Triduum in the Holy Land: Celebrating Easter in the place where it happened

A Pillar Interview

As Christians across the world begin to celebrate the Easter Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter, The Pillar spoke to a priest in the Holy Land about celebrating the Resurrection in the place where it actually happened.

Fr. Francesco Voltaggio is a priest of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the rector of the Redemptoris Mater seminary in Galilee. 

He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Rome by St. John Paul II in 2000. He has lived and served in the Holy Land since 2002, and has a doctorate in Archeology and Biblical Sciences from the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, in Jerusalem.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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What is different about being a priest in the Holy Land?

It is an enormous grace to be in the Holy Land, to be able to stay here.

The Church Fathers call the Holy Land the fifth Gospel. Our patriarch actually has called it a sacrament, in the sense that the most important gift of being here in the Holy Land is to understand that that our faith is historical, our faith is all based in history, on the Good News that Jesus Christ truly is risen.

So it's so important to be in the Holy places, to touch the holy places, because the Gospel invites us to do it, when, for example, the angels say to the women go and see the place in which Jesus was laid.

It’s also true in the tradition of the Church. The fