Every Holy Land pilgrim needs this book

Franciscan fryers and Catholic clergy carry palm branches as they circle the edicule during the Palm Sunday procession at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Getty Images)

I have just been re-reading sections of the classic work by Fr A.G Sertillanges: What Jesus Saw from the Cross (Sophia Press). I first wrote about this book, first published in 1930, at this time last year. It is well worth revisiting. Sertillanges had spent a year in Jerusalem in 1923 and this inspired his reflections. As he wrote in his Prologue on the evening of Holy Thursday, “On the terrace of the Greeks overlooking the atrium of the Holy Sepulchre, a few paces from the great dome, is a small stone cupola surmounted by a cross. It can be reached quite easily and you may stand there and linger. If you now face Jerusalem, which is spread before your eyes, making allowances for the changes operated by time, you are confronted with the same panorama as met the gaze of the divine Master.”

Moving from the Upper Room to the Mount of Olives and reflecting on the passers-by, Jesus’s loved ones, his enemies, his tomb and concluding with his thoughts on heaven, Sertillanges takes the reader quietly but intensely through the whole drama of Jesus’s mission, culminating in his last days on earth. Every pilgrim to the Holy Land and in particular to Jerusalem should take a copy with them.

Meanwhile, as yesterday was Palm Sunday, recalling Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, I will refer to the author’s thoughts on the crowd who cheered Jesus on that occasion and who later called for his blood. This crowd has always had a bad press. I am reminded of Kierkegaard’s comment, “Where there is a crowd, there is untruth.” However, Sertillanges reminds us not to be too hard “on a mob which was so fickle and finally so cruel. For it is to them that we owe these last days of Jesus.”

What does he mean? He explains: “True, they acclaimed His death, and if it wasn’t for them perhaps Pilate would not have given way to the Sanhedrin. But this last point is not certain, and on the other hand it is certain that if the enthusiasm of Palm Sunday and the earlier popularity had not formed a bulwark around the Teacher, Jesus would soon have fallen victim to His task.”

Sertillanges then points out, “How many times might His career otherwise have been cut short! The traps that had been set for Him failed because He had the sympathy and the support of His audience. His reputation was His safeguard. If the crowds had remained silent, would His most convincing repartees have carried the day?”

He continues, “And when he ventured to drive the sellers out of the Temple, would they have been content merely to ask, “By what authority dost thou these things?” if He had not been supported by the crowd? One did not touch the Temple with impunity, even to purify it. Still less, without the risk of death, could one interfere with sacrosanct reputations and with privileges from which the whole of the ruling caste derived its profits.”

As always, the Gospels give rise to an infinity of thoughts, further insights and shafts of understanding for those prepared to ponder these things, like Our Lady, in the heart.