For us Christians the Upper Room is at the heart of our life. There is the place where our Lord celebrated the Last Supper, there he knelt down to wash the feet of the Twelve, there he instituted the Sacrament of the Mass, His Body and His Blood with us and for us till the end of time, there the Apostles were ordained, there the Priesthood of the new and eternal Covenant established and from there the Lord left to enter into his passion. There too the gathered Church received the Holy Spirit on the glorious day of Pentecost. In that room all promises were fulfilled and the Church was sent to proclaim the Good News to all the world. There too, according to an ancient tradition, Our Lady ended her earthly life.
Some years ago negotiations between the Holy See and the State of Israel about that Room were taken up. The idea is that the Upper Room is passed on to be part of the Christian Catholic Patrimony so that the pilgrims can celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass once more, in that same place where the first Mass ever was celebrated by the Lord himself.
The last Mass to be celebrated there was in the year 2000 when by special concession Blessed John Paul II was allowed to celebrate. This was not conceded to the Servant of God Paul VI in 1964 nor to the present Pontiff in 2009.
The issue seems to be one that is inherent to the Holy Land. Jerusalem is sacred to three faiths and many of the Shrines are within proximity. For the Middle Eastern temperament this is a cause of anxiety and tension. The Upper Room is an example if any was needed. Upstairs is the room we mentioned so sacred for us. Immediately below is a synagogue where the Jews venerate the tomb of King David.
The presence of a Judeo-Christian community in this place is most ancient. The Synagogue of the Christians on Mount Sion, according to archeologists and first hand sources, was one of the few buildings in Jerusalem spared by emperor Hadrian when during the second Hebrew revolt of the 2nd century AD raised Jerusalem to the ground.
It is certain that by the 4th century AD a Byzantine basilica was well established on this site. The tomb of David was only a “discovery” of the crusader period. In 1167, Rabbi Abraham of Jerusalem recounted how 16 years before, a wall of the church underneath the Basilica of the Upper Room gave way to reveal two richly ornamented tombs believed to be that of Solomon and David. Since then problems for Christians regarding that holy site never ceased, as it became a site holy for the Jews and also for the Muslims as King David is also mentioned in the Koran.
After the fall of the Christian Kingdom, Christians maintained the control of that site. In 1335, the Franciscan Friars bought the Upper Room, which served as the first headquarters for the Custody of the Holy Land. In 1523, the friars were expelled from the Upper Room and Mount Zion as the Muslims believed that Christian prayers were profaning a site made holy by the tomb of David. The Franciscans acquired a property immediately next the Upper Room as soon as they could. These faithful custodians of the Holy sites never let their eye go off that sanctuary or any other sanctuary of the Holy Land.
After the 1948 war, this part of Jerusalem came under Israeli command and the Tomb of David became a place of Israeli identity. A yeshivà (Rabbinic school) was established within the complex. The question about juridic ownership has however remained open; the Franciscans claim ownership of the Upper Room on the basis of the acquisition in 1335.
Paradoxical but true to the social climate of the Holy Land is the fact that Israeli archeologists have shown that the tomb in the lower floor of the Upper Room is very improbable to be that of David, and according to the sacred texts (IKgs), he was buried in another part of Jerusalem, but tradition is stronger then archeology in Jerusalem.
It is important, I think, to point out that the Catholic Church is only seeking the title to the Upper Room and not over the Israeli complex and/or the tomb of David. It can easily work; it is possible, a scenario where these two great traditions can work and worship and celebrate their identity side by side. Who knows…maybe one day in the Upper Room we can partake in the celebration of that Holy Mystery that knows its inception in that sacred place.
Let us pray for those on both sides of the negotiating table. Let us pray for the Christians in Jerusalem and let us support them as best as we can and especially by prayer. I have two intentions for this Lent. One is for the success of the Year of Faith and the other is for the Holy Land and especially the Custody. Would you consider to join me?