Holy Week Reflection from Jerusalem

Tina Whitehead



Easter Monday.  A day to reflect on the happenings of the past week.  Still such a privilege to be here in Jerusalem at such a sacred time.   And this year Holy Week was even more intense and meaningful as it was the time of not just our Western Easter, but also Orthodox Easter and Passover.  Add to this, the weekly Friday prayers for the Muslims and you can imagine the chaos centered in the Old City of Jerusalem.

My disappointment this year was that I was not able to fully participate in the events leading up to Easter Sunday.  I’ve been limping around on a bad knee for the past 6 weeks, and Holy Week is a time of walking.  It starts with Palm Sunday and the traditional procession from Bethany to the Old City of Jerusalem.  Thousands of pilgrims come from around the world to follow the route of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, waving palm branches, singing and shouting Hosanna as they recall Jesus’ humble ride on the back of the donkey, down the Mt. of Olives and across the Kidron Valley. 

In recent years, the building of the Wall between Bethany and the Mt. of Olives has restricted this walk. It is no longer possible to travel from Bethany so the procession begins up the hill, on the Jerusalem side of the Wall, in Bethphage.

Monday at sunset saw the beginning of Passover.  Shops closed early as the Jewish population of Jerusalem began their week of celebration.  Security intensified as it always does around holy times.  Travel through the checkpoints to and from the West Bank was restricted for Palestinian residents.  Palestinian Christians living in the West Bank must apply for permits to be able to travel to Jerusalem to participate in the sacred celebrations.  Not all who apply receive permits and many times  one member of a family will be given permission to travel while other members are denied.  

On Maundy Thursday I entered the Old City through the Damascus Gate and made my way to the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Christian Quarter for a late afternoon service.  The narrow streets of the Old City were crammed with prilgrims, hundreds dressed in white robes, Coptic Christians from Ethiopia in the city to celebrate Easter. 

Americans seem to disappear at this time of the year, most back home to celebrate in their own church communities.  But the rest of the world comes and Jerusalem is alive with colors and cultures from all over the world. 

fter the service, which was conducted in German, English and Arabic, we gathered together in language groups outside the church and proceeded, singing and following a cross, through the Old City streets through St. Stephen’s Gate, across the Kidron Valley and up the Mt. of Olives to the Garden of Gethsemane where the service ended with candle lighting and prayers.

After the service, I remained in East Jerusalem with friends.  Around 8:30 I got into a taxi for what is usually a 20 minute ride home.  But that night, all the roads around the Old City were blocked off.  Israeli security was everywhere.  All the routes out of East Jerusalem were closed.  We wound our way through neighborhoods of West Jerusalem looking for a road that would take us south, but after an hour, ended up where we had started.  We tried again and this time found a network of streets that bypassed the roadblocks and finally, after about an hour and a half I was home. 

The drive through West Jerusalem had been interesting.  So many Orthodox Jews out with their families.  I still don’t know the significance of all the different types of dress:  men with round fur hats, black hats, kippas, long black coats, gold coats, black suits, white stockings.  Women with long skirts, head coverings.  What struck me too were the families.  It was always the men pushing the childrens’ strollers while the wives walked beside or behind.  It’s not a world I’m part of here.  It’s a world that stays to itself.  On Friday nights you can see this world as families enter the Damascus Gate on the their way to pray at the Western Wall, but they walk quickly by, passing through the Palestinian market place, with no interaction. 

Back to Maundy Thursday.  That evening worshipers gathered at the Church of All Nations in Gethsemane for an ecumenical service followed by a candlelight procession across the Kidron Valley south to the House of Caiaphas.  This service commemorates the arrest of Jesus and his being brought before the High Priest before being taken the next morning to Pontius Pilate.

Good Friday begins for many with a prayerful walk following the 14 Stations of the Cross, the Via Dolorosa.  Pilgrim processions carry the cross, following the steps of Jesus to Calvary.  Churches offer many opportunities to worship, ranging from traditional noon services to a funeral for Jesus celebrated at the Greek Melkite Church in the evening.

Friday is also the day when Muslims come to the Al Aqsa Mosque for noon prayer.  Extreme Jewish settlers this year entered the mosque, along with Israeli police, and demanded that they be allowed to pray there.  This part of the Old City, known to the Jews as the Temple Mount and to the Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, is a very holy place and also very volatile.  That day over 50 Muslims were injured in the clashes with the police.   

As much as I would like to fully experience Easter in Jerusalem, I stay out of the Old City on Good Friday and Saturday.  I was told that the three main gates to the city had restricted access:  Herod’s Gate for the Muslims, the Damascus Gate for Christians and groups and Jaffa Gate for the Jews. 

Saturday is  chaotic, especially during Orthodox Easter.  The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the site of the celebration of the Holy Fire, something I’d never heard of before coming here.  The Church, the traditional place of the crucifixion and tomb of Jesus, is filled, crammed with people, all coming to witness the coming of the fire from Jesus’s tomb.  And every year the fire miraculously emerges.  Candles are lit from this fire and taken back to communities and churches all through the area.  Parades are held in towns like Ramallah and Beit Jala, celebrating the coming of the fire which symbolizes the resurrection of Jesus. 

But, as with all the other celebrations, there is a downside for the local Christians as well as for internationals.  During the Easter celebrations, Palestinian Christians, even those who live in the Christian Quarter of the Old City, are not allowed access to the holy places, sometimes not even to their own places of worship.  Security is everywhere; barriers are set up to prevent people from passing through the narrow streets.  This year, it was reported that even the Peace Envoy of the United Nations and his international delegation was barred entry to the Holy Fire celebration at the Holy Sepulchre by Israeli security. 

And then Easter Sunday.  My lack of mobility prevented me from attending the sunrise service on the Mt. of Olives as I had last year, but I still remember being there, watching the sun come up over the Jordan Valley and bringing light to the City of Jerusalem.  And the greetings in Arabic of Al Masih qam.  Hakan qam.  The Lord is risen.  He is risen indeed. 

Passover ends tomorrow.  Today is quiet as Jews bring their celebrations to an end and everything is closed.
How glorious to be in such place, with such a rich history and tradition of sacred events.  But how sad that so much tension surrounds these times when instead we should be celebrating the presence of God and the richness of these three faiths. 

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.


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