Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Chapel of the Ascension: the Roof and the Ruins

The worst thing was the roof; the best things were the ruins.  These were my thoughts as I stood at the chapel of the Ascension on the summit of the Mount of Olives.  This has been a site of Christian meeting for centuries, the place where they gathered to commemorate the Ascension of Christ into heaven.   Before this site was built, Christians gathered in the Eleona (Greek for “olive grove”), the Church built in the fourth century over the cave on the Mount of Olives where Christ sat with His four disciples Peter, James, John, and Andrew and spoke of the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world (see Mk. 13).  Of this spacious and splendid Eleona church built over the cave, only fragments remain, near the so-called “Church of the Pater Noster”.  But in the early fourth century, the Eleona flourished as the place where the Christians of Jerusalem met to commemorate the Ascension of Christ.  Later a place was built nearby, at the present “chapel of the Ascension”, and it was to this site that the pilgrim Egeria went later in the fourth century to commemorate the Ascension.  In her day it was not a church, but a mere circular colonnade at the summit of the Mount of Olives, a place to sit that was open to the sky.  She called it “the Imbomen”, from the Greek “en bouno”, “on the hillock”, and it was a fairly modest structure.  Later a member of the Imperial family enlarged the Imbomen so that was functioned as an actual church.  It was later destroyed by the Persians in the invasion of 614, and later still by the Muslims. 

All that is left of that larger church now are the ruins, along with the original Imbomen structure, which stands about three meters by three meters.  In Egeria’s day in the fourth century, this structure was open to the sky, and one could stand in its center and look upward to heaven, and remember how Christ ascended to the Father.  The Muslims have bricked up the spaces between the columns of the Imbomen, and put up a roof overtop it.  They now charge a small fee for Christians to enter and look at its empty, unadorned interior.  

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