Easter is no quiet, peaceful holiday in the Holy Land

April 11, 2006|By G. JEFFERSON PRICE III

Easter is my favorite holy day. It's the most meaningful day in the Christian calendar, and it coincides often with Passover, the important day when Jews celebrate their deliverance.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, and it was one of my favorites when I was living in the Holy Land with my family. Not that I did much atoning. But Jerusalem and much of the rest of Israel would fall quiet on that day, as we lived there before the first Palestinian uprising began in December 1987.

Easter was not a quiet holiday in Jerusalem. People from all over the world came to mix with the Christians of all denominations in the holy city. They made a lot of noise, and sometimes jostled each other over precious space in the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus is believed to have died and been buried.

If you want peace and serenity, Easter is not the best time to visit the Holy Sepulcher. Days that are not holy are better, but even on those days one senses the jealous rivalries of the various Christian sects that inhabit the shrine: Roman Catholics, Greek and Russian Orthodox, Armenian and Syrian Catholics and the Copts from Egypt and Ethiopia are all there holding on to their turf.

Father Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, an Irishman and well-known Dominican scholar at Jerusalem's Ecole Biblique et Archeologique, describes the typical Holy Sepulcher scene in his book The Holy Land: An Archeological Guide from the Earliest Times to 1700: "One desires holiness only to encounter a jealous possessiveness; the six groups of occupants ... watch one another suspiciously for any infringement of rights. The frailty of man is nowhere more apparent than here. ... The empty who come to be filled will leave desolate."

Easter always presented two challenges when we lived in the Holy Land from 1982 to 1987, a family of five when we arrived, six when we left, as our youngest son was born there.

The challenge for Mrs. Price was to find an Easter ham in a land where the two dominant religions, Judaism and Islam, strictly forbade the consumption of the meat of a pig. For several years, this ham was purchased from a Christian butcher in Bethlehem, where we assumed he had access to a nearby pig farm. It was some time before we discovered the ham was coming from an Israeli kibbutz not far from Tel Aviv. One year it was delivered in person by an Israeli farmer to a place near the Old City's Damascus Gate. The transaction was so furtive one would have thought the farmer was selling illicit drugs.

My own challenge, as The Sun's Middle East correspondent posted in Jerusalem, was to find a story, something interesting, something that would take the reader beyond the usual interviews with pilgrims struggling with the burden of the crosses some of them carried along the so-called Way of the Cross, as Jesus had on his way to his crucifixion.

Father Murphy-O'Connor saved me the first Easter we were there. A colleague told me this distinguished scholar contended that the Way of the Cross parade had been going in the wrong direction for several centuries.

Sure enough, he told me, according to John's Gospel, Pontius Pilate sentenced Jesus to death at "the highest place," which would have been the Citadel. That's where Christ's final walk to Golgotha would have started. But it's not where the modern pilgrimage begins.

How could this be? The father explained with a chuckle that the Franciscans, who organized such things hundreds of years ago, originally had to negotiate the route with the Turks, then in possession of Jerusalem.

They didn't want to renegotiate the route with the Ottoman authorities, and, besides that, the vendors of paraphernalia the pilgrims love to buy were entrenched along the wrong way.

The Ottoman Turks were driven out decades ago, of course, but Jerusalem's just not the place anyone wants to tamper with time-honored rituals.

G. Jefferson Price III is a former foreign correspondent and an editor at The Sun. His e-mail is gjeffersonprice@yahoo.com.

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