I have come to appreciate the lack of build up to our Christian celebrations here. Although it is odd to see chocolate bunnies and eggs being sold in the souk, it is not with same intense marketing that has become the norm in the West.
For me, Holy Week came with the sense of anticipation of revisiting an old story in a different way. Living here where the Easter story actually played itself out, adds a deeper layer of sadness and human understanding to the unfolding of a tragic scene. Even when we know the end of the story, the path that leads to the Empty tomb is a long one.
Maundy Thursday, we gathered in the Cathedral for the traditional Service of Foot Washing, stripping the altar and leaving the church in silence. We then assembled in the court yard and following a cross, processed down the street, and up the Mount of Olives to a small grove of olive trees, across the way from the formal Garden of Gethsemane. It is hard to explain the feeling that came to me as I looked across the valley at Jerusalem. Under a full moon, imagining this place 2000 years ago, it was not hard to understand the disciples being exhausted and falling asleep. Nor was it difficult to imagine Jesus praying in solitude in this little olive garden. We sang ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord?’ And it was quite moving. It was a beautiful somber evening.
Good Friday, we got up very early. The Christian Churches walk together as an ecumenical group to do the Stations of the Cross. We are a growing number as we follow the cross to the Via Dolorosa. I have walked this walk a number of times and each time holds its own in my memory. When I was here with the Youth Pilgrims we would share the readings and prayers by picking, one each, out of a basket. The year I was here with my daughter, she picked the reading for Station 2, fourteen youth later, my turn came and my slip of paper read - prayers for Station 2 – Jesus receives His Cross. It was profoundly moving to share this experience with my daughter. She was given the opportunity to carry a cross, and I was asked if I would help her – I thought that was quite symbolic.
Today, I have been asked to read the prayers again. I am handed my paper and I look down to see I will be praying at Station 2.
We walk and stop at each station along the way, mingling with others - pilgrims, nuns, and other religious. We stop at Station 4, Where Jesus meets His Mother. It’s a funny thing, being in the Holy Land, surrounded by Holiness and Holy Spirit, and you never know when it’s going to hit you - the overwhelming sense of being loved, and of being part of a never-ending story in which we each play a part. And as I am thinking of my mother and my daughter and all the important women in my life, whom I love and have loved, and all who have loved me, I look down at my program. The hymn selection is my grandmother’s favourite - 'There is a Green Hill Far Away' - And then it hits me.
The Easter Vigil and Easter Day are celebratory occasions. There is singing and bell ringing and lots of joy. Those of us, who live in the Cathedral Close, and other friends and family, are invited by the Bishop to join him for an Easter Lunch. The weather is beautiful and it is a lovely day.
And then, we get to do it all again the following week for the Orthodox Holy Week and Easter!
Although I did not participate in every Orthodox service I did get to the end of a Maundy Thursday Service. The service I went to was at St. Mark’s Assyrian Orthodox Church - the site of one of the oldest Christian churches in the Old City. Here is the Upper Room Down, where, perhaps, Jesus and his disciples had the last supper. It is a beautiful little church and at the end of the service the Patriarch is carried out of the sanctuary on his chair, upheld by men of the congregation and followed by Palestinian Scouts playing Bagpipes and Drums. It was quite the sight to behold and the music was fabulous.
On Orthodox Holy Saturday, some friends of mine were invited to go the Holy Sepulcher to witness the Holy Fire. I asked if there was room for one more and yes, I can go too.
We get in line at 9am at Zion Gate and begin the wait. We are drawn out of the crowd to meet with our group and wind our way through the Old City to the Holy Sepulcher. Security is very tight and many of the routes have been closed off. We get in the church at 11am. The crowd is beginning to build and there is no room. We are squished in and more keep coming. In our section, young men begin to chant and climb up the side of the Edicule of the Holy Sepulcher (The Tomb of Christ). They are singing and shouting and beating on drums and waving flags. I am not sure whether to participate or not. I am not sure whether to be a bit frightened or not. Some of the elderly nearby look a bit frail amongst all this and it is very hot. The security guards have been pushing people into some of the smaller chapels and I can’t imagine how hot and breathless it must be there. After a time, I see people leaving, it is too much.
And in the midst of all this, a fellow in front of me, with his hands up in the air waving his candle and shouting away, stops to sniff under his arms. I am not sure what look was on my face – shock or near hilarious laughter – but he caught my eye and said ‘It’s good. I don’t smell so bad but if you go over in that corner, agh, they smell terrible.’ I don’t even know what to say.
At one point I turn and see a battered silver plate being passed from hand to hand over the heads of the people nearby. Each person is taking from the plate, sharing and eating and passing it along. They are crossing themselves and saying silent prayers. It comes my way and I am struck to find that it is bread, blessed bread. I take my portion and can’t believe that I have just had communion in the Holy Sepulcher. This touches me deeply. For all the speculation about any of the Holy sites, for me, anywhere that people have come, for thousands of years, to pray and weep and search for God, it is a Holy place.
It is now nearly 2pm. I am standing on the wrong side of the security barrier but I was sort of put there and haven’t moved much. But now we are told to make room for the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, His Beatitude Theophilos III, and his retinue, who will be walking around the Empty Tomb three times as tradition dictates. I do my best to become as small as possible but I am still so close, I can reach out and touch them as they pass by.
From my spot I cannot see this but I understand that on the third time round, at the entrance to the Tomb, the Patriarch is patted down (no incendiary devices are allowed) and enters the Tomb, and there, after I assume much prayer, the Holy Spirit lights the Holy Candle with Holy Fire and it is sent out through a small opening to the world at large (the flame is actually sent to Rome and 14 other countries around the world).
By now everyone is yelling and shouting, in a myriad of languages – Come Holy Spirit Come!
And then - it really happened so fast. One minute there was no light and the next I see a flame carried out from the tomb – whoosh - and then candles are being lit off of the flame and then everyone is lighting their candles off of each other’s candles and the bells are ringing and the drums are drumming and the people are crying and shouting and praising and carrying on. It was quite amazing! I lit my candle from a neighbour and then I just sort of stood there. I really didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing. I wanted to be caught up in the fever and fervor, but I was really overwhelmed with the joyous mayhem. I really just wanted to watch and relish in the joy of all the people around me. It was wonder-filled.
Eventually, I slowly made my way out of the Holy Sepulcher. I met my friends and we stopped for a fresh pomegranate juice. And it was delicious – slightly tart but truly refreshing. And that just seemed so appropriate. The perfect way to end Easter in the Holy Land - as the pomegranate is the Christian symbol of life, hope and eternal life.
May you continue to revel in the Joy of Easter. The Lord is Risen! He is Risen Indeed, Alleluia!