Thousands of pilgrims — both Jewish and Christian — were expected to converge in Jerusalem as Passover week and Easter celebrations for all Christian denominations coincided this weekend.
Easter week attracts tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world to Jerusalem every year. This year, Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Coptic and Assyrian churches share the same Easter date as Catholic and Pentecostal denominations. Easter, for the various churches, does not always land on the same day. Eastern Orthodox churches observe the Julian calendar for their religious celebrations while other denominations use the current Gregorian calendar. Every few years Easter falls on the same day in both calendars.
Adding to the tremendous swell of humanity converging in Israel’s capital, Passover is one of the three Feasts of the Lord requiring pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Accordingly, many Jews from around the world celebrate the holiday in the holy city.
Christian activities begin in full festive fashion in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, a week before Easter. Throngs of believers waving palm branches retrace Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives.
On Thursday, many churches such as St. James Armenian Orthodox Church conduct a foot washing ceremony in remembrance of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet during the Last Supper.
On Holy Friday, Christians reenact Jesus’ painful journey carrying his cross to Golgotha. Many Orthodox and Catholics believe that Jesus died and was buried in the area of the Holy Sepulchre, the 4th century church in the heart of the Old City’s Christian Quarter. Many Christians carry crosses along the Via Dolorosa through the Old City streets, stopping to pray at the Stations of the Cross.
Most significant during Easter week, and unique to Jerusalem and its various Eastern Orthodox Christian denominations, is the Holy Fire ceremony that takes place at the Holy Sepulchre. Known as Saturday of Light, or Sapt il-Noor, the day is more celebrated here than Easter Sunday itself. Pilgrims from around the Holy Land as well as Greece, Russia, Armenia, Eastern Europe and elsewhere line up as early as the day before to get a spot in the church. All of the churches have their own processions through the narrow Old City streets to the Holy Sepulchre prior to the service.
After congregants and then clergy have arrived at the church, the Greek patriarch and an Armenian Orthodox priest wait in the crypt inside the church for a flame, believed to be the spirit of Jesus, to appear. The two “catch” the flame with their own candles. The flame is passed from one person to another lighting up the church. Candles lit from this flame are even flown to Orthodox churches in other countries for their Easter Sunday celebrations.
Both local believers and tourists celebrate the resurrection of Yeshua in a series of services, and in several languages, on Easter Sunday at the Garden Tomb, the site considered by many Protestants to be the more likely place where the death and resurrection of Yeshua took place. The meticulously kept and serene Garden Tomb maintains a peaceful and meditative atmosphere amid the raucous Jerusalem neighborhood.
Local Christians, from Arab and Armenian backgrounds, consider Easter to be their holiest holiday that sets them apart as a religious minority and gives them a chance to be a light for their Jewish and Muslim neighbors.
“Our goal is to contribute to the unity of the church and to support the faithful, especially among the youth and children,” Nashat Filmon, director of the Palestinian Bible Society, told Al-Monitor. “We believe that young Palestinian Christians have a role to play by staying put in Jerusalem so as to contribute to a pluralistic, healthy and believing society.”
Christians comprise just 1 percent of Israel’s population, but are free to worship here. Israel’s security restrictions sometimes affect their access to churches during holidays such as this. Because Passover and Easter are converging at once, Israel’s security forces have been on high alert for attacks. Despite issuing a general closure of Palestinian territories during Passover, however, Israel said it will allow Christian Palestinians into Jerusalem for Easter.
“Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave. And behold, a severe earthquake had occurred, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled away the stone and sat upon it. And his appearance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. The guards shook for fear of him and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified. He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying. Go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead; and behold, He is going ahead of you into Galilee, there you will see Him; behold, I have told you.’”