In the West, Easter is usually a simple one-day affair. The different denominations in Israel, however, each celebrate Easter in their own special way and, particularly in Jerusalem, where a high concentration of Christians gathers, a variety of different ceremonies unfolds.
So how does the oldest Christian community in Jerusalem celebrate Easter? With their own Quarter in the Old City, the Armenians boast a history in Jerusalem dating back to the 4th century. In 301, Armenia became the first country to adopt Christianity as the nation’s religion. Since then, there has been a continual Armenian presence in the Holy Land, where Mount Zion served as a base for Armenian pilgrims to Jerusalem.
The traditions of the Armenians are as enduring as the people themselves. From Palm Sunday until the day after Easter Sunday, the days are filled with services, many unique to the Armenian church in Jerusalem.
“The holy places require a different approach and schedule for the celebrations,” Archbishop Aris Shirvanian told Travelujah. “When you are abroad, you have one church, no other community. It is pretty simple abroad.”
Not all the rituals are religious. Some are simply an extension of the celebratory atmosphere and an effort to involve the entire community. The two Armenian social clubs each have marching bands with bagpipes and drums that proceed with the Patriarch and priests to the Holy Sepulchre on Holy Saturday. Anybody in the Old City near Jaffa Gate can view the parade, listen to festive music and watch the scouts go by in their uniforms.
On Palm Sunday, the Armenians, Copts and Syrians join together for a processional three times around the rotunda in the Holy Sepulchre, each chanting or singing in their own language. An elaborate foot washing ceremony takes place on Holy Thursday in St. James as the Armenian Patriarch washes the feet of twelve of the priests, imitating Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.
One of the services unique to the Armenians is the Holy Thursday processional from the Holy Archangels Church, which is the site of an olive tree believed to be the one to which Jesus was tied while he awaited an audience with Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas the High Priest (John 18:19-24). According to church tradition, Jesus was brought here to Annas’ house after his arrest in Gethsemane to await trial with the high priest. The church is also known as Deir al Zeytune, the Convent of the Olive Tree.
The Franciscans have their own processional as well from this church that usually occurs on a different day. However, this year the dates for Orthodox and Catholic and Protestant Easter coincide and the processional will be on the same day.
For Lent, Armenians fast all animal products such as meat, dairy and eggs. The fast is traditionally broken on Easter eve, after the Holy Fire ceremony at the Holy Sepulchre.
Another service unique to the Armenians in Jerusalem occurs on the Monday following Easter. The priests hold a processional in the courtyard of St. James with the parish’s relics. This morning ceremony is held particularly for the pilgrims from Armenia to appreciate the Armenian heritage in jerusalem.
“Pilgrims coming (to Jerusalem) strengthens their faith and is a moral boost for us as Christians,” Shirvanian said.
Shirvanian knows that from experience. He himself was raised in Haifa, but moved to Jerusalem to attend the Armenian seminary and study to be a priest.
“My life was completely changed living in this atmosphere among the holy places,” he said.
By Nicole Jansezian, Travelujah
Nicole Jansezian writes for Travelujah.com, the only Christian social network focused on travel to the Holy Land. Travelujah is a vibrant online community offering high quality Christian content, user and expert blogs, travel tours and planning services for people interested in connecting with or traveling to the Holy Land.