Jerusalem - Holy Week

Participation in Holy Week Events

Below are suggestions for services to attend if you are in Jerusalem during Western or Eastern Holy Week. Since Easter is on a different date for many Orthodox churches, Holy Week is a different week as well. When the weeks coincide, a rich group of services is available. Check at the Christian Information Center to see what is available when you are there. Many churches have services but these are recommendations based on living in Jerusalem for several years.

Palm Sunday In JerusalemPalm Sunday

Redeemer Lutheran Church holds a procession with language groups walking together and singing their favorite hymns and songs. You can hear the words of familiar hymn tunes in Arabic or Norwegian or German or French--whatever groups of people are nearby. Tourists are allowed to use the traditional route but Israel often forbids the Palestinian Christians from joining them and sends the Palestinians a different way. Little boys run around selling palms and branches calling out “Vun Shekel”.

The final days of Holy Week are called “The Tridium” by the Catholic Church and include Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.

Maundy Thursday

There are several places to celebrate the rite of foot washing when Patriarchs and Bishops wash the feet of those whose obedience they claim. The Armenian Orthodox Church of St. James has a beautiful service in Eastern Holy Week with the Patriarch washing the feet of priests and lay people. There is sometimes an ecumenical, multi-language service walking to the Garden of Gethsemane in Western Holy Week.

Rainy morning on Via Dolorosa
Rainy morning on Via Dolorosa

Good Friday

Good Friday In JerusalemOn Good Friday, in Western Holy Week, the Franciscans mark the day by carrying a cross along the Via Dolorosa followed by a mass of people. The day is celebrated in the Melkite (Greek Catholic) Church on the Western calendar with Eastern liturgies. They hold a burial service where congregants are given red flowers which they throw in the coffin as it is carried around the church three times. It is a moving experience but not a sad service since they believe we already know the ending. In the Middle Ages Good Friday was a time when Christians harassed and killed Jews. So it is a day when some Christians in Jerusalem go to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum, to honor the Jews. 

Holy Saturday

On Holy Saturday, the emphasis is the coming of the light of Christ. The service in the Holy Sepulcher is crowded and long but you can inquire about tickets or join a church procession. In the center of the rotunda of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is a small tomb entered by a low door. In the early afternoon a procession goes around the tomb several times and the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church enters the tomb. All lights are extinguished as the thousands of people in the church wait often for four hours or more. There is dancing and singing in expectation of what is about to happen. Suddenly the fire is passed out through the holes in the tomb. 

Lighting Candles on Holy Saturday

The fire is passed around the building to people holding “candles” made up of thirty-three thin candles bound together representing the years of Jesus’ life. It gets passed to everyone in the church and to the crowds waiting outside. Runners carry the fire to other churches and to the airport, where arrangements have been made to carry it in a lantern to Greece. Bells begin ringing through the vast church and the people celebrate and church bells ring as the fire arrives in each town.

On the Saturday evening of the Western calendar, an Easter vigil is celebrated in the courtyard of the crusader Church of St. Anne’s near the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:2-9). The fire is kindled and the people walk into the church singing hymns such as “The light of Christ has come into the world.” The large wooden cross is draped in white. Since this is a monastery of the White Fathers who serve in Africa, drums accompany the service along with African hymns. The liturgy is either in English or French. 

Dawn on the Mt. of Olives
Dawn on the Mt. of Olives

There is also a Saturday evening service at the Monastery of Ecce Homo on Western Good Friday with the lighting of the fire and a procession. These evening services are the Easter celebration as far as the Catholic and Orthodox churches are concerned but Protestant groups continue on to Easter.

On early Western Easter morning, several Protestant churches plan sunrise services on the Mount of Olives in a variety of languages and in different places on the eastern slope. They all greet dawn as the sun comes up over the Moab Mountains but because of the hills, dawn occurs before one actually sees the sun.

But Easter also brings a “clash of pieties”.

Garden tomb
Garden tomb

When Protestants come to Jerusalem they are often taken to the Garden Tomb on Nablus Road near Damascus Gate. When Catholics or Orthodox Christian come, the tour guide takes them to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the midst of the Old City.  You might well ask why there are two places, for surely Christ was crucified only once and laid in only one tomb. You should visit both places and see the contrast. 

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is noisy and busy with many services of worship going on at the same time. The Tomb is a quiet garden with soft music and a tomb which looks like a tomb. It is important to remember that the crucifixion took place almost 2000 years ago and the location would be hard to be sure of today. (See the discussion of sacred sites.)

Stone of Unction
Stone of Unction

The site of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was founded in 326 C.E. when Helena, the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine, went to the Holy Land. The place was located within the city walls by then, but Christians of that period believed that the spot had been outside the walls and now “hidden” by a Roman Temple. Early Christians held liturgical celebrations at the area until Hadrian filled in the quarry and built a Roman Temple to obliterate the Christian tradition. Tombs were found cut into the hillside when the Temple was taken down and, therefore, it was believed that this was the correct place of the burial. Helena claimed to have found the remnants of the cross in the same place and so it was also claimed for the crucifixion. There were two different churches built there which were eventually joined together as one. Modern archeologists believe the place is authentic.

The Church is governed by an agreement called the Status Quo decreed in 1853, stating which parts of the church are under control of which religious group. It is an understanding that no person of the six controlling religious groups (Greek Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Franciscan order, Armenian Apostolic church, Coptic Orthodox Church, Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Syrian Orthodox Church) can move, rearrange or alter anything without the consent of the other five. There are cases where a monk has moved a chair or a door was left open that have turned into violent arguments.

Crowd at Parvis
Crowd at Parvis

Visitors enter through the Parvis, which is an open area in front of the entrance doors. The first thing you encounter is a stone which is said to be the place of unction where Jesus was prepared for burial after the crucifixion. It is kept oily, so some people wipe the stone with a cloth in order to bring home the oil found there.  The cloth might be used in their burial. To the left is a rotunda over the presumed Tomb of Christ. You can enter into this two small room complex after standing in a line. Looking up from the Rotunda you will see the recently decorated ceiling of the dome. To the right of the stone of unction is the Greek Orthodox chapel. It contains a spot marked as the center of the earth, meaning the exact place where creation occurred. 

The twelfth century Crypt of St. Helena is down a flight of stairs. The walls on either side of the steps contain crosses made by Medieval Christians when they visited. An additional thirteen steps down leads you to an area believed to be the place where St. Helena found the real cross on which Jesus was crucified. Station 10 and following on the Via Dolorosa are in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and may be visited while you are here or at the end of walking the Via Dolorosa itself. 

In 1882, a British soldier named General Gordon saw what he thought resembled a human skull on a rock face across from Damascus Gate. Since the location was outside the city and sometimes called the “Place of Stoning”, he was able to convince the Anglican Church that this was the correct location of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. There was a tomb located there resembling tombs found at various churches. No one took into account the fact that the weather might have changed the rock wall over the years. In 2015 the "nose" fell off the wall making it look even less like a face. Archeologists examining the tomb concluded that it was built at least a century before Jesus’ death and was not at that time a new tomb. A London-based Garden Tomb Association was formed over 100 years ago to keep the place a quiet spot but few believe Gordon’s contention any more. (He is sometimes known as “Crazy Gordon.”)

There is a difference today between those who prefer a place to be exactly as it was about 2000 years ago and those who believe in establishing commemorative churches to make sites. You make your own choice on Easter.

Check with the Christian Information Center about what is happening when you are visiting since things change from year to year. It is said that all centuries exist together in Jerusalem but that also means that all possibilities are there in any year.