EASTER-SEPULCHER Mar-24-2008 (810 words) With photos. xxxi
In Jerusalem, pilgrims speak with awe of walking in Jesus' footsteps
By Judith Sudilovsky
Catholic News Service
JERUSALEM (CNS) -- Despite the uneasy political situation in the Holy Land, thousands of pilgrims converged on Jerusalem to celebrate Easter March 23.
In the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where tradition holds that Jesus was buried, pilgrims from around the world converged for a Mass celebrated by Jerusalem's Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah.
Other worshippers found solitary spots along the walls of the cavernous 10th-century church for a moment of silent meditation and prayer.
Noticeably absent were local Palestinian Christians, most of whom normally celebrate Easter Mass at their home parishes. Many visit the church later in the day, following festive family lunches.
Israel issued travel permits for Christians from the West Bank, and they were allowed through checkpoints despite the complete closure imposed on the West Bank during the Jewish Purim holiday, also celebrated March 23 this year. Purim marks the Jewish defeat of a Persian king who wanted to annihilate the Jewish residents of his city.
Heavily armed Israeli border police and city police were stationed throughout Jerusalem's Old City, on high alert following a terrorist attack on a Jewish seminary in central Jerusalem that left eight students dead earlier in March.
In his homily, Patriarch Sabbah spoke of the need to end the Holy Land's cycle of violence and said life there had become "a permanent cross."
Many of the pilgrims at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher spoke emotionally of the opportunity to celebrate Mass on Easter at the place of Jesus' burial and resurrection.
"It is an incredibly emotional thing for me to be able to step on the same places where Jesus stepped," said Nida Santorsola, 62, of Santa Cruz, Argentina, as her eyes welled with tears. "It is a great experience which I never imagined I would be able to do."
Recent violence in the Gaza Strip and the shooting attack at a Jerusalem seminary had not deterred her planned pilgrimage to the Holy Land, she said. Santorsola said she had not once felt as if she were in a dangerous situation.
"It is very tranquil," Santorsola said, despite the strong police presence. "I don't feel frightened."
Baby Periz Sison, 55, of the Philippines called the experience "unparalleled."
"This is God's goal for us," she said.
The smell of rose-scented water wafted subtly through the air as pilgrims washed the Stone of Unction, where Jesus is believed to have been laid out according to Jewish tradition after his crucifixion. Some pilgrims placed scarves and other objects on the revered rose-colored marble, while others kissed the stone and rested their foreheads on it in silent prayer.
Her hands covered with delicate white crocheted gloves, Nellie Rocita Arnold, 50, a Catholic pilgrim from Poland, placed a small statue of a lamb on the marble, rubbing it several times with a handkerchief moistened with the rose water from the stone.
The lamb represents Jesus and his followers, she said, and the statue was intended for her 20-year-old daughter, Katarina, who is studying in Spain and came to Jerusalem to meet her parents for Easter.
"Jerusalem is in our hearts. Everywhere here for me is a holy place," said Arnold. She said she had spent Good Friday at an Arabic-speaking parish and had been delighted to recognize the melody of the prayers, even if she could not understand the words.
"I was so happy to be with them," she said. "Maybe this Easter will be the beginning of hope, the beginning of thinking of a peace which will bring us together -- Muslim, Jew and Christian."
For many of the pilgrims the Easter Mass was a time to renew their hope for peace to overcome the violence.
"Anyone who believes in Jesus knows that hope isn't in what we see but what we believe," said Tim King, who has lived in Jerusalem for 20 years and worked with the International Christian Embassy, a strongly pro-Israel evangelical group. "Our beliefs give us hope for the future."
Derek, 34, an American pilgrim from Kansas who declined to give his last name, said that despite the violent situation in the Holy Land he prefers to put the current moment into the context of the region's entire history.
"What is happening now is bad, but there have been terrible things in the past 2,000 years since Jesus. I have faith that what is happening now is a drop in the bucket. This is but one of many travails. Jesus and his teachings are eternity," he said.
Santos Gomez, 50, of Goa, India, snapped a photograph when the altar located on the spot where Jesus is believed to have been crucified was free of people.
"It is very peaceful now," he said. "I feel spiritually animated. It is like reaching the unreachable."
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