Easter in a deserted Jerusalem

by
19 April 2020

With Israel and the Palestinian Territories under lockdown, Christ’s resurrection had to be celebrated more quietly than usual, says Richard Sewell

Richard Sewell

The Holy Sepulchre on Easter Day: door locked and square deserted

The Holy Sepulchre on Easter Day: door locked and square deserted

THERE has never been an Easter in Jerusalem like this one. Normally, Jerusalem is teeming with pilgrims — not just Christian pilgrims, but also Jewish visitors, because the Jewish festival of Pesach (Passover) and Easter usually overlap.

At this time of year, the weather tends to be mild and often very pleasant; so, pilgrims are attracted for that reason, too, rather than during the summer, when the temperatures can be off-putting.

Christian pilgrims come to experience the drama and excitement of the huge Palm Sunday procession from Bethphage, down the Mount of Olives and into the Old City of Jerusalem. It feels like every nation under heaven is there: hymns and songs are sung in multiple languages; palm branches are waved, but also national flags; clergy attend in full vestments, creating a most colourful effect. There is a mood of great excitement, much like we imagine on the occasion of Jesus’s “triumphal entry” into the Holy City.

 

BUT not this year. Israel, like so many countries, is in lockdown, and pilgrims and tourists are unable to visit. The Palestinian Territories are also closed off and those living in the West Bank cannot enter Jerusalem for work or for family visits. Bethlehem, in the West Bank, is receiving no visitors, and neither is Jerusalem. All the holy sites are locked up and quiet.

Normally, in Holy Week, the churches are full to bursting for all the special services, as Christians enter into the holiest days of the liturgical year. A special service is held in the Cenacle, for centuries associated with Jesus’s Last Supper with his disciples. Jesus’s acted parable of the foot washing is remembered, as are his words instituting the holy eucharist, and his commandment to “love one another as I have loved you.”

In every other year in living memory, and well beyond, on Good Friday, groups re-enact Jesus’s final journey along the Via Dolorosa, stopping at the 14 stations of Jesus’s suffering along the narrow streets of Jerusalem’s Old City. Normally, there are prayers, there are songs, and there are tears, as Christians recall and enter into all that Jesus endured to demonstrate the full extent of God’s love for humanity and all creation.

But not this year. This year, the streets of the Way of Sorrows were deserted. The streets of Jerusalem were not only in lockdown but curfewed, to prevent Christians marking their festivals, and to inhibit Jews from gathering in groups for their Seder meals at Passover.

Every other year before this remarkable year, Easter would bring out great crowds of Christians to celebrate the unfettered joy of the resurrection. The Holy Fire ceremony in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Easter Eve is one of the most extraordinary religious ceremonies anywhere in the world. Far too many people for comfort are packed for hours into the holiest church in the world, with ascending levels of noisy excitement, waiting for the dramatic appearance of the resurrection fire inside the tomb. The fire is passed out from the tomb, from where torches are then carried to churches all over the world, so that paschal candles can be lit from that same flame.

Thankfully, this year, the ceremony took place, but in quiet isolation, since no crowds were permitted to enter what Orthodox Christians only ever refer to as the “Church of the Resurrection”. The joyful ringing of bells was not be accompanied by the heaving mass of people pouring out of the church with torch candles held aloft shouting “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”

 

EASTER has happened, of course. The Exsultet was sung, the Gospel resurrection accounts were read, the Easter hymns were sung — but the people were absent from the churches. Jerusalem, the city of Christ’s resurrection, was subdued from dawn until dusk, and the people celebrated quietly at home.

It did not feel like Easter in Jerusalem anymore than it probably did in Rome, or Canterbury, or anywhere else in the world. It did not feel like Easter not just because the church buildings were not open to the faithful, but because Christian faith is not an individual affair, a personal arrangement between God and me. It is expressed most fully in community, a corporate expression of a humanity renewed by the redeeming power of God.

It did not feel like Easter because, for many Christians, the physical actions (you might say rituals) of faith help to make tangible and convey levels of meaning that words cannot reach. It did not feel like Easter, but, thank God, Easter is still the ground of our faith, because our Holy Week and Easter services simply recall and replay the events of Jesus’s end of life and resurrection.

On Easter Day, I was blessed to be able to see the sun rise over the Mount of Olives from the roof of my home. A bell tolled quietly in the Old City, peacefully declaring “The Son is risen!”

Never the less, I still walked to St George’s Cathedral with a heavy heart (a unique experience for me on Easter Day) as a very small number us gathered, suitably distanced, to celebrate new birth, new life, and re-creation.

Thankfully, our faith does not depend on our feelings, and, in the end, that is what enables the gospel of God’s love to speak into the suffering and redemptive need of the world. I was struck by the thought that every year, in many countries, people experience intolerable suffering as an inextricable part of life, because of crushing poverty, malnourishment, and many other forms of disadvantage — but they still manage to celebrate Easter.

So, I should find it possible to do the same, despite the absence of a corporate expression of Christian joy.

The Very Revd Richard Sewell is the Dean of St George’s College, Jerusalem.

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