JOHN’S JOURNEYS: RELIVING PASSIONTIDE John Burke describes the Holy Land’s main week.
The accepted site of the Crucifixion.
Our holiday season begins with Easter, but the preceding Sunday is joyful in Jerusalem where it is followed by a whole week of solemn commemorations before a day of more rejoicing. For it was there that the Bible tells us that Jesus Christ was hailed as an earthly king before being betrayed and crucified, only to rise from the dead.
Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday by re-enacting Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. First, however, long green fronds from palms are blessed after Mass in the grounds of Notre Dame Institute just outside the Old City. The ceremony is conducted by the Latin Patriarch, which is how the Catholic bishop in Jerusalem is titled, and the Apostolic Nuncio/Delegate who is the Vatican’s ambassador to Israel and the Palestinians.
That afternoon, both prelates in their scarlet robes go out to the Franciscans’ church up at Bethphage where their superior, the Custos, in his brown habit plays the role of Christ, although he does not always ride a donkey. Flanked by zealous Arab Boy Scouts, he is accompanied by some 30 members of the order that has had custody of most of the Holy Places for almost seven centuries.
Bethphage is one of the Holy Places.
Also bringing up the rear among some 2,000 pilgrims are other Catholic churchmen such as the black-robed Greek-Melkite patriarch, but none of the Orthodox or Armenians, as their Eastertide is usually later. Yet the procession, which takes more than two hours to wind its way down the Mount of Olives and up again into the Old City, is for all comers so that it is both interdenominational and international.
There are even a few Jews who have converted to Catholicism and, probably, some of the Messianics who discreetly accept Jesus as Son of God without joining any denomination. They borrow Christ Church from the Anglicans on Saturdays to pray.
More of the pilgrims are Palestinians, usually carrying their parochial banner of else one for parishioners denied entry from the West Bank or Gaza. Israeli security is so strict that that the two miles are lined by solders, both male and female, and police – complete with guns and dogs – while a helicopter circles overhead.
Not all Christian Arabs are allowed in.
As an Arab said to me in Bethlehem, “Palm-fronds were a nationalistic symbol in Christ’s time”. Waving these and singing hymns, the procession goes through the Lion’s Gate to end at St Anne’s church, named after the Virgin Mary’s mother.
Almost all the other events take place inside the Old City, usually led by the Franciscan friars. Maundy Thursday sees them at the Cenacle, the presumed but reconstructed site of the Last Supper, after which there is a vigil in the Garden of Gethsemane that has been accurately located outside the walls.
Pilgrims jam the narrow and half-covered alleyways of Jerusalem on Good Friday to commemorate Christ’s walk with a cross-beam from Pilate’s palace (replaced by the Condemnation Church) to Golgotha. This Way of the Cross is punctuated by the same 14 Stations – pauses for prayers – depicted on the walls inside churches worldwide. They are identified by round plaques with Roman numerals on buildings in the Old City, starting in the Moslem Quarter and ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Dating from 633 AD, it is a cavernous labyrinth of spaces for the six ancient branches of the Christian faith, each with its own liturgical language.
The seventh station is at a Franciscan chapel.
In the evening, the limestone walls echo to funereal prayers recited around a much venerated marble slab that symbolises where Christ’s body was laid. Then, on Holy Saturday vespers are sung in the Catholic chapel.
At dawn on Easter Sunday, a Protestant service takes place opposite the cavity hewn out of a cliff in grounds maintained by the Garden Tomb (Jerusalem) Association. Many members of this non-denominational British charity are evangelical Anglicans. Christians generally regard this well-kept spot beyond the Damascus Gate as only a symbolic site of the Resurrection, since an Israeli archaeologist believes the work dates from around 750 BC whereas the Bibles says Christ was laid in a “new tomb”.
There is room to enter this sepulchre.
Besides various Masses throughout the week, there are yet two more commemorative ceremonies. On the afternoon of Easter Sunday, the Latin Patriarch preaches in the Basilica of the Resurrection. Next day, the Custos travels to Emmaus, eight miles west of Jerusalem, where Christ made himself known to two apostles who did not realise he had come back to life.
Tourists in Israel should heed the risks and, if they wish to visit Arab countries later, ensure the passport gets a detachable, not permanent, stamp. Note too that public services are suspended during the twenty-four hours of the Sabbath, ending at sundown on Saturdays. Good Friday this year is on 30 March, the same day that Jews begin a week-long celebration of Passover. That means some disruption to transport and banking, although Arab taxis and exchange-offices remain available.
The Christian Information Centre just inside the Jaffa Gate is very helpful, unlike the national tourist office (which Israeli and other Jewish journalists also criticise). Easyjet flies from Luton and Manchester to Tel Aviv.