The Main Altar of the
Church of the Holy
This terminology is a bit confusing, especially that while we do know the floor plan of Constantine’s Basilica and shrine, we do not know the exact layout of the Chapel where the Holy Cross was kept. The Cross itself had been broken into several large pieces after its discovery. One large piece went to Rome; one to Constantinople, and one was retained in Jerusalem. (Several smaller fragments were given to various individuals or sent to other shrines.) The piece of the Cross remaining in Jerusalem was kept in a silver reliquary-chest in a chapel within the Church of the Resurrection built on the site of Calvary. The closeness of Calvary to the Holy Sepulcher is an amazing coincidence—probably less than a two-minute walk—the tomb clearly visible from Calvary and both are under the same roof today. In Aegeria’s day there was an open courtyard separating the Calvary chapel from the Anastasis, or the rotunda of the Holy Sepulcher. But there seems to be no record of the arrangement in the chapel of Calvary. Presumably the Cross was kept on an altar in the style of which the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches still use today—square and freestanding. As it was freestanding, the altar could be approached from any side. Today the altar in that chapel is not free-standing—a real exception in the Orthodox world and even more exceptionally actually faces south rather than east. To the best of my research we do not know the direction of the altar in the Constantinian chapel. The Basilica itself faced west, again a strange phenomenon for a Church built at that time although the Roman Constantinian basilicas, Saint Peter’s on the Vatican, Saint Paul’s on the Via Appia, and Saint John’s in the Lateran were all also western-facing, not oriented.
Whatever the direction of the altar, it seems that the bishop—when celebrating the Eucharist in the chapel at Calvary normally faced the reliquary of the Cross—that is, stood with his back to the people. On Holy Thursday, however, he stood “behind the cross” and probably facing the people on the other side of the reliquary. Why this aberration? I don’t know but can only surmise that it reflects an earlier practice even as the idiosyncrasies of the Holy Week Liturgy in the Tridentine and Modern Roman Rites reflect the purity of the Rite before various accretions were added over the centuries of liturgical development. In other words, as the liturgy changed over the decades and centuries, the ceremonies of Holy Week—because of their ties to the most sacred time of the year—remained relatively unchanged. Thus the Good Friday liturgy with its simple and silent entrance, prostration, and opening prayer, with its series of calls to prayer and collects for the “prayers of the faithful,” its simple communion rite, and its simple dismissal show us not only the Good Friday ritual but the simplicity of the early Roman Rite before the Penitential prayers (originally private prayers of the priest), the Kyrie, Gloria, and other elaborations were added to become part of our everyday Mass.
In the evening all gathered around the Bishop at Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives and scripture lessons were read, a procession proceeds to a second site on the Mountain—one associated with the Ascension—and more scriptures are read—and then back to Gethsemane where the account of Christ’s arrest is read. A slow procession through the night traced the steps of Christ as he was led captive back to Jerusalem.
It is curious that Holy Thursday is rather low key in the ancient Jerusalem Church and that, at least according to Aegeria there was no commemoration of the institution of the Eucharist or of the washing of the feet. Most of our liturgical practices for Maundy Thursday including the procession of the Eucharist to the Repository date from the medieval period and were unknown in the ancient Church. Good Friday, on the other hand, is today much as it is described by Aegeria.