Every year over 100,000 visitors arrive in Israel to celebrate Easter, the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Christ. Easter is at approximately the same time as the Jewish Passover and so the country is alive with celebrations both Christian and Jewish. The Holy Week of Easter begins with Palm Sunday when Jesus is believed to have ridden into Jerusalem; Good Friday commemorates the day Jesus was crucified and Easter Sunday is the day that Jesus was resurrected.
Although Easter is not celebrated by Israel as a nation and you won’t see Easter decorations or Easter egg displays in the store windows, Israeli Christian communities hold church services to mark this special occasion. The largest Christian community in Israel is in Nazareth where you can attend a service at the Church of the Annunciation alternatively there is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and Easter services in Jerusalem churches.
Palm Sunday (24th March 2013, 13th April 2014)
Palm Sunday marks the day when Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a white donkey and believers laid palm fronds in his path as they cheered and welcomed him. A Mass is held in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (and other churches across the country) where worshipers hold candles and palm fronds. A procession from the Mount of Olives takes the faithful into the Old City retracing the route Jesus took through St. Stephen’s Gate and on to the Church of St. Anne. The procession starts at approximately 2:30pm and between 5,000 and 10,000 Christians participate. The Latin Patriarchate leads the procession and participants sing hymns, carry crosses, olive branches and palm fronds.
Maundy Thursday (28th March 2013, 17th April 2014)
This was the day that Jesus ate the Last Supper with the Apostles and washed their feet (John 13:1-15). On this day there are celebrations at the Room of the Last Supper (Upper Room) on Mount Zion.
Good Friday (29th March 2013, 18th April 2014)
A procession of Christian pilgrims and religious leaders follow the Via Dolorosa through the Old City of Jerusalem along the route which Jesus took bearing his cross from Golgotha on the way to his crucifixion. The procession is led by the Franciscan Friars and goes from the first station of the cross near the Lion’s Gate in the Old City walls to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The procession begins at approximately 11:30am. At the Church of the Holy Sepulcher there is the Liturgy of the Hours at 4pm and a “Funeral” procession at 8pm.
Easter Sunday (31st March 2013, 20th April 2014)
The final day of the Holy Week is celebrated with the entry of the Latin Patriarch into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at 7am followed by an 8am Mass of Resurrection and a procession around the Rotunda. The Garden Tomb is open for visits throughout Holy Week (8:30am-12 noon and 2pm – 5:30pm). On Easter Sunday there is a resurrection celebration at the tomb and Protestants celebrate with an Easter sunrise services at Garden Tomb.
Orthodox Easter (27th April – 5th May 2013, 11th April – 20th April 2014)
The week following Holy Week the Orthodox Christians (including Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian and Russian Orthodox) celebrates Easter with similar ceremonies and services. On Orthodox Holy Saturday (4th May 2013) there is a Holy Fire Ceremony (Saturday of Light)
in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, this is unique to Israel and happens nowhere else in the world. The Greek Patriarch and Armenian Orthodox priest enter Jesus’ tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher with a torch. The lights in the church are turned off and when the church leaders immerge the torch is alight and the people all holding candles light their candles from the torch. The light spreads through the crowd creating a visual spectacle and spiritual experience. If you want to attend the ceremony you will need to obtain passes through one of the orthodox churches. The ceremony lasts approximately from 11:30am until 2pm. There is also a Holy Mass in St. James’ Cathedral.