Observing other Christians celebrating makes you look inward and think,'What do we do as Mormon families to celebrate these events?' —Eric Huntsman
During the month of December, Christians participate in various service activities and worship in their religious sects to recognize the birth of Jesus Christ. When springtime finally arrives, many American Christians may not recognize the fact that Easter is coming if it weren’t for the Cadbury Eggs on the candy aisle.
Although Easter is still considered a reverent and beloved holiday for Christians in America, Easter Sunday falls on a different day each year, perhaps causing the death and resurrection of the Savior to be less celebrated than it should be.
In the Holy Land of Jerusalem, however, Holy Week includes several celebrations such as Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
There are multiple groups of Christians in the Holy Land during Easter, yet they all celebrate and worship together as they reflect on Christ’s victory over death.
“We are aware of local Arab Christians in Jerusalem, but we’re usually distracted by the Jewish/Arab conflict,” said Eric Huntsman, professor of religion at Brigham Young University. “(Local Christians) are kind of undercover most of the time, but at Easter time and Christmastime they literally come out of the woodwork to celebrate.”
The festivities of Holy Week begin with Palm Sunday, also known as the Triumphal Entry. Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus Christ’s entry into Jerusalem five days before his crucifixion.
Although many events during Holy Week are solemn, Palm Sunday is a day of celebration in which people wave palm branches and sing songs of worship.
“It’s a real tingly experience to be at the place where we believe he would have entered the city on that first Sunday,” said Keith Wilson, a professor of religion at Brigham Young University. “It wasn’t so much that we had our feet on the piece of ground that he might have stood as much as it was we were rethinking those events of the week he performed the atoning sacrifice.”
Both Huntsman and Wilson were professors at the BYU Jerusalem Center and were able to celebrate the Easter season with their families along with their students.
Although there are no formal holidays on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week, there are plenty of places to visit and ponder Jesus’ teachings during his last week.
Jesus spent his last days in Jerusalem teaching at the temple there, so many Christians spend time reading his words and worshiping in their individual ways.
“I would recommend to people looking to go to Jerusalem to go as pilgrims and not as tourists,” Huntsman said. “Although the history is important, take your scriptures and your hymn book and read the accounts that go with the events you’re celebrating. Don’t be shy about finding a quiet place to pray.”
Maundy Thursday is a very reverent day in Jerusalem, because it is the day of the Passover meal, or the Last Supper, and the night Christ performed the atoning sacrifice.
Huntsman took his family to the Basilica of the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane for a service and then accompanied a candlelight procession to a church called St. Peter and Gallicantu, which commemorate where Jesus was tried and where Peter denied knowing the Savior.
Huntsman and his daughter Rachel also visited the traditional site of the Last Supper where masses celebrate the institution of the last sacrament.
“Observing other Christians celebrating makes you look inward and think, ‘What do we do as Mormon families to celebrate these events?’ ” Huntsman said.
Good Friday is one of the holiest and most solemn days in Jerusalem; it is a day for all Christians to reflect on Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for mankind.
“On Friday we went to several different services throughout the course of the day,” Huntsman said. “Perhaps the most special thing was when my daughter and I went to the Garden Tomb and thought about what Christ’s burial was like.”
Easter Sunday is celebrated in many reverent ways, beginning with a Sunrise Service on the Mount of Olives.
Wilson and the other LDS members gathered together with other Christians to watch the sun come up and shine on Jerusalem.
After the sunrise service, Wilson attended his church meetings where partaking of the sacrament impacted him like it never had before.
“When I reached out for that little piece of bread in an LDS sacrament service on Easter Sunday, I was looking at the actual sight of Christ’s crucifixion,” Wilson said. “We were singing ‘There is a Green Hill Far Away’ and looking at that place across the ravine.”
Another tradition on Easter Sunday is the lighting of the candles where worshipers meet in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and gather around the main tomb, which Catholics believe to be the main tomb of the sepulcher. Each person holds a candle and they wait for a priest to come out of the tomb with his candle, representing Christ bringing forth light to the world.
Celebrating Holy Week in Jerusalem gave both Wilson and Huntsman a strong desire to bring home a deeper meaning of Easter to America.
“I realized you don’t need to be in the Holy Land to have some of these experiences,” Huntsman said. “We commemorate events, not places.”
Wilson is excited that the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has sent out a letter the past two years to bishops and stake presidents informing them of the importance of Easter and recommending that they have special lessons and programs related to the holiday.
“It’s just fun to see that maybe the church is sensing that we could celebrate more, because it’s the epicenter of our faith,” Wilson said. “Joseph Smith said that everything else in our religion is an appendage to the fact that Jesus died and rose again on the third day. Celebrating that event seems like we could never overdo it.”
Megan Marsden is an intern with the Deseret News writing for the Faith & Family section. She is currently a junior at BYU-Idaho studying communication. The views of the writer do not reflect the views of BYU-Idaho.