According to the Julian Calendar, which is the liturgical calendar of the Oriental and Orthodox Churches, the Holy Week has begun with the holiday of Palm Sunday. The feast was celebrated to commemorate the day of Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem almost 2000 years ago. The celebration “Palm Sunday” took its name after the events that happened in Jerusalem at that day, when people praising the Lord, welcomed Him with palm branches as He rode into the city on a donkey’s colt. “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.” (Matthew 21:8)
This year, on behalf of Travelujah, I had a chance to participate in the celebrations of Palm Sunday by Bethlehem’s Orthodox and Syriac Christian communities.
At that day, the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem was beautifully decorated: green palm leaves were placed everywhere – at the entrance, on the 4th century’s ancient columns, in front of the altar, around the saint icons and at the entrance to the Nativity Grotto. The Orthodox Christians of Bethlehem and numerous pilgrims gathered for the solemn mass of Palm Sunday.
I entered the basilica and passed under an arch formed from the palm leaves. I took my place in a row to watch and experience the event. I could see many people kissing the holy icons and lightning candles in a player, before they took their seats. The ancient interior of the church, scriptures’ singing and religious rituals of the believers created a special atmosphere of spirituality and orientalism.
The Palm Sunday celebrations took also its place in the Syriac Church of St. Mary, which is situated couple of meters away from the Nativity Church, across the Manger Square.
At the entrance to the beautiful monastery, I was welcomed by the Syriac scouts, who were taking care of the order around the church. There were plenty of Syriac families gathered inside and most of the children were holding beautiful bouquets made of palm leaves and fresh flowers. Some small boys were dressed in the clothes typical for the Syricac Patriarchs.
Most of the service was celebrated in the ancient Syriac language, which is very similar to the language of Jesus – Aramaic. The clergy was dressed in a beautiful colourful cassock with an image of a dove on his back, which we could see for some part of the mass as the priest during some prayers was facing the altar and was turned back to the worshippers.
To celebrate the Palm Sunday, the believers formed a procession and turned around the church three times. The clergy was in its front and his helpers were holding a bunch of olive tree branches, which were formerly sanctified. The gathered people could snatch a bit of the blessed branches.
At the end of the service, the altar was covered with an embroidered curtain, showing some scenes from the gospels, and the Holy Bible was placed in front of it. The believers could “visit” the Holy Scriptures to touch and kiss them. While living the church, at the door, everybody could take a piece of Holy Bread symbolising the body of Christ.
For me, it was a great experience to learn about and celebrate the Christian Orthodox and Oriental Palm Sunday. I would like to recommend you – the members and readers of Travelujah to attend the following masses of the Orthodox Holy Week in Bethlehem in the Basilica of the Nativity:
• Holy Thursday
• Good Friday
• Holy Saturday
• Easter Sunday
• Easter Monday
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Beata M. Andonia works for the Bethlehem tourist bureau and blogs regularly about Bethlehem for Travelujah-Holy Land Tours. She is originally from Poland and moved to Bethlehem in 2010.