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Gavin Drake makes Easter pilgrimage to Jerusalem
Just one of the processions through the streets of Jerusalem at Easter

Gavin Drake, the Communications Director for the Lichfield Diocese, visited Jerusalem for Easter 2010 to report on the festivities.

Jerusalem is a holy city for Jews and Muslims as well as Christians, but Gavin is observing specifically how Christians there - Orthodox and Western - celebrate Easter.

The Holy Land is a place of pilgrimage for the devout.

People of many nationalities visit in great numbers for the main feasts.

From Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday, Gavin reported from Jerusalem on his thoughts and observations. This is his diary.
(See his photos by clicking on the link on the right-hand side of this page).

Gavin in Jerusalem...

Easter Day in Jerusalem

It is unusual for Eastern Christians (Orthodox) and Western Christians (Roman Catholic and Protestant) to celebrate Easter at the same time. The Eastern churches calculate the dates of Easter using the Julian calendar, while the Western churches follow a Gregorian dating system.

But this year and next, Easter falls on the same day for both East and Western Christians. It is also the Jewish festival of Passover; and as a result Jerusalem has been packed to capacity.

Jersualem reporter
Jerusalem is a place to meet people of all faiths - and reporters!

Celebrations of Easter began on Holy Saturday in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditionally accepted site of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection. The largest gathering, of several thousand Christians, was for the bizarre Orthodox ceremony of the Holy Fire.

This practice, little known in the West, involves the Orthodox Patriarch entering the Sepulchre, or tomb, which has previously been searched to remove all sources of ignition; and emerging with a torch, said to be lit spontaneously by Jesus as a sign he has not forgotten his followers. From this light many other candles are lit; filling the dark church with light and smoke.

Special torches are lit from this original flame and flown around the Orthodox world where candles are lit in capital cities such as Athens in Greece and Kiev in the Ukraine, where President Viktor Yanukovych received the flame before a service at the Pechersk Lavra monastery.

The practice is rejected by Catholic and Protestant Christians, and it's easy to understand why. Christ died to redeem us from our sins, not to perform a conjuring trick with candles.

Jerusalem pilgrims
The many pilgrim rituals associated with Jerusalem are followed by visitors from all over the world

Noisy pilgrims

Later, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Latin Patriarch held a Mass; but the choir and cantors could hardly make themselves heard above the din of pilgrims continuing to light candles from each other; ignoring the service now taking place.

Earlier, in the Garden Tomb, an alternative possible location for the Easter events just outside the Damascus Gates, evangelical Palestinian Christians held their own worship service as they have done for a number of years on Holy Saturday afternoon.

This year they invited Messianic Jews - Jews who believe Jesus to be the Messiah - to join them. This service, in Arabic and Hebrew, was a remarkable witness to how the early church would have looked: Jew and Gentile worshipping together as one.

In the context of the political situation, the joint worship and the clear and obvious warmth and friendship between Israeli and Palestinian Christians was a powerful symbol of the power of the empty tomb to bridge the gap not just between humanity and God, but between different peoples.

Easter Day itself began before dawn. As I arrived at the Garden Tomb, before 5.00am; I was met by a number of Armenian Christians leaving the Old City, with candles and torches ablaze. The sweet smell of incense filled the air of Jerusalem from the many thousands of candles which had been lit.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Edicule
Jerusalem's Holy Sepulchre Church - believed to be Jesus' burial site.

Worship on Easter Sunday had a more joyous flavour than the solemnity of Good Friday. And yet for Christians today, we know as we mark Good Friday that Easter is coming. For those first disciples, the crucifixion was the end of everything they had built their hopes on and everything they had hopes to achieve

So imagine their joy on that first Easter Sunday when they discovered first the empty tomb and then the risen saviour.

The Garden Tomb site is unique amongst the holy sites in Jerusalem and the Holy Land; in that doesn't claim to be 'the site' where history happened; only that 'this could be the site'. The owners, an English charity, are quite clear that it is what happened, rather than where it happened which is important.

Immortalised by Charlton Heston

In the 1880s, the British General Charles Gordon, immortalised by Charlton Heston in the 1966 film Khartoum, became convinced during a year in Palestine that a rocky outcrop north of the Damascus Gate was a much more likely location for the crucifixion of Jesus than the established site at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The word Golgotha used in the Bible as the name of the place where Jesus was crucified means the Place of the Skull; and the rocky outcrop, now behind an Arab bus station, has a distinctive shape that resembles a human skull.

Many of the other descriptions used in the Bible to describe the location of the crucifixion and burial fit the Garden Tomb site. And so whether or not it is the actual site, it provides a unique symbolic visual aid to the Gospel accounts.

The Garden is one of my favourite places in Jerusalem (after Papa Andreas' Roof Top Café in the Old City!); but it was still a special experience to be there at dawn today, Easter Day, and to read about Mary and Martha's early morning journey to the tomb on that first Easter morning while sat looking at the tomb.

At the end of the day, it isn't the empty tomb that we worship; but we worship because of the empty tomb. The Cross wasn't the end of the story; the empty tomb is only the beginning.

Good Friday in Jerusalem

Jerusalem at the time of Jesus' crucifixion would have been heaving. It was the Passover festival and Jews had come from all over to observe the rituals of this eight-day celebration.

And yesterday, Jerusalem was again heaving. Not only were Jews celebrating Passover, with great crowds at the Western Wall; it was also the Muslim Day of Prayer and Good Friday for both the Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Catholic and Protestant) branches of Christianity.

A priest waves incense over an altar inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem
A priest waves incense inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Some Christian groups have claimed that the Israeli government has prevented Palestinian Christians taking part in the Easter celebrations. The counter-claim from the Israeli authorities is that 10,000 permits to travel to Jerusalem for the Easter weekend had been given to Christians from Bethlehem and the West Bank; and a further 500 permits for Christians from Gaza. Such claim and counter-claim about life in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza must always be treated with a certain amount of suspicion.

The reality is that neither the streets of the Old City, a maze of narrow pedestrianised streets within an historic walled enclosure; nor the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the great climax of the Via Dolorosa; could have contained many more people. Already there was a severe risk of crushing and the Israeli police and army had conducted a significant security operation, opening and closing streets on and around the Via Dolorosa to ensure that crowds had space to move.

A procession of processions

The individual processions yesterday were on a much smaller scale than the large 2,000+ candle-lit procession that left the Mount of Olives on Maundy Thursday evening to cross the Kidron Valley and up Mount Zion to the Church of St Peter of Gallicantu - thought to be built on Caiaphas' house, where Jesus was taken after his arrest.

But it was the sheer number of individual processions that made yesterday such an awesome spectacle. They began before dawn and continued, virtually non-stop, throughout the day and into the evening. At many times along the route the processions were halted by a human traffic jam - such was the scale of the people taking part.

Some were very simple affairs, small groups of 20 or 30 Christians marching with large crosses along the narrow streets; some silently, some singing and others reading aloud passages from the Bible. Others were much grander full-scale dramatisations of the Passion narrative, with actors playing the lead roles; including that of Jesus, with blood pouring down his face and back.

It is when you watch the full scale presentations that you get a feel for what it must have been like in the times of Jesus. Back then you had the Roman soldiers guarding their prisoners, pushing them onwards through the streets to the site of the crucifixion. Today you have the Israeli police trying to keep crowds at bay so the processions can continue; while allowing space for the characters to pause at various points along the route to act out different parts of the story.

The participants came from all over the world: there were Palestinians, Europeans, Africans, Asians, Americans; as well as participants from Australia and the Middle East.

Some media reports have mentioned tensions in the area following Israeli military air strikes on targets in Gaza; but the vast majority of pilgrims would have been unaware that this had happened. A visit to Jerusalem at Easter is one where there is so much to grab your attention that you simply have no desire to log onto the Internet to find out what is happening in the news.

Risk of crushing

The only tension in the streets of the Old City came from the pushing and shoving as the tens of thousands of Christians made their way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Inside there was a real risk of crushing as pilgrims ignored requests by security personnel to follow a specific route within the church towards and around the sepulchre; but instead surging forward, pushed on mainly by women, towards the Stone of Anointing.

Many people believe this stone is where the body of Jesus was laid to prepare it for burial. This belief is strongly held by many Roman Catholics, even though the Gospels report that Mary and Martha went to the tomb on the Sunday, at the conclusion of the Sabbath, because Jesus was buried in a hurry on the Friday evening before the Sabbath started; and despite the fact that the stone was only added to the church in 1810!

Despite this many people bring their religious memorabilia to rub on the stone in the hope that it will bring them many blessings.

Crowd control within the church is made all the more difficult as there is only one main entrance. The different Christian groups who claim ownership over different parts of the church can't agree where a second entrance or fire exit should be located.

The situation couldn't be more different at the Garden Tomb site; an alternative possible location for the crucifixion, burial and resurrection just outside the Damascus Gate, first proposed by General Charles Gordon in 1883.

Bringing biblical stories to life

The English charity which owns the site makes no claim of authenticity; merely pointing out that the garden fits the descriptions provided in the Gospels. If nothing else, it provides a dramatic way of bringing the biblical accounts to life.

Yesterday, the usual guided tours were suspended to allow space for a service first thing in the morning; after which the Garden was open for private prayer and reflection.

