Revisiting the Upper Room

‘And when they were come in, they went up into an upper room . . . ‘ (Acts 1:13)

The Day of Pentecost marks the birth of the apostolic Church of the New Testament. According to the Lukan narrative in the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Ghost swept into the Upper Room where the disciples abode and where the disciples gathered with the female followers and relatives of Christ, including His mother. In this sacred space, cloven tongues of fire appeared above those who tarried for the Father’s promise, and they were filled with the Holy Ghost, speaking in other tongues. In this dramatic moment, the everlasting Church was established, and the Upper Room became one of the most hallowed sites of Christianity.

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Today, pilgrims and tourists daily fill a 45’ x 29.5 ‘Gothic room built in the 14th century to commemorate the descent of the Spirit following Christ’s resurrection. In Catholic tradition the Upper Room is known as the Cenacle, derived from a Latin word for dining and is believed to be the site of the Last Supper and the place where the Apostles gathered and lived. As such, the ancient building that stood in the chapel’s place was the site of many of the most important events in the Gospel, including the washing of the disciples’ feet, the appearance of Christ after His resurrection, and the ratification of Matthias as a replacement for Judas Iscariot (Meagher 232). The Upper Room is hailed as the epicenter of formative Christianity and the worldwide revival that emanated from the initial descent of the Holy Ghost in Acts 2.1-4.

Eusebius (d. 339), who chronicled early Christian history, is credited with identifying the site as the “Holy Church of God.” In his Catechetical Lectures, Cyril (d. 386) called the building “the Upper Church of the Apostles.” Epiphanus (d. 403), who was Bishop of Caesarea, said that the small church survived the decimating attacks of Titus and Hadrian on Jerusalem. Theodosius called the Cenacle “mater omnium ecclesarium,” the “Mother of all Churches.”

Following the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., it was St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, who went to Jerusalem in an effort to rediscover the ancient Christian landmarks. Under her direction, the Cenacle was purified and consecrated, and masses were said in the small church (Meagher 233). In 350 A.D., the church was restored; and in 390, a large basilica known as Hagia Sion (Holy Zion) was erected nearby (Lussier 332-333). The traditional Upper Room became a cathedral and flourished until 636 A.D., when Jerusalem was overtaken by the Moslem invaders. Omar, cousin of the Mohammed, negotiated with the Jerusalem Christians and allowed them to retain the Cenacle as a church, but the influence of Christianity was stymied by the Moslem occupancy (Meagher 233).

When the Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099, they found the Upper Room and Holy Zion in ruins. A Romanesque structure was erected at the site of the basilica, but this was again destroyed by invaders when the Sultan of Damascus conquered Jerusalem in 1219 (Lussier 332-333).

In 1342, the Franciscans were granted perpetual custody of the Cenacle by a papal bull issued by Clement VI. The order erected the present Gothic chapel. Interestingly, during the Byzantine period, it became popularly believed that King David was also entombed at the site of the Upper Room. When the occupying Moslems learned of the tradition, Suliman the Magnificent, hastily ejected the Franciscans, an effort to protect the sacred soil of David’s bones. In a missal to the Governor of Damascus, he wrote:

By the receipt of this august and imperial sign, know that by the request addressed to our Sublime Porte we have been made aware that near to the noble city of Jerusalem there is the tomb of the Prophet David . . . and that the convent and church of Mount Sion, possessed and inhabited by the religious Franks, are next to the tomb. The latter, in making the processions required by their false beliefs, cross the earth, which covers the tomb of the Prophet David—may peace be upon him. It is neither just nor appropriate that this most noble place remain in the hands of the infidels, and that in obedience to their impious customs, their feet foul the places sanctified by the prophets who have a right to our complete veneration. We order, then, upon receipt of this august order, that you expel from the church and convent immediately and without delay the religious and all those who reside there. (qtd. in Cunliffe 105)

For a time, Franciscans were still allowed to live in a nearby house but were finally evicted in 1551. In 1936, the Franciscans were permitted to return to a monastery near the Cenacle, but they evacuated during the conflicts of 1948. In 1960, they regained occupancy of both the monastery and the Cenacle, which had been badly damaged by mortar fire and continue as custodians of the structure today (Lussier 332-333).

Though the biblical site of the Upper Room described in Acts 2 is in some doubt, the legacy of that sacred space is unquestionable. Whether the Spirit fell in the exact location of today’s Franciscan chapel or on another Jerusalem tract, we know that the chamber where the 120 followers of the resurrected Christ gathered became the birthing room of the invincible Apostolic Church. With rushing wind and cloven tongues of fire, the Jerusalem saints were baptized with the Spirit. The tourist experience of standing in a place that may have been the point of that first Pentecostal visitation pales in comparison to the Upper Room experience recreated in countless lives as the miracle of Pentecost is repeated in the seeking souls and the believing hearts of the faithful. Every time we witness the outpouring of God’s Spirit, evidenced by speaking in tongues, we return to the Upper Room and relive the seminal moment when the Holy Ghost first empowered the Church with the enflaming presence of the Comforter and began the spiritual conflagration that now engulfs the globe in end-time revival! The authenticity of the Cenacle is in dispute but the authenticity of the Apostolic experience is incontrovertible.

Sources:

Cunliffe, Barry, ed. Oxford Archaeological Guides: the Holy Land. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Germano, Michael P. “The Ancient Church of the Apostles: Revisiting Jerusalem’s Cenacle and David’s Tomb.” Biblical Archaeology.

Lussier, E. “Cenacle.” New Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003. 332-333. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Gale. Ball State University. 9 Nov. 2009 .

Meagher, James. How Christ Said the First Mass, or the Lord’s Last Supper. New York: Christian Press Association Publishing Company, 1908.

Matthew Shaw is a librarian at Ball State University. He lives in Muncie, Indiana with his wife, Brandi, and his four sons. He attends River of Life Church.

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