12 On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, “Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” 13 So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, 14 and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 15 He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.” 16 So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal. [Mark 14:12-16, NRSV]
The Upper Room at Mount Zion; Pelicans feed on their mother’s blood on a column (Photo credit: Dr. LL Chan).
Undoubtedly the most important room in Christendom, the Upper Room (Mark 14:15; Luke 22:12), also known as the Cenacle, is located in the Old City of Jerusalem on Mount Zion, directly above the Tomb of David and just a stone’s throw from the Dormition Abbey.
This Cenacle room is where two major events that stood at the very origin of the Church happened: The Last Supper and the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles. They have sustained and driven the life and mission of the Church ever since. The Last Supper was the meal Jesus shared with his apostles the night before he died. During this meal he instituted the Eucharist which the Roman Catholic Church has doctrinally and spiritually recognized as the “source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium 11). The descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is recognised as marking the birth of the Christian Church.
The site we visited was actually built by the Crusaders between 12th-14th centuries, which accounts for the existing Gothic-era columns. Visitors can easily visualize that the original place of the Last Supper would have been a simple dining hall, altogether quite different from artistic representations of a plush room with ornate decorations.
A slender marble column supporting a stone canopy from among the architectural details of the Crusader period remains a stunning and attractive feature for us. It features a stone carving in the capital at the top of the column two young pelicans feeding on the blood their mother has drawn from her chest. This is a powerful symbol of Christ giving his blood for the salvation of humankind and is very apt for the very room where Jesus instituted the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. This reminds us that in some churches in Europe, a statue or picture of a pelican sits in place of a sacrificial lamb.
The Turks who captured Jerusalem in the 16th century converted the room into a mosque in memory of the prophet David. Its mihrab (a niche indicating the direction of Mecca) and stained-glass windows with Arabic inscriptions remain. As with many things relative to Christian holy sites in Israel, the modern situation is complicated: Above this room is a Muslim minaret, and below it is the Tomb of David.
Within the very walls of this rather plain, empty space with columns, crucial events happened two millennia ago, conspicuous amongst which are the Last Supper and the coming of the Holy Spirit. We need quiet and peace to reflect in that space, but the heavy tourist traffic, coupled with a charismatic prayer group from Africa conducting a pretty loud prayer-healing service during our visit to this biblical site this time round, all but emptied any desire we had to pray.
Given the time to reflect, as was the case ten years ago on our first visit, one could easily make the connection that at this Cenacle, the Lord Jesus had given great gifts to individuals and to the Church that he left behind.
- Jesus washed his disciples’ feet (John 13:1-20) to demonstrate who he was (“Lord and Teacher”) and what he intended his disciples to do (“do as I have done to you” and be “blessed if you do them”). Jesus’ words and actions symbolized for his disciples the ministry of humble and loving service by which he desired to see his disciples do. So in John’s presentation of Jesus’ Last Supper discourses (John 14—16) at the Cenacle, the concept of a loving friendship with Jesus was introduced that gave the disciples a glimpse into the beautiful prayer of Jesus, sometimes known as the “high priestly prayer” in John 17.
- This is where the Crucified and Risen Lord appeared twice after resurrection, first in the absence of Thomas and later in his presence, allowing Thomas’ faith to emerge upon the Lord making visible his wounds for Thomas and the disciples to see and touch.
- Here, too, the Risen Lord breathed on them the Holy Spirit “on the evening of that first day of the week” (John 20:19).
- When the apostles were in Jerusalem, they stayed at this place (Acts 1:13); it is also the place where they gathered in fear after the death of Jesus and prayed, with Mary, for the coming of the Holy Spirit (John 20:19–23). It is where tongues of fire appeared to them on Pentecost and “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4). That event of the descent of the Holy Spirit marks the birthday of the Church in the presence of our Blessed Mother (Acts 1:14).
- The gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church – the community of all the faithful, that is – is so important not only for the diversity of charisms amongst the members of the Church, the Body of Christ, a legitimate God-ordained diversity which is often enough forgotten, neglected, or even blasphemously ignored. Even more importantly we must clearly see, is that we believe in the Church, as we profess every Sunday in corporate worship, because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church. But for the presence and the sustenance of the Holy Spirit in the Church who energises the faith of the rest of the 99.9% of the Body of Christ blasphemously identified as “the lay”, the regularly terrible homilies the laity are subjected to, the colossal scandals in clerical paedophilia and financial mismanagement, and the widespread ministerial incompetence and indifference, would have long brought her down.