The solemnity of Good Friday continues into this morning, Holy Saturday; but that solemnity breaks into joy tonight with the first celebrations of the Easter resurrection.

One of the first services to celebrate the Easter story will be held in the English-owned Garden this afternoon, when Palestinian Christians and Jewish Christians will meet for a united service which will be celebrated in both Arabic and Hebrew.

Maundy Thursday in Jerusalem

Good Friday is when Christians remember the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. But before the crucifixion comes the Last Supper, the Passover meal that Jesus celebrated with his disciples; and from where we derive the Eucharist or Holy Communion.

Here in Jerusalem, Christ Church, inside the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, lays claim to being the oldest Protestant church in the Middle East. Its worship has a particular Jewish flavour with some prayers and responses in Hebrew; and some of the worship songs in a traditional Jewish musical style.

Being in the Holy Land reminds us so much of history.

At Eucharist for Maundy Thursday, the Rector of Christ Church, the Revd David Pileggi, reminded the congregation that the Gospel readings about the first Maundy Thursday and Good Friday have been used for centuries to justify anti-Semitism; for creating the myth that the Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.

This is an untenable view: I've always believed that if you understand Jesus died for the sins of the world; then surely you must believe that it was your own sin and wrong-doing that nailed Jesus to the Cross.

This thought came back to me as I joined around 50 people, from across the world, on a silent march to the Russian Orthodox Church of St Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives.

The Gospels tell us that after the Last Supper Jesus went up the Mount of Olives with his disciples to pray. It was here that Judas betrayed Jesus and here that his disciples fled as Jesus was arrested and led away.

Jews, Muslims, Orthodox and Western Christians

As we worked our way through the streets of the Old City and down to the Kidron Valley, I couldn't help but notice how crowded they were. This is my fifth visit to Jerusalem in two years; but I have never seen so many people crowded into the narrow complex of streets which make up the maze of the Old City. In fact, I've rarely seen so many people gathered in one place anywhere.

This year, the Jewish Passover festival coincides with both the Western (Catholic and Protestant) and Eastern (Greek and Russian Orthodox) dates for Easter, and tens of thousands of Jews and Christians have come to Jerusalem from all over the world.

The number of people in the Old City will increase still further as thousands of Muslims arrive for Jumu'ah, or Friday Prayers, at the Dome of the Rock (on the site of the original Jewish temple), and other mosques in the area.

It is a security nightmare - the streets of the Old City are narrow and complex; and the thousands of pilgrims speak a multitude of different languages. The Israeli police and Army are stationed throughout the Old City and roads surrounding it have been closed off to facilitate marches and processions.

As our small silent procession made its way across the Kidron Valley and up the Mount of Olives, we passed the Roman Catholic Church of All Nations where a Maundy Thursday Mass was being relayed on loud speakers to several hundred worshippers who had gathered on both sides of the road outside the church, unable to get in. It was a similar scene at the Russian Orthodox Church, but without loudspeakers, as worshippers pressed against the doors of this grand building to take in the worship.


We gathered in the courtyard of the church, overlooking the City of Jerusalem, and prayed, as Jesus and his disciples did 2,000 years ago. The gospels tell us that the disciples repeatedly fell asleep as Jesus prayed. I know how they felt! I had only arrived in Jerusalem at 4.30am that morning; and there were numerous distractions from the business of prayer.

We were in a quiet place; but you could hear noise all around us: the amplified worship from the Church of All Nations below us; the sound of worship and occasional bells from the Russian Orthodox Church whose grounds we were in; the traffic noise and impatient sounding of car horns; and even the hubbub from the Old City itself.

But the biggest distraction was to come as we ended our half-hour of silent prayers: at the conclusion of their service, the Russian Orthodox congregation had processed down the Mount of Olives. They had joined up with the Roman Catholic congregation from the Church of All Nations and together they were processing in candlelight to the Church of St Peter in Gallicantu, believed to be the site of the home of the high priest Caiaphas, where Jesus was taken after his arrest and where Peter thrice denied knowing Him.

The site of several thousand people marching with candles down the Kidron Valley and up the slopes of Mount Zion can only be described as awesome.


On Good Friday, Christians in towns and cities across the Holy Land take part in marches and processions, re-enacting the journey of Jesus to the Golgotha.

Good Friday will see these processions along the narrow streets of the Old City as thousands of Christians take part in pilgrimages along the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows) retracing the steps Jesus took carrying his cross to the site of the crucifixion. What happens on a large scale in Jerusalem will be replicated in towns and cities across the world, including in the Midlands.

Before the joy of resurrection of Easter is the sorrow of the Crucifixion.

A Trip to Jerusalem
31 Mar 10 |  Religion & Ethics



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