While the Crucified Christ and the Risen Lord are the most dominant images of Jesus during Holy Week and the Easter Season (which runs until May 28, Pentecost Sunday), another image is that of the King of Peace entering Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt. Christians remember it as the Palm Sunday to start Holy Week.
The Bible tells us that after his crucifixion Jesus was risen from the dead, and his first message was “Shalom” (peace). When he first appeared to his disciples then huddled in a closed room for “fear of the Jews,” he said: “Peace be with you. Do not fear.” (John 20:21)
This image of Jesus as King of Peace and his Easter message of peace after his resurrection are relevant thoughts to reflect on as the Holy Land contends with incidents of violence and tensions among Christians, Jews, Muslims and other believers.
Since early this year, there had been reports of increasing attacks on Christians that included vandalism, desecration of images and properties in churches and cemeteries, and incidents of spitting. And then there were the two successive raids by Israeli security forces on the al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites, supposedly to clear it of “agitators” who, police said, had barricaded themselves inside along with worshippers.
Reports of “brutal handling” included the Israeli forces’ use of stun grenades and rubber bullets; footage posted on social media showed them striking screaming people with batons inside the darkened building.
Despite swift global condemnation, especially from the Arab and Muslim world, the Israeli forces conducted another raid just hours after the first and arrested hundreds of Palestinians, sparking retaliatory rockets fired from Gaza, Lebanon and Syria—and Israeli air strikes in response.
Peaceful and festive
But on April 2, just days before these incidents of violence, there was the Palm Sunday celebration to retrace Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, in which thousands of Christians took part. Among the revelers were Arab Christians who were able to join the afternoon procession in huge numbers for the first time.
The event was not only peaceful but also festive. “Ang saya saya (It was a very happy time)” was how Elena Robles, a Filipino working in Jerusalem, described her participation in the annual Palm Sunday procession.
“We were singing, dancing and praying together,” she said in an online interview with CoverStory.ph.
Elena was with other Filipinos who are members of the choir of the Lady of Peace Chapel in Notre Dame Jerusalem. Together, they joined the walk of thousands of Christians from all over the world, wearing hats but mostly unmindful of the heat of the sun, carrying and waving palm fronds and olive and other tree branches.
Some participants played different musical instruments. Everyone was praying and praising God in their own language, joyfully proclaiming and sharing their Christian faith.
“Hosannas, joy and songs echo from the Mount of Olives,” read a report on the website of the Franciscans’ “Custodia Terrae Sanctae” (Custody of the Holy Land).
The cry “Hosanna!” was the people’s acclamation as they spread their cloaks and put branches on the road for Jesus, according to the Gospel of Matthew and of Mark. In full, the shout of those who went ahead of Jesus and those who followed him when he entered Jerusalem was: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Matthew 21:9; Mark 11:9-10)
A Hebrew word, “Hosanna” was originally an appeal to God and literally meant “Save, please.” But on that first Palm Sunday, it was used as a cry of joy and praise to mean “Long live” the Son of David, the Messiah, “who comes in the name of the Lord (Psalms118:16),” proclaiming the kingship of Jesus.
(In Catholic Masses, the acclamation “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest” is part of the saying of The Sanctus or The Holy, Holy, Holy.)
The Gospels tell us that Jesus sent two of his disciples to find a donkey and her colt. Why a donkey, and not a horse? According to a commentator: Jesus was solemnly entering Jerusalem as a humble King of Peace. Traditionally, entering the city on a donkey symbolized an arrival in peace, rather than a war-waging monarch arriving on a horse. A donkey, moreover, was the traditional mount of nobility (Judges 12:14) and later of kings (Zech 9:9).
Matthew in 21:4-5 writes that Jesus riding on a colt is a fulfillment of the prophecy in the Hebrew Scriptures. In Zechariah 9:9, God tells Israel “to rejoice greatly, your king is coming to you…humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
The animal chosen by Jesus, the humble and noble donkey instead of a war horse, indicates that he came as a king meek and peaceful of heart.
Church and sanctuary
The Church of Bethphage located on the eastern part of the Mount of Olives serves as the starting point of the Palm Sunday procession. Above the altar is a mural showing Jesus mounted on a donkey’s colt, and people acclaiming him while they waved palms and spread their garments on the road for him.
