02 April 2024, The Tablet

Easter celebrations scaled down in Holy Land but hope survives

The patriarchs and heads of the churches in Jerusalem offered a “hopeful Easter message… even in the midst of the present darkness”.

Easter celebrations scaled down in Holy Land but hope survives

Hope survives in Gaza.

Good Friday’s Stations of the Cross walk to the Holy Sepulchre Church went off “quietly and prayerfully”, although missing pilgrims meant reduced numbers for all Easter ceremonies in Jerusalem.

Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, presided over celebrations at the church – the site of both the Crucifixion and the burial of Jesus – on the Friday and Saturday. Prayers were said for all the peoples of Israel and Palestine and for peace with justice and an end to war. A video message was sent by the Latin Patriarchate to Gaza saying, “You are not alone” and, “The day of resurrection will come and this prolonged struggle will cease.”

In his Easter Sunday homily from the Holy Sepulchre the cardinal said, “The Risen One is still here among us, and everywhere he goes before us.” Appreciation was voiced to Pope Francis for his support over the past five months.

In an Easter Letter addressed to Catholics of the Holy Land, Pope Francis expressed his spiritual closeness and affection, and encouraged Christians globally to offer solidarity through “prayer and practical charity”. He said: “In a particular way, I embrace those most affected by the senseless tragedy of war – the children robbed of their future, those who grieve and are in pain, and all who find themselves prey to anguish and dismay.”

He mentioned the special significance of Easter for those who live in the places sanctified by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Acknowledging the desire of Christians to remain in the lands they have dwelt in for centuries, Pope Francis said it was good that they should remain, and thanked them for “your ability to hope against all hope”.

On Easter Sunday, Pope Francis called for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in his traditional Easter message. He also urged that “access to humanitarian aid be ensured to Gaza” and the “prompt release of the hostages.” In the message, delivered in front of 60,000 people gathered at St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, Francis condemned war as an “absurdity”.

As Easter Day dawned in the Holy Land, Fr Gabriel Romanelli, parish priest of the Holy Family Catholic Church in Gaza, sent a message on the hope for peace from “the Calvary of Gaza”. He said: “With hearts full of the joy of the Resurrection, and even amidst tribulation, our Catholic community in Gaza wishes you a happy Easter and thanks you for so many prayers and support.”

In their Easter 2024 letter the patriarchs and heads of the churches in Jerusalem offered a “hopeful Easter message… even in the midst of the present darkness”.

They sent special greetings “to those of the faithful in Gaza who have been bearing especially heavy crosses…. including those taking refuge inside St Porphyrios and Holy Family Churches, as well as the courageous staff and volunteers of the Anglican-run Ahli Hospital, along with the patients they serve”. They said, “We repeat our denunciation of all violent actions in the present devastating war, especially those directed against innocent civilians, and we reiterate our call for an immediate and sustained ceasefire.”

The theme of hope was also there in a hard-hitting talk delivered last Saturday by Rev Dr Munther Isaac, Lutheran Pastor in Bethlehem. Speaking live online at the Easter Vigil for Gaza, organised by the Jerusalem-based Sabeel Liberation Theology Centre, he reported that Easter “has come upon us in the most difficult circumstances”. He thanked “those who have offered solidarity with us” singling out marches on the streets – particularly London that day, campaigners advocating for a ceasefire, and recent delegations that have visited the West Bank. He thanked South Africa for bringing a genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice. “We thank those who help us carry the Cross,” he said.

Dr Isaac stressed that “Christianity is a faith that hopes – Christ is risen is the final word.” He added, “Faith is one thing they cannot take from us... never in my life have I been more proud to be a Palestinian than in the last 175 days.”  Standing before a simple Easter Cross rising from the rubble he said: “Our biggest asset is the justice of our cause. The land of the resurrection calls on you to work for truth and justice.”

On 28 March, the Society of Jesus issued a statement saying they say they “cannot be silent” in the face of the killing, famine and spread of disease in Gaza as Israel continues its bombardment. They lamented “that no one is able to stop the killing” in Gaza and elsewhere in the Holy Land. They joined Pope Francis in calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, the release of all the hostages and the beginning of negotiations and a process that will lead to peace in the Holy Land and in the Middle East where many of them are working.


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