Easter in Palestine

Thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world together with Palestinian Christians converge on the Old City of Jerusalem to celebrate the Holy Week of Easter.

Holy Week festivities in Jerusalem begin on Palm Sunday, one week before Easter Sunday, with a pilgrim procession from the Mount of Olives to the Old City.

The Palm Sunday procession follows the same path that Jesus took on his triumphant return to Jerusalem. Two thousand years ago, Jesus rode on a donkey as followers laid palm branches along his path. Today, pilgrims march on foot, waving palm fronds and olive branches.

On Good Friday, pilgrims retrace Jesus’ procession toward his crucifixion along the cobble stoned Via Dolorosa. This reenacted march along the Stations of the Cross features many of Jerusalem’s most historic Christian sites.

During the Via Dolorosa procession, pilgrims can be seen carrying large wooden crosses and reciting prayers at each of the fourteen Stations of the Cross.

Their procession begins at the Sanctuary of the Flagellation, where Jesus was scourged and judged, and ends at the Church of Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus was stripped of his garments, nailed to the cross and died.

According to Catholic and Orthodox Churches, Jesus was buried in the chamber of the sepulcher and later resurrected from there, making the Church of the Holy Sepulcher a focal point of the modern day pilgrimage. Protestant denominations believe Jesus was buried in the nearby Garden Tomb.

The “Light” Celebration takes place on the Greek Orthodox Holy Saturday at the Holy Sepulcher, and spreads to all the Palestinian towns and villages. It commemorates the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and the Holy Light.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch fasts all day that day to celebrate this feast. He prays near the Tomb from early morning until 2:00 pm when the light appears.

In Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour, the “Light” is received at St. Elijah’s Monastery on the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and it then is taken in a procession to the churches in Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala where believers would be waiting for it in order to start their celebrations.

On Easter Sunday, pilgrims and Palestinian Christians celebrate together. Special masses, vigils and services are held throughout the Old City, including more than twenty separate masses conducted within 24 hours at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Christians in Bethlehem hold candlelight prayers at the Church of the Nativity.

During Easter week, Jerusalem’s Old City accommodates the six Christian sects who are represented in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher: Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Egyptian Coptic, Ethiopian, and Syrian Orthodox.

The Eastern and Orthodox churches follow a different calendar than the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. This year, the Roman Catholic and Protestant celebrate Easter Sunday on April 8th, while the Eastern and Orthodox churches have their celebration on April 15th.

This natural scheduling difference often helps reduce territorial tension in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The Church also gives each denomination its own space and separate schedules for permitted prayer times.