Bethphage is mentioned in the New Testament as the place in ancient Israel where Jesus stayed before entering Jerusalem and from which he sent his disciples to find a colt he could ride. But the exact location of Bethphage is uncertain, according to an historian; there could have been many options for Jesus and his disciples in traveling from Jericho.
Most Church authorities agree that the present site of the Church of Bethphage “has a reasonable chance of being in the vicinity.” The sanctuary of Bethphage is among the 55 sanctuaries within Israel, Palestine and Jordan that the Custody of the Holy Land has the mandate and mission to preserve and guard.
But the sanctuary of Bethphage is not in the list of places to visit in most pilgrimages to the Holy Land to trace the footsteps of Jesus. Nevertheless, Sr. Nimfa Ebora, a Bible scholar and licensed spiritual guide in Israel, has brought pilgrims to the Church. She told CoverStory.ph in a quick interview the reason why: “Bethpage is very much part of the story of Jesus, especially his last days on earth.”
Sister. Nimfa cited a possible difficulty in visiting the Church of Bethphage. “It is not frequently visited on ordinary days, maybe due to its accessibility,” she said. “It is located at the heart of a Palestinian village in Jerusalem. One has to take a Palestinian bus in order to reach the place if the visit is done outside an organized tour.”
The Church of Bethphage has been the starting point of the Palm Sunday procession since the Crusades around the 12th century. According to a report on the Custody of the Holy Land website, the traditional procession has been suspended only twice in history: at the end of the Crusader kingdom and in 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Since 1933, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem has presided over the Palm Sunday procession.
In the courtyard of the Church of St. Anne, located near the Lion’s Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem, where this year’s procession ended, the current Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa greeted and thanked all the faithful from the local church in Palestine and from Christian churches worldwide. He made special mention of the presence of Arabs. At last, after many years, he said, “they have succeeded in being present and have come in great numbers from all over Palestine,” according to a report on the Custody of the Holy Land website.
The Latin Patriarch said the procession had shown that Jerusalem is not only a city of conflicts and division but “also a place of encounters, faith and prayer and communion.”
He did not forget to mention the growing religious tension, citing the “many episodes of violence in this city, including against churches and Christian symbols.”
“We belong to this city and we will never give up our love for what [it] represents: It is the place of the death and the resurrection of Christ, the place of reconciliation, of a love that saves and goes beyond the frontiers of grief and death,” he said. “We must not be afraid of those who want to divide, of those who want to exclude or of those who want to take over the soul of this Holy City. They will not succeed, because the Holy City has always been and will always be a house of prayer for all peoples.”
Jerusalem is home to the cornerstones of three faiths. It has the Western Wall of Judaism, the Christian sites of the Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest site of Islam (after Mecca and Medina). It is holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims.
“We will do our best to unite,” the Latin Patriarch said. “There is no room for hatred.”
Elena Robles, who has joined the annual Palm Sunday walk for years, was full of gratitude. She gave thanks for her job as caregiver for over 22 “good and fulfilling” years that enabled her to put her five children through college. She thanked the Israeli government for providing security for another peaceful procession.
But mere days later, this admiration turned into condemnation after the Israeli raids on al-Aqsa Mosque, resulting in an exchange of rocket fires and spillover tension. Who triggered and what led to the raids? The rhyme and reason are complicated and deeply rooted in history and stories of long ago.
Yet the call for peace is loud and clear, for Israeli and Arab leaders to de-escalate tensions.
The latest incidents of violence in Israel occurred just ahead of the overlap of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, the Jewish Passover holiday, and the Christian Holy Week and Easter.
There were fears of riots on the Temple Mount, where the al-Aqsa Mosque is located, on April 14, the final Friday of Ramadan. There were about 250,000 worshippers at the site, but there was largely no untoward incident.
Likewise, despite tension because of imposed crowd limits, the next-day celebration of Easter by thousands of Eastern Orthodox Christians in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher was also largely peaceful. (Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter Sunday a week after the Easter Sunday of Roman Catholics.). The Christian worshippers had a peaceful ceremony of the Holy Fire, an ancient ritual that has been observed for over a millennium.
In all, the prayer is for peace to reign. May Jerusalem and the Holy Land be a place for all faiths, with everyone singing, dancing and praying together, each to their own God.