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Easter in Jerusalem

by Rod Lopez-Fabrega

Easter is a celebration with roots that go far back into pre-history, a joyous paean to the resurrection of life after death, Spring after Winter; but for anyone fascinated by history and for any devoutly religious person, can there be a more relevant place to witness the celebration of Christian Easter than Jerusalem in the Holy Land?

 

One of the oldest cities in the world, earliest records of Jerusalem go back almost 4,000 years to Egyptian texts. During four millennia, it has become the repository of the most sacred sites of the world's three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is a complex and exotic city, divided into quarters, each with its own distinctive character and all coexisting with some degree of tension. Its monuments and places of interest read as a litany to its history. A mere 2,000 years ago, it was� the stage where the final days, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ were played out on the Mount of Olives, the room of the Last Supper (Coenaculum), the Garden of Gethsemane, the Ecce Homo arch� (the encounter with Pontius Pilate), the Via Dolorosa, the hill of Golgotha, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher...

On this Easter holiday, Christians of all denominations, all ethnic backgrounds, Ethiopians, Greeks, Latins, Protestants, Armenians, Copts, Assyrians and Chaldeans, all come together to follow in the footsteps of Christ. On Sunday beginning Holy Week, crowds congregate on the Mount of Olives to re-enact Christ's triumphant entry into Jerusalem. They stop at the site where Jesus wept over Jerusalem and his prediction of his own fate. A tear-drop-shaped church called Dominus Flevit ("The Lord Wept") marks the spot.

Also on this mount is the Garden of Gethsemane where Christ agonized over the ordeal ahead of him. There is still a grove of ancient olive trees some believe to be almost 2,000 years old in that garden. Nearby is the Church of the Agony, its dark interior and the iron grille work surrounding its altar symbolic of Christ's ordeal and the rock on which the altar is built, perhaps the place where he knelt in agonized prayer.

On Monday of Holy Week, a timely place to visit is the temple mount, now the location of the El-Aqsa Mosque, also known as the Dome of the Rock, one of the most sacred spots for Moslems. This outstanding edifice stands on the site of the Holy of Holies of the old temple, a place so revered by Hebrews of the Old Testament that no one on penalty of death could enter but the high priest. It also is the place where Jesus drove out the sellers of sacrificial animals and lenders of money for temple offerings. All that remains of the old temple today is the famous Western Wall (Wailing Wall), sacred to modern-day Judaism.

A focal point of interest on Wednesday of Holy Week is the Coenaculum, better known as the place of the Last Supper, a hall identified in later centuries as the probable site where Christ celebrated the Passover feast, washed the feet of his disciples� and administered the first communion to them.

Good Friday, as in history, is a time of high drama for modern-day Easter visitors. It begins with huge crowds moving along to the Ecce Homo archway, once the gateway to the Roman Fortress of Antonia--now an otherwise unremarkable structure over the cobblestone streets of the old city-- where the procurator Pontius Pilate washed his hands of "the messiah affair" and turned Jesus over to the crowd that had turned against him. It was then that soldiers, "stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head...and mocked him as King of the Jews" (Matthew 27:27-31.)

Carrying a heavy cross on which he would be crucified, Christ began his last journey down a street that has come to be known as the Via Dolorosa. On Good Friday, the throng of worshippers follows in his footsteps--many of them carrying modern-day crosses--along the same street, now at least twelve feet higher than the original pavement due to millennia of detritus and municipal repavings. The crowd stops for worship at each of the 14 "Stations of the Cross", locations commemorating incidents that happened during that last fateful walk, among them an insignificant doorway (6th Station) marking the place of Veronica (Vera Ica) where Christ's image in blood and sweat was imprinted on a sympathetic woman's cloth. Other stops are commemorated by the Chapel of the Flagellation, Our Lady of the Spasm Church, the Taking Up of the Cross chapel, the Sisters of Zion convent, and finally, the� Church of the Holy Sepulcher where just to the right of the entry and inside the building is a staircase leading to Golgotha or Calvary, believed to mark the place of the crucifixion.

The last five Stations of the Cross are all inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and on Saturday of Holy Week, the culminating event takes place there. On this day, the church is locked while thousands wait to enter. By a tradition dating back 800 years to the time Salaadin expelled the Crusaders, a Jerusalem Moslem family has held the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.� With great ceremony, the church is unlocked and the focus turns to The Edicule or the sepulcher--an ornate structure under the basilica's dome-believed to be the Tomb of Jesus and held to be one of the most sacred spots in Christendom. It is accessible to the public, though on this special day, the highlighting ceremony is the sealing of the tomb. By mid-afternoon, the patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church together with the bishops of the Armenian and Syrian orthodox communities enters the sepulcher. Holy fire is taken from there to light the prelates' candles, fire is passed on to worshippers outside and, ultimately, carried in special containers throughout the world, symbolizing the resurrection of Christ.

It is worth pointing out that not only is Jerusalem one of the world's oldest cities, it is also one of the newest, the 50-year-old capital of the modern State of Israel. As such and in contrast to the Old City, Jerusalem's other face is that of a vibrant, modern city, bustling with activity, filled with outstanding museums, cultural activities, marvelous shopping and excellent tourism accommodations ranging from the venerable old King David Hotel (five-star) to the dramatic new Hilton to the world's most impressive YMCA. It is the heart and geographic center of a country that is the repository of an enormous cultural and historic patrimony not to be found anywhere else on Earth.

PHOTO CREDITS: Ministry of Tourism / State of Israel; Rod Lopez-Fabrega

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