Christians around the country began Holy Week leading up to Easter with traditional Palm Sunday processions and Church services in Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem and other Christian communities.
In Jerusalem, hundreds gathered with olive branches in the Old City, Mount Zion and elsewhere to symbolize the worshippers who greeted Jesus as he triumphantly entered Jerusalem before he was crucified. According to Christian tradition, palm branches are used to mark the occasion, but because of the difficulty of obtaining palm branches in the springtime, many churches substitute other local species, such as olive.
The ceremony was eventually adopted into Christian iconography to represent the victory of martyrs.
“Is a blessing to have arrived here just in time for Palm Sunday,” said Brother Craig Spence, 27 years old from New Orleans, a member of the Salesians order who recently arrived for a four-year program of study at the Ratisbonne Monastery in Rechavia, a short walk from the Old City.
“You grow reading up [Biblical] stories. Being here, where they took place… suddenly the imagination becomes real,” he told TPS.
If Spence’s story was unique, it was only because of his country of origin (the United States): Most of the Ratisbonne community, also known as St. Lorenzo, comes from the Philippines and gathers regularly for Christian festivals and Sunday Masses.
“We feel very blessed to be in Israel,” said 24-year-old Cheyenne Caretas, who has served as community coordinator for the last two years. “We gather on Palm Sunday every year, and we feel blessed every single time. It is very special to be in the place where Jesus was triumphantly welcomed,” Caretas said.
“It is the first time for me to be here for Easter,” added Rosanne Gonzales, 28 years old, also from the Philippines. “I feel very glad and full of faith.”
The celebration comes on the backdrop of the tension between Christian churches in Jerusalem and City Hall over the issue of unpaid back taxes for church-owned commercial properties in the capital.
Last month leaders of the Roman Catholic, Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre after the Jerusalem Municipality said it would take over church properties in lieu of unpaid taxes. The Church re-opened after a three-day standoff when the Knesset announced an interim agreement to suspend efforts to collect the unpaid taxes. Church leaders praised the announcement and agreed to re-open the Holy Sepulchre, which Christians believe is the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection.