The Lenten and Easter season in Palestine
Yesterday was the first day of Lent – Orthodox, that is. While most of you are looking towards Palm Sunday, we began the season of Lent on the Orthodox calendar. One of the things that I never realized before coming to the Holy Land is that Christians during Lent in the Middle East “fast” for the entire forty (or fifty if you are Orthodox) days. For the Catholic and Protestant Christians here, this “fast” consists of eating no meat. For the various Orthodox traditions, it means eating no animal products whatsoever – meat, eggs or dairy. In our office, which is ecumenical, we recognize both Lenten periods and both Easters. That means, in this calendar year, where the two Easters are furthest apart, Lent began on Ash Wednesday for the Catholic and Protestant Churches on February 9 with Easter on March 27 but for the Orthodox churches, Lent began yesterday and will end on the Orthodox Easter on May 1. This means that as an office we eat no meat from February 9 to April 30th.
It seems a funny way to start a letter but I write about it because, here celebrating yet another Holy Week, it has become normal. And yet the rituals of the churches here in the Holy Land and the level of commitment to tradition are very different from most of our churches in the West. Fifty days as a vegan – I wonder if many of us in the pew could make that sort of commitment (or if we did – keep to it), but no one here even questions the traditions. The concept of church here is different. It is not about making a service the most attractive to new members – or what exciting programs could increase membership. Discussion in the churches here is how true they are in maintaining tradition and correspondingly, pleasing God. Parish priests work very hard to shepherd their congregations but innovation is left to the time before and after worship. The Sunday service is remarkably similar to the way it was centuries ago – and that is accepted as what God has intended.
I spend a lot of time with the Christian community here across Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. I see Christians who have been suffering greatly during the past four years and yet their faith has never wavered. Every Easter season, like at home, brings the anticipation of the joy of resurrection – even when all logic says that this joy should be mitigated by the deepening economic hardships or the continuing building of the wall. Like everywhere, Christians here hold tight to their celebrations that make us one in the body of Christ. The multiple rituals around Easter don’t involve Easter bunnies or chocolate, but revolve around processions at the holy sites – of the Palm Sunday march from Bethphage to Jerusalem and walking the actual Via Dolorosa – the way of the Cross. My Good Friday morning will begin at 6:00 am at the first station of the cross, and I think about the privilege of being about to experience these events in the land where it happened. It makes me understand the even deeper frustration of the local Christians who are denied the permits to come and do this walk with me. Last year some of us from our office carried a banner through the city on Good Friday “I walk on behalf of the Christians in Gaza who were refused a permit to celebrate in Jerusalem.” We will do the same this year – but it brings little joy to my friends in Gaza who want to walk these narrow streets themselves and sense that Easter joy.
This thought led me to consider what I see the pastors of the small Christian communities do here, despite these odds. Their commitment goes far and beyond preaching on Sundays – they are living their faith in action. I thought for this Easter I could share a few stories of these local pastors that I have talked to just in the last few weeks in hopes that this Easter season, you could hold them in your prayers. They inspire me – and I know if you could meet them, they would inspire you as well.