Something that had been growing for centuries when Jesus walked the earth has been transformed into a focal point for the downstairs Undercroft of the renewed Cathedral of St. Joseph.
While on pilgrimage to the Holy Land last year, Bishop W. Shawn McKnight acquired an elaborate depiction of the Last Supper, carved from the trunk of a 3,000-year-old olive wood tree.
“This gives our Cathedral a clear and noticeable connection to the Holy Land, the birthplace of our Savior and of our faith,” said Bishop McKnight.
The five-foot-wide wood-carving is a gift to the diocese from a benefactor.
It intricately depicts Jesus, the 12 Apostles, their meal and the walls and roof of the cenacle.
Captured are complex contours of the table and food, the folds of each person’s garments, and the complexity of facial expressions and body language.
Several of the Apostles seem utterly exhausted, suggesting that they could easily fall asleep in the garden instead of praying with Jesus.
Bishop McKnight found the sculpture in a shop in Bethlehem, Jesus’s birthplace.
Three generations of wood-carvers — a father, a son and a grandson — had collaborated on the piece.
Bishop McKnight determined that the artwork would be ideal for the renovated Undercroft, which has been renamed Cana Hall.
“Whenever we gather for fellowship or a celebration in this renewed space, it will remind us of the centrality of the Eucharist and of Jesus’s command for us to love one another, just as he loves us,” said Bishop McKnight.
While in the Holy Land last October, the bishop and his fellow pilgrims visited the Upper Room in Jerusalem, where Jesus celebrated the Passover with his friends; the garden where he prayed that night and was arrested the following morning; the place where he was scourged and condemned to death; his doleful Way of the Cross from the city to Calvary; and the place of his crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection.
In a most-unexpected turn of events, Bishop McKnight got to offer Mass in the empty tomb — the place where Jesus’s lifeless body was laid on Good Friday, and from which he rose to life on Easter Sunday.
The tomb, which is now inside the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulchre, includes a preparation area, next to a small doorway carved into rock.
“You have to stoop down, and that’s actually above where the body lay,” he said. “That’s were the altar is. There’s room maybe for only two or three people.”
Being there made him reflect on how Jesus could only have risen from the dead after completely giving of himself completely.
“That’s something Mary, his mother, showed him,” the bishop stated. “And it’s the same thing for us: Christian life is a life of giving back, of emptying yourself, and that is how we become whole.”
Across the Valley
Moments of contemplation can be rare gifts in places that draw so many pilgrims.
“It’s a very hustle-and-bustle place,” Bishop McKnight noted. “But all of a sudden, you get into the site, and it’s overwhelming.”
He was particularly moved by visiting the place venerated as the cenacle where the Last Supper took place on Holy Thursday and where the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles on Pentecost.
“It’s ensconced over what was probably the original site,” the bishop said.
In another unexpected moment, Bishop McKnight and his fellow pilgrims celebrated Mass in the Dominus Flevit Chapel on the Mount of Olives.
“Dominus Flevit” is Latin for “The Lord wept.”
A curtain of glass behind the altar affords a view across the valley to where the Temple in Jerusalem once stood.
“Taking in that entire view was just incredible,” said Bishop McKnight.
The group also participated in Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament in the Church of All Nations in Gethsemane, the garden where Jesus prayed the night before he died.
“When we got there, lo and behold, I was the only bishop there!” he recalled.
“They had me preside,” he said. “Before I imparted the Benediction blessing, everyone present processed out and through the Garden of Gethsemane. What a beautiful, prayerful experience it was!”
Hearts still burning
Before leaving the Holy Land, the pilgrims stopped at one of the two churches venerated as the site of Jesus’s incognito encounter with two disciples on the Road to Emmaus on Easter Sunday.
There, he opened their minds and hearts to the Scriptures that referred to him and the need for him to die and rise.
There also, they recognized him in the breaking of the bread.
“There is a French community of religious monks and sisters that have custody of that site,” Bishop McKnight noted. “We participated in the first part of their sung Vespers in the twilight. It was quite beautiful.”
He carries these experiences with him now each time he celebrates Mass.
“Your imagination is always at work when you listen to the Scriptures being read,” he said. “But once you’ve been to the Holy Land you’ve actually seen the places and you now have a historical frame of reference.
“And I see more clearly now how our celebration of the Eucharist is the connection we have with those who have gone before us,” he said.