- Then, one can note with excitement that it is from the Upper Room that the apostles first went forth with boldness sharing the Good News. Which in part explains why, in teaching Christology, we have chosen as our favourite point of departure St Peter’s spirited Pentecostal speech to “devout men from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:8) gathered in Jerusalem:
- “This Jesus whom you crucified, God has raised him up and made him both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). At the Resurrection, the man Jesus of Nazareth was made Lord and Christ.
So important is this room to Christians that it is quite unthinkable that it is not within our control. And yet, the reality is that, with the Jews and the Muslims also claiming the Cenacle’s great significance for their religions, it is, as are many things and places in the Holy Land, caught at the center of political controversy. Under Israeli control since 1948, normally only “visits” are allowed to this place. On some occasions, Mass could be celebrated in the Upper Room, but it is not common and is done only with permission.
During his Holy Land Pilgrimage, Pope Francis celebrated the Eucharist at the Upper Room on 26 May 2014. In his homily, the Pope highlighted three major events that took place in that sacred space:
- “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 she was born to go forth.”
And he stressed the fruitfulness of Jesus’ love that flowed from that Room:
- “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.”
So much of the life of the Church today flows from the power unleashed in the Upper Room. Indeed, the events that took place there continue to ferment and stir at the heart of our faith today, bearing significant and grace-filled personal effects on every baptized Christian. Whenever we do take the time to speak and listen to Christ, we can experience his life-giving, sacramental, and transformative presence in the Upper Room. The graces that originated in the events within that sacred space continue to transform us through the life of the Church today, creating for us a spiritual home where souls may be welcomed and nurtured. In particular, we spotlight three points, amongst myriad other points, for reflection.
First, the Upper Room exposes our weak humanity and the Lord’s patient love.
- The Cenacle is so much more than a simple room in Jerusalem. To this very place the apostles had retreated from the world to be with Jesus at an excruciating and critical time of his life. It is here they must have listened with captivated attention, for they would later pass on for generations and generations to our time the mysteries revealed by the Lord. Above all, it was here that they were equipped to carry out the kingdom-building mission for which they had been called. But first, we need to pause and face their, and thus our own, human weaknesses. Having spent so much time with the Lord in that holy place, the apostles’ various personalities were exposed for our instructions, particularly at the Last Supper. For it was here that Jesus predicted Judas’s betrayal and Peter’s denial (John 13:21–30, 36–38) and exposed Thomas’s doubt (John 20:24– 29). And it was to this place that they ran and hid themselves from the religious authorities after Jesus was arrested, tortured, and killed. Do we not resonate with their cowardice so embarrassingly displayed for our education in the Gospels? Does their very humanity displayed in the Upper Room not give us a glimpse into our own hearts and nature? And yet, through all that colossal failure, the grace of God prevailed. While our faithfulness, constantly under challenge, often comes up short, the unrelenting love of Jesus Christ for his followers remains ever steadfast. He forgives and forgives. He came back after the resurrection to bring peace and courage to the very same disciples who betrayed him. He left again, but only to send forth the Holy Spirit who will not let us fail completely.
Second, the Upper Room teaches us apostolic zeal.
- The Spirit that descended at Pentecost in that Upper Room came to ignite the whole world. From this room, filled with the Holy Spirit, the early disciples would leave to change the world with the Gospel of love. The Holy Spirit has certainly sustained the missionary zeal of the Church to the present day. As Paul and Barnabas proclaimed the Gospel to the Gentiles: “For so the Lord has commanded us, ‘I have made you a light to the Gentiles, that you may be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth’” (Acts 13:47). We cannot just receive the Holy Spirit at baptism, renewed at confirmation, and refuse to be salt of the earth and light for the world.
Third, the Upper Room reminds us of our call to humble service.
- At the washing of feet on Holy Thursday, we catch a glimpse of the “servant leadership” Christ taught his disciples to practise. “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master” (John 13:14-16). For he has earlier taught them not to behave as the rulers do to the Gentiles, by lording it over them. “Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave” (Matthew 20:25–27).
With Ash Wednesday coming up on the 6th of March this year, we have scheduled the next few posts to tie in with the season of Lent and Easter. While we all hope to journey closely with the Lord this season, we also look for and thank you for your spiritual company.
Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, March 2019. All rights reserved.
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