, though; at one point, he said, a choir director told Kelly he could sing only if there was a large choir around him and he kept his volume low.
Moving from his Bible history tour to his Holy Week spiel, Kelly pointed out another important site: Bethany, or al-Eizariya, known for being the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and the place where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead soon before his own death.
Although it may seem like a long trip, Kelly estimated that Jesus could have made the walk from Jerusalem to Bethany in a half hour or less.
Jesus went to Bethany “for coffee and cake — or, if you’re English, tea and scones — with Mary, Martha and Lazarus,” Kelly said. Next came his entrance into Jerusalem, which thousands of people commemorated this week, as they have for years, with a trip down the Mount of Olives and into the Old City on Palm Sunday.
Using his hand to map out routes, Kelly pointed out where Jesus would have had the Last Supper before being taken prisoner, brought before the high priest Caiaphas, scourged and crowned with thorns and eventually walked up to Calvary and hung on the cross.
“We celebrate the resurrection here, 200 yards away,” he said. “That gives the pilgrims goosebumps.”
One of the most interesting aspects of the Old City, Kelly said, is its size — at just several kilometers around, it is much smaller than it would seem, given its historical significance.
“Mark Twain was here, and he said, ‘This city is so miserable. It’s so small. You can walk it in less than an hour,’” Kelly said.
Indeed, the Old City is unique for an area that amounts to a “little sardine box,” the priest said. Often, visitors are surprised at the fact that Jews, Christians and Muslims live there in close proximity.
“They aren’t hugging and saying ‘I love you,’” he qualified, “but there’s peace — ‘You leave me alone, and I’ll leave you alone.’ In other cities, they would be murdering each other, but I’d say this city is one of the safest places in the world to be.”
Continuing the tour, which took a serious turn as Kelly described Jesus’ crucifixion, the priest directed the group inside to the center’s exhibition on the Shroud of Turin, which many believe was used to wrap Jesus’ body after his crucifixion.
“Come in, ladies; come in, troublemakers,” he said, before offering several options for a tour of the exhibition: his three-hour presentation, his three-minute rundown or his three-day summary.
The exhibition, which includes a full-size, 14-foot replica of the cloth, is housed at the Notre Dame center and is free to visit. Kelly outlined much of the shroud’s history and various discoveries and beliefs about it. They included a carbon-dating test that placed the cloth’s origin between 1200 and 1400 — centuries after Jesus’ death — but was later deemed inconclusive, and some people’s belief that Leonardo da Vinci, known for his lifelike human depictions, created the image on the cloth.
A photographer, Secondo Pia, took photos of the shroud in the late 1800s and found that the negatives showed the image of a man’s body on the shroud much more clearly.
“This is the negative,” Kelly pointed out. “When you have 15-year-olds, you have to explain what the negative is.”
He continued, “I have to say, ‘Leonardo, gimme five! You put a photographic negative on 14 feet of cloth.’”
Kelly discussed a Hebrew University botany professor named Avinoam Danin, who has discovered many new plants and who found hundreds of plant images on the shroud, many of which bloom in March and April, the time of Jesus’ crucifixion.
“I want to introduce you to my friend, Professor Avinoam Danin,” Kelly said. “His name is on 42 plants. How many plants are named after you? One lady (on an earlier tour) said, ‘I’m Rose!’”
As the laughter died down, Kelly closed the tour on a serious note, showing a bronze statue created by Italian sculptor Luigi E. Mattei, depicting the man of the shroud.
“How do you read his face?” Kelly said. “Is he angry? Is he bitter? Is he looking for revenge? Can you put peace on like a jacket, or does peace come from inside?”
He concluded, “How much did I ask you to believe? The ball is in your court.”
Holy Week began with Palm Sunday and ended on Easter, whose date was shared by all Christian denominations this year because of the calendar’s timing, said Father Juan María Solana, L.C., Chargé of The Holy See at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center.
“For this reason, the attention of all the Christians in the world — wherever they are, wherever they live, wherever they celebrate Easter — will be considering and reflecting on these names: Gethsemane, Via Dolorosa, Calvary, Church of the Holy Sepulchre,” he said. “Two billion people this year will be thinking about Jerusalem and these holy sites.”