Faces of Jerusalem: Christians celebrate Easter in the city where Jesus died

There is no place like Jerusalem during Easter and Pesach.

Easter is preceded by a period of fasting. On Maundy Thursday, traditional churches open their doors for the ceremony of the washing of feet. Good Friday, or Great Friday as some Christians say, is a day of prayer and processions through Jerusalem’s Via Dolorosa. Pilgrims and local Christians walk to the centuries old Church of the Holy Sepulchre, also called the Church of the Resurrection.

The Garden Tomb, considered by some to be the empty tomb of Jesus

The Garden Tomb, considered by some to be the empty tomb of Jesus

On Holy Saturday, Christians belonging to Orthodox churches gather in and around the Holy Sepulchre for the ceremony of the Holy Fire. According to tradition, a fire forms in the Holy Tomb from which candles are lit.

The Syrian Orthodox Christians have their own chapel in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where visitors can see ancient burial caves from the first century. In addition, they pray in their Church of St. Mark. Protestant and evangelical Christians meet in their own churches and in the beautiful Garden Tomb.

Messianic Believer - Gemma Blech

Messianic Jewish believer Gemma Blech, former nurse, midwife, and social worker

“Pesach reminds us of the bringing in of the lamb and its blood on the doorposts,” says Messianic Jew Gemma Blech. “It is the blood of that lamb that protected the Israelites in their houses, so they lived while the angel of death passed over. Thus they were able to leave Egypt. It is clear that Yeshua did the same thing. But instead of the doorposts, His blood is on our hearts when we accept Him into our lives. It is then that we truly know resurrection. Our escape from the angel of death and from Egypt, which is life in the flesh. So for me the meaning of the feast is very powerful.

“The celebration of Pesach has nothing to do with the place, but everything to do with time. In the Bible it is about when you do everything. We live in a world where the whole church has been robbed of the biblical calendar. The church left the Shabbat, the new months, and the biblical feasts. It says in Daniel that in the last days, people will change the dates and times. And they did.

“Pesach is always linked with family and forgiveness. When everybody sits together for the Seder, there is opportunity for forgiveness. For me personally, Pesach gave me a whole new understanding of relationships and trying to obtain forgiveness from others I hurt in the past.

Syrian Orthodox Believer - Sami Barsoum

Syrian Orthodox believer Sami Barsoum, tailor and head of the Syrian Orthodox community in Jerusalem

“We look upon Easter as a time to receive a blessing,” says Sami Barsoum, head of the Syrian Orthodox community in Jerusalem. “We remember that Jesus came to this land to preach and make peace between the people. We have a time of fasting which we call the 40 days fast. Why 40 days? Because Jesus spent 40 days in the desert and fasted.

“Our church follows the Julian calendar. This year we started the fast on March 14th and [will end] it on May 1st. Fasting means that everything from a cow or sheep is forbidden. No meat, no eggs, no butter. So in the morning you don’t drink milk, but instead drink tea. You can eat anything from plants, like vegetables and fruit. The bishop says if you can fast, you should fast all the time. If you can’t, you fast during the first and last week and on every Wednesday and Friday. So our fast is not difficult.

“This period is to remember that you are a real Christian and you want to follow the tradition. You want to make peace, love the people, and respect every human being.

“In the last two weeks before Easter, we receive a lot of Syrian Orthodox pilgrims in Jerusalem. For us, it is very special that we celebrate the feast in Jerusalem. Christianity started here. Then it went to the West and the East. Our bishop says: ‘Jesus was buried in our chapel in the Holy Sepulchre.’

Washing of the feet in St Mark Syrian Orthodox Church

Washing of the feet in St Mark Syrian Orthodox Church

“On Thursday before Easter we have the washing of the feet. Like Jesus did, the bishop washes the feet of the deacons. On Great Friday, the Greek Orthodox believers first go in procession around the tomb. Later on, we follow together with the Copts and the Armenians. We pray for two hours in the Holy Sepulchre, and then for two hours in our own St. Mark church. On Saturday we celebrate that the light came to the Holy Sepulchre.

“If there is prayer, we go to church. If not, we stay at home. We visit our children and grandchildren. We sit in the salon, have some coffee and soda. We talk about the future of the family, the situation. But not about politics! We are not politicians.”

American Evangelical Believer - Thomas Dressler

American Evangelical believer Thomas Dressler, student
at College des Freres in Jerusalem

“This year our family is celebrating Easter according to the Orthodox calendar,” says American student Thomas Dressler. “We have never done this before. The reason is that our church is in Ramallah and the churches there have collectively decided to follow the Orthodox calendar.

“In our church we celebrate Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and Easter. On Ash Wednesday we talk about the fact that we were made of dust and we return to dust. It is remembering that God is Almighty and that He is in control. We should respect that and remember He is Almighty.

“I participate in the fast before Easter. But I do not completely fast because it would affect my ability to do tests at school. I will fast from some food and some daily activities, like working with electronic devices or other things that take away my concentration from God. In this way, I have more time for Bible reading and prayer.

“I am definitely looking forward to Easter. We remember that God showed His love for us by sending His Son to die for our sins. He brought down the walls between us and Himself. He made our relationship with Him complete. By being raised from the death, Jesus conquered death and the powers of Satan. He reassures us that we don’t have to fear death anymore.

“For me it has a special meaning to celebrate the feast in Jerusalem. It is so close to where it all happened. It is an interesting experience to go to the Garden Tomb or the Holy Sepulchre. We have to remember, however, that it does not affect the presence of God because He is everywhere.

“As a family, in the week of Easter we remember the crucifixion, His death, and resurrection. And on Easter, my parents every year hide eggs throughout the house. We all wake up and go on a little egg hunt. It can be plastic eggs filled with candy or hard boiled eggs that we personally dyed.”

Service at the Garden Tomb on Resurrection Monday

Service at the Garden Tomb on Resurrection Monday

Images: Open Doors