For Christians celebrating Holy Week—the eight-day period preceding Easter—it’s hard to imagine Palm Sunday without a procession of palms or Good Friday without the adoration of the cross. Given the sacrosanct nature of worship services this time of year, it is worth remembering that, far from being handed down directly from God, much of the Easter and Holy Week liturgies come to us by way of a little-known, naturally inquisitive fourth–century Spanish nun named Egeria.
Egeria was one of a handful of upper-class Roman female converts whose support was critical for the blossoming of early Christianity, though their names lack household acclaim. Her “postcards”—sent to her fellow sisters in northwestern Spain from a three-year pilgrimage through modern-day Egypt, Israel, Palestine, and Syria—offer detailed descriptions of biblical sites, monastic communities, and worship practice in late fourth-century antiquity. Her travel diaries also served as primary source material for the modern Holy Week liturgies and evoke the image of an unusual candidate for sainthood: an adventurous woman of means whose curiosity matched her piety.
Of all the early church matriarchs, Egeria is among the more enigmatic. Since a 19th-century scholar discovered the 22-page fragment of her travel narrative on the shelves of the Brotherhood of Arezzo in 1887, church historians have been arguing about her identity. A variation of Egeria’s name first appeared in a letter from a seventh-century Spanish monk praising the intrepid spirituality of “Aetheria,” a consecrated virgin or nun who had many years earlier written about her extensive pilgrimage from the farthest western shores of Spain all the way to the eastern part of the Roman Empire.
Writing to her sisters back in Spain, Egeria described the Sunday before Easter, now known as Palm Sunday, as it was celebrated in Jerusalem at the end of the fourth century. For anyone who has received a palm in church, heard the story of the Passion recited by clergy and members of the congregation, and processed around the pew benches on Palm Sunday morning, this account should be familiar. According to Egeria,
As the eleventh hour draws near … all the children who are [gathered at the top of the Mount of Olives], including those who are not yet able to walk because they are too young and therefore are carried on their parents’ shoulders, all of them bear branches, some carrying palms, others, olive branches. And the bishop is led in the same manner as the Lord once was led. [In the gospel accounts, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey.]… From the top of the mountain as far as the city and from there through the entire city … everyone accompanies the bishop the whole way on foot, and this includes distinguished ladies and men of consequence.
Likewise, Egeria’s description of Holy Week in Jerusalem also includes the first eyewitness account of the practice of venerating the cross—in her case, the “true cross” recently discovered by St. Helena—on Good Friday. Awed by being present for worship on the spot where Jesus had been crucified, Egeria wrote in painstaking detail to her community back home all that she saw going on in what is now the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
A throne is set up for the bishop on Golgotha behind the Cross, which now stands there. … The gilded silver casket containing the sacred wood of the cross is brought in and opened. … It is the practice here for all the people to come forth one by one, the faithful as well as the catechumens to bow down before the table, kiss the holy wood, and then move on.
Echoes of this practice exist today in Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, and Russian and Greek Orthodox Good Friday services, where church leaders will often carry a life-sized wooden cross down the central aisle of the church and hold it up at the foot of the altar for members of the congregation to revere. Worshippers who are gathered to commemorate the execution of Jesus for three hours of readings, reflections, and hymns then come forward individually and kneel before a life-sized wooden cross, touching it, kissing it, or otherwise paying their respects.
Though Holy Week’s practices owe much to Egeria, the impact of her writings is not limited to the drama of modern liturgy exclusively. Her travel narrative also paints a picture of an adventurous and spirited church woman outside the monastic mold.
Egeria’s writings show her wielding more earthly power than most nuns, with state and religious officials often eager to do her bidding. She “sends back” Roman soldiers once she has been escorted through the “unsafe places” and asks a group of monastic guides—who have just given her gifts and hiked with her up to the top of Mount Sinai—to then show her an unspecified number of “other places.” The ease with which she attained military escorts through far-flung and dangerous places suggests high connections in the imperial court. Indeed, one line of research makes her out to be the daughter of a Spanish member of the court of Theodosius the Great, emperor from 379 to 395, and possibly the leader of what St. Jerome rancorously described as a wealthy and ostentatiously behaved travel party heading to the East at about that time. Another, more controversial scholarly finding combines a later letter from St. Jerome with some passages from her diary to argue that Egeria was, in fact, a cousin of the empress, and a well-known Arian heretic.
As luminaries of the church go, Egeria’s intrepid spirituality and curiosity for the places and people of the Holy Land make her an unlikely pillar of the faith. At this time of year, though, the gifts of an ancient, enthusiastic tourist with a passion for liturgy and an eye for detail speak for themselves.