Easter in Jerusalem: Finding the “Holy” in the Holy Land

Author: Whitney C. Lim

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Born and raised in San Francisco, California, Whitney C. Lim is a junior studying abroad in Jerusalem, Israel, for the spring semester. She is a theology major, with double-minors in sustainability and business economics. Along with three other students in her program, Lim was interviewed recently by NBC’s the TODAY Show about what it’s like living and studying in the Holy Land. She writes about experiencing Holy Week in Jerusalem, and what she didn’t get to say on the TODAY Show.

I never imagined that the fabric of my life would include this truth: I live in Jerusalem. But now it does. I live in Jerusalem: the Holy Land, the place in which Jesus walked, the city where the first Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday occurred. And this past week, I had the great opportunity to participate in Jerusalemite festivities, commemorating Holy Week where it happened almost 2,000 years ago.

Earlier this Lenten season, my program heard that the TODAY Show wanted to interview students for a segment on faith in Jerusalem, which would air during Holy Week. As one of four students included in this venture, I'd been intentional about trying to reflect on this special city for the interviews. However, the clip features us for only a short amount of time, so we could not explain the intricacies, challenges, and joys of living in Jerusalem as thoroughly as we wished. Even a piece such as this can't cover everything, but as we say here… Yalla (both Arabic and Hebrew speakers use this word frequently, meaning “let's go!”)!

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It was hard to start reflecting on my experience here so far, let alone prepare myself for the gravity of Holy Week. I kept wanting my time here to be a pilgrimage. However, a pilgrimage usually lasts a week or two, and I was living and studying in Jerusalem for five months. Every day couldn't be a life-changing experience. I had mundane daily tasks like going to classes in Bethlehem and eating dinner with the Tantur Ecumenical Institute community members, who live alongside the Jerusalem Global Gateway students at Tantur. Sounds cool, right? But I stressed about things like finishing homework and being on time, often forgetting that I was living in the Holy Land. Life is more than worrying about little logistics — it's much better when I remember where I am, what happened in this place before, and what a privilege it is to be here.

But then I realized that my five months here couldn't be a pilgrimage just because of the places I frequent — mostly Jerusalem and Bethlehem. As Melkite Archbishop Elias Chacour writes in his book Blood Brothers, “each man, woman, and child” is “like a stone — a living stone.” My semester could still be a pilgrimage, but I had to change my focus from places to people. I needed to treat each person I met as part of the holy history. The people who live here now are the ones carrying on the traditions, the memories, and the holiness of Jesus’ life and ministry. While most tourists and pilgrims visit briefly just to hear and see what they expect to take in, the locals experience the pains and joys of what it means to live where Jesus did. I wanted to get their insights and experience life alongside them. I allowed myself to engage in conversations using my terrible, elementary Arabic and to accept the hospitality of those offering Arabic coffee or Sabbath meals. I learned that these living stones have hope. That they can live in harmony. That they pray for peace, whether they identify as Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or something else.

So this Holy Week, I wanted to put myself out there as much as possible. I wanted to absorb both the place and the people. I wanted to experience the events of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and everything in between. I met wonderful people waving palm branches during the Mount of Olives procession, praying in a Taizé service, and walking the Way of the Cross. I let myself be squeezed and pushed as I stood to watch Jesus’ funeral procession in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I woke up to celebrate mass at 6:30 am in Jesus’ (empty) tomb and, later in the week, to celebrate Easter with a sunrise service at 5:30 am. There was no end to crowds and celebrations. I found myself falling asleep like the disciples because I packed my week full of church services, conversations with friends, and participation in holy commemorations. I felt moved by the uncomfortability of it all — Jesus suffering as much as he did — and I could also imagine myself disbelieving him, ditching him, and betraying him. The week was an overwhelming whirlwind, hard to process as much as I wanted to.

What the TODAY Show video clip doesn't cover is what a beautiful, holy mess Jerusalem is. Like any other city, people bustle about on auto-pilot, me included. But just under the surface is a rich religious and spiritual story that parallels political, social, and cultural narratives. Nothing is straightforward and certain, but every story shares a vulnerable truthfulness of the colorful fabric that is the Holy Land.