The Upper Room – Cenacle or Coenaculum – is located above David’s Tomb in the part of Jerusalem referred to as Mt. Zion. It is popular with Catholic pilgrims but not many Protestants find the time to visit it. And because of David’s Tomb the area is dotted with Jewish yeshivot. The Coenaculum has a pivotal role in the events of the Holy Week or Week of the Passion.
According to Matthew 26:17-19 “On the first day of the Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus saying, ‘Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?’ He said, ‘Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples’”. So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal”.
Mark 14:12-15 actually elaborates with the addition that it was on the first day of Unleavened Bread, “when the Passover lamb is sacrificed”. He further indicates that Jesus sent two of his disciples – not identified – to the city to meet a man carrying a jar of water and to “follow him, 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?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there”.
Thus, we have the Upper Room or Coenaculum.
In Luke 22:7-13 the two disciples are identified: Peter and John.
In Jerusalem, one experiences the Passover as a present celebration. Before I went to Jerusalem, biblical stories gave this sense of something that happened in the past, say, in Jesus’ time.
Where would I have seen the hunt for, and the burning of hametz or yeast? It is not even in the New Testament. Yet, the richness of Jewish holidays and festivals, their historical background, and the importance of teaching that history to generation after generation, all combine to make that history alive and a present reality.
The Hunt for Hametz
Many How-to books have been written on the subject of hunting for hametz, or yeast. There are also board games for children. It is serious business and was quite amusing for us goyim as we did not know all the fuss about yeast.
The hunt begins at nightfall on the evening of the 14th of Nissan. There is also a prayer that one must recite before beginning the hunt: Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, asher kidishanu bi’mitzvotav, vi’tzivanu al bi’ur hametz which means, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe; Who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us about removing the hametz.
In our neighborhood of Rehov Haneviim – Prophets Street – and Mea Shearim, there were bonfires and excitement that accompanied the burning of hametz. I still feel that it was quite a unique experience – one of many such unique experiences in the Land of the Bible.
No yeast is to be found in a Jewish home during the festival of Unleavened Bread. Preparing the Upper Room for celebration of Passover would have included hunting for hametz.
What about the Passover Meal?
Before I left for the spring semester at the Swedish Theological Institute, the thesis I was working on for my degree at the seminary was on near death experiences and I had read a lot of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s research on the subject. In Jerusalem, when I was exposed to the whole Passover Motif, I was convinced that the Last Supper was indeed a Jewish Seder Meal and decided to change the topic of my thesis.
Nobody in Tanzania had heard of a Jewish Seder Meal except for some missionary professors at the seminary. There were no Jews in Tanzania to my knowledge. Thus the whole thesis was a novelty but there could not have been a better place for my research than Jerusalem.
By the time I was back at the seminary as a professor and for years later – as far as I know – after I left again for Jerusalem, my thesis became a research reference.
Jesus transformed the Seder Meal celebration in the Upper Room into the Last Supper. Many churches around the world observe Maundy Thursday with Holy Communion in remembrance of the Last Supper. Such observances include the Washing of Feet, following Jesus’ example in John 13:1-17
Obviously, many people wish that in Jerusalem all the Christians would come together in unity, in the Upper Room for the Washing of Feet and the Last Supper. But no, the Upper Room is not at all large as the Gospels tell us, and secondly – unfortunately – in Jerusalem every Christian communion is determined to preserve its identity.
For the Greek Orthodox, the Greek Patriarch leads the ceremony of the Washing of Feet at the courtyard of the Holy Sepulchre. The Franciscans, custodians of the Upper Room, have the ceremony in the Upper Room and later at the Saint Savior Church. The Latin Patriarch, on the other hand, leads the ceremony inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The rest of the Christian communities hold ceremonies in their respective churches.
In the evening of Maundy Thursday, the various Christian communities leave in processions, from their respective churches to the Basilica of Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane for scripture reading in different languages.
It is a unique experience to be in the Garden of Gethsemane, under the thousand-year-old olive trees, and to reflect that Jesus possibly sat under the same tree, in prayer and agony. While there you are also reminded of Jesus charging Peter and the Zebedee brothers – James and John – to keep vigil with him but, inebriated with wine from the Last Supper, they could not stay awake with him one hour.
This is not even the crescendo yet. Not far from Gethsemane is the church of St. Peter in Gallicantu believed to stand on the site of the High Priest Caiaphas’ house. On Maundy Thursday the church is open most of the night.
There, in the dungeon, Jesus was held on that final night before he was handed over to Pontius Pilate the following morning. There too, before the crowd that had gathered around a bonfire for Jesus’ trial by the religious authorities, Peter denied him three times. At St. Peter in Gallicantu I asked myself many times how many times I deny Jesus. There too, I was reminded so many times of Jesus’ grace and the assurance of forgiveness, just like Peter.