Whilst millions of Jews celebrated the Passover holiday in the second week of April this year, Christians both in Israel and around the world flocked to Jerusalem for what is probably the most momentous seven days in their calendar – often referred to as ‘Holy Week.’
Beginning with ‘Palm Sunday’ continuing onto Good Friday, and Holy Saturday and culminating in Easter Sunday, pilgrims arrived in Jerusalem in their thousands in Jerusalem, all intent on reliving these historical occasions through meditation, fasting and praise. The week comprises of both intensely solemn and joyful ceremonies and is such a moving experience that many later remark that there is nothing else to which they can compare it.
On Palm Sunday – named after the palm branches that people laid down in the path of Jesus, as he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey – sees crowds of thousands, gathered both at the Mount of Olives and in the Old City. The Gospels actually describe Christ as having riden into the city on a donkey to show that he came in peace (the donkey is not a ‘warrior’ animal). A few days later, pilgrims marked Maundy Thursday, the day on which the ‘Last Supper’ was held and where Jesus forgave Judas Escariot (the disciple who was later to betray him)
On Good Friday, the streets of Old Jerusalem were packed as processions made their way through the ‘Via Dolorosa’ – the route Jesus took, en route to Calvary. Led by the Franciscan Fathers, pilgrims and Palestinian Christians walked through narrow alleyways, carrying wooden crosses, marking the 14 Stations of the Cross,. This ‘Way of Suffering’ includes points where Jesus fell, and where strangers helped him to carry his cross
Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the exact place at which it is believed that Christ was both crucified and buried) pilgrims and priests worshipped together, praying and meditating silently on this mournful occasion. That evening, a funeral procession was held, before the following day’s “Holy Fire” ceremony – celebrating a light that supposedly came from inside Christ’s Tomb and light near candles. The Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church lit a candle in front of pilgrims and clergy, before spreading it to the entire congregation.
Holy Week culminated in the joy of Easter Sunday – a celebration of the miracle of the resurrection of Christ. Large crowds, both in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, were in tears, and a number of masses took place over the course of the day in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, to accommodate the many different demonisations of Christianity that co-exist both globally and within Israel. One such mass was led by the Latin Patriarch, Archbishop Pizzaballa, who entered through the famous wooden door, knelt before the stone where Jesus’ body was anointed then splashed the crowd with holy water.
For pilgrims, and religious Christians, Easter then is primarily a time of celebrating Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. With its beautiful liturgy, historic ceremonies and sacred rituals, ‘Holy Week’ is loaded with meaning and significance and a unique chance to rehearse and remember these events, in the ancient and beautiful surroundings of Jerusalem. No wonder that, for many, the chance to spend this particular week in Israel is one they will never forget.