It is the season of Lent, the 40 days of fasting leading up to Easter, and Israel's Christian community is bustling with Easter preparations from the spiritual to the culinary.
Jerusalem, of course, is central to the Easter story. Within the next month, thousands of pilgrims will converge in Jerusalem, where Jesus died and rose again. The Catholic and Orthodox Easters coincide this year and come during the Jewish Passover. Catholics and Orthodox Christians use different calendars to determine the dates of their feasts. Easter is the most significant holiday for Christians in the Holy Land, even more of a draw than Christmas.
"Christmas, in the West, has eclipsed Easter whereas the big feast of the Church is Easter," Father Athanasius Macora, a Franciscan monk serving at the Custody of the Holy Land, told Travelujah, the only Christian social network focused on learning about and traveling to the Holy Land. "It is the central feast, the most important feast of the church. With the local community (in Israel) you do appreciate the importance of Easter."
Indeed, the ceremony and involvement by local Christians and pilgrims from all over the world that go into Easter week have a tendency to take over the Old City. Marching bands replete with bagpipes and drums gear up to represent their parish on Holy Saturday. Women begin baking the traditional Easter cookies, maamoule, butter cookies filled with dates or walnuts. Eggs will be painted in pastels and distributed to children.
Lent is marked differently by the different denominations. Some fast more, some less. But no matter how it is marked, lent is a time of internal, personal preparation for the upcoming feast.
"It is a spiritual retreat for the entire church. It involves fasting, but above all, the goal is to try to change one's life to come closer to the Lord in preparation for the Easter celebration," Macora said. "The goal is to arrive at some positive change in your life, to create a space for the risen Lord."
All of the events and services of Easter will bring to mind an event during Jesus' last week before his death and resurrection. A mass at Dominus Flevit will recall where Jesus wept over Jerusalem. At Gethsemane, one can reflect on Jesus' last few hours before his arrest. A processional takes place on Good Friday on the Via Dolorosa, the path many believe Jesus took carrying his cross to Golgotha. And at the Holy Sepulchre, the possible sight of his death and resurrection, participants can remember the sacrifice plus the power of the Son of God to die for us, and yet overcome death.
The Palm Sunday processional is perhaps the most visual of all the masses. From the Mount of Olives hundreds of people join the processional to St. Anne's in the Old City carrying palm and olive branches, in a touching reflection of Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem one week before he was killed.
Macora said there are 4,000 Catholics in Jerusalem.