Palm Sunday 2011 in Jerusalem: An exhilarating feast of sights and sounds captures much of the old city as local Christians and pilgrims begin the celebrations of the most important week of the year – Holy Week. If these seven days are a festive occasion for Christians around the world, in Jerusalem they are absolutely unique, for it is here that the great events being celebrated originally took place. The Christian Quarter is bustling with activity as passersby are seen carrying festively woven palm or olive branches. The young local Arab Christian scouts are seen everywhere in their colorful uniforms, playing the bagpipes and beating their drums with great enthusiasm.
With Easter falling on the same day this year for both the Catholic and Orthodox churches, the activity in the old city during Holy Week is more intense than ever. The festivities began early Sunday morning with the palm procession and Solemn Mass celebrated in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, presided over by Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal. In the afternoon, thousands of local Christians, pilgrims, priests, monks, friars and nuns gathered at Bethphage on the top of the Mount of Olives for the exuberant procession of palms going down the Mount of Olives, alongside the Garden of Gethsemane, down into the Kidron Valley, and back up through Lion’s Gate to enter the Old City and conclude at St. Anne’s Church, the site of the Pool of Bethesda, where Jesus healed the paralytic (John 5:1-18). The procession is as colorful as it is multicultural, a joyful cacophony of sights and sounds with groups from all nations displaying their flags and singing songs accompanied by guitars, drums and other instruments. A group of smiling Filipinos in white t-shirts and blue caps is followed by enthusiastic Polish pilgrims carrying their red flag, and others from Latin America singing and dancing.
The faithful take the same physical and spiritual path that Jesus took 2,000 years ago when he entered Jerusalem, riding on a donkey according to Zechariah’s prophecy, when he was welcomed by the people who spread palms and branches on the road before him. Today, the joyful crowd sings the same psalms and biblical hymns heard back then: “Hosanna to the Son of David!” and “blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” A woman from New Orleans, Louisiana, cannot hide her emotion: “It’s my first time in Jerusalem,” she says, “being here is very heartwarming, it touches my heart and soul. I was thinking what it would have been like 2,000 years ago watching Jesus entering the city riding on a donkey, and that moved me to tears.”
The next evening, the joy of God’s redemption was also shared by our Jewish friends as they sat around the family table to celebrate the Passover, commemorating God’s deliverance of His people Israel from slavery in Egypt. They have rid their homes of all bread and foods containing leaven (symbolizing pride and sin), and for the next seven days they will eat matzah, unleavened bread, symbolizing the humility required for redemption.
It is of course within the context of Passover that Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with His disciples, on the night when he washed their feet as a sign of his own humility. At his last Passover Seder, he instituted the Eucharist before returning to Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives the same evening to be betrayed, arrested, and handed over to the Romans. This dramatic evening is commemorated on Holy Thursday in the Basilica of the Agony in Gethsemane, in the meditative prayer vigil dedicated to “watching and waiting with Jesus in Gethsemane.” After the prayer, in front of the church, a young Australian priest, having come literally from the end of the world, shared his thoughts: “it’s pretty amazing to be here, commemorating Jesus’ agony in the Garden.”