Easter in the Holy Land



JERUSALEM.  Holy Week continues to play a pivotal role in Christian spirituality.  It marks the culmination of salvation history; beginning with desperate suffering and ending in joyous hope.  As a Franciscan friar who has lived and ministered in the Holy land for the last twenty-five years, this week has particular meaning for me.


We Franciscans continue the legacy of our founder and father, St. Francis of Assisi, who, some 800 years ago was entrusted with protecting the holy sites in this precious land.  We also have a special calling to minister to the indigenous Christians here, those ‘Guardians of Christianity’ who have courageously maintained their faith and heritage over these many centuries in spite of misunderstanding, persecution, discrimination and suffering.


At this time of year, when I am escorting pilgrims through the cramped streets of Jerusalem, or the byways of Nazareth, I am mindful of the challenges facing the dwindling Christian population here in the Holy land.  Their ancestors were Christ’s first followers, and now they are leaving this land in alarming numbers.  I always remind the pilgrims who come here that this is indeed the ‘Cradle of Christianity’ and hence all Christians have a stake in its preservation.  The visitors come to see where Christ walked and hopefully also experience what life is like for His followers today.


To be in Jerusalem on Good Friday is an experience unlike any other.  To join the throngs jamming the Via Dolorosa where Christ carried His cross, to stand for a moment at the first station where Jesus was scourged, crowned, and then condemned to death by Pilate is a moving encounter for any believer.


When leading hundreds of the faithful along the Via Dolorosa, I attempt to make them viscerally aware of what Jesus must have gone through in this agonizing experience;  His blood spilling profusely from His torn body, the agony of carrying a heavy wooden beam in such a weakened state, His repeated falls and the anguished efforts to rise again.  Each time I describe these events for the pilgrims, I find myself experiencing them anew.  Thoughts of anger crowd my mind as I consider the rabble that tormented Him:  those who jeered and laughed at the One who made the blind see and brought the dead back to life.  I tell the pilgrims of the soldiers who constantly beat Him as He carried His cross, the same people who would finally nail him to it.  As we proceed from station to station, in the midst of this sorrowful walk, I can almost hear the words of Jesus in the shuffling steps:  “Forgive them!  Forgive them!”  Hundreds join our reflective march, sharing Christ’s passion on the very ground where it occurred, where history moved and salvation was birthed.  Finally, we reach the climax of the Way of the Cross in an ancient courtyard which gives way to the most revered church in Christendom.


Late in the afternoon on Good Friday, thousand spill from the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  Each year the Franciscans reenact a solemn ceremony where a replica of the body of Jesus is literally taken down from the cross at the very site where Christ was crucified.  After the nails are pulled from the body, it is then placed in a white linen shroud and carried solemnly by four friars to a low, marble slab called the Stone of Unction.  There the body is anointed and then reverently placed in the Tomb.  When those doors of the Sepulcher slam shut there is always a stark silence, despite the crowds.  A profound absence hangs in the air.


I have been honored for many years to be one of the pall bearers transporting the replica of Christ from Calvary to the Sepulcher.  It never fails to move me. Suddenly time collapses and we are all there; removing Jesus from His cross, preparing the body, and placing Him in the borrowed tomb.  Now as then, there are sniffles and moans, muttered prayers, and sadness on all sides.


Then early on Easter morning, church bells ring throughout the Old City of Jerusalem joyfully proclaiming Christ’s resurrection.  At the Tomb of Christ, in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher communal celebrations, services and masses will be offered throughout the day.  It is a day of celebration after a season of penance and suffering.


This year, 2010, the joy of Easter is being shared in common among the Roman Catholics, Greek, Armenian, Coptic, Syrian, Ethiopian and Orthodox.  For both the indigenous Christians of this land and for the thousands of visiting pilgrims, Easter is an explosion of joy, a celebration of hope.


Suffering and hope go hand in hand in this great paschal mystery and in the Holy Land itself.  Without the crucifixion, the resurrection would not be possible. Suffering faithfully embraced is often times the portal to hope and the way to new life.  Entering the sacred Tomb of Christ on Easter Sunday it becomes clear to any visitor that these walls are no longer a container of death, but a witness to the resurrection.  The very site becomes a reinforcement of faith, a bridge to the eternal.  Praying within the cramped chamber that has destroyed, rebuilt, burned and blessed, one is reminded of the words of St. Paul:  death has no victory here, and we too are destine to share in this radical transformation through death to new life.  This is the principal reason why people come from all over the world to the Holy Land:  to be where Christ was and is, to physically situate themselves amid the markers of salvation history, and to rehearse the final pilgrimage to new life that awaits each of us.


Father Peter Vasko is President of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land and a member of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.


To view the revised online edition for the Wall Street Journal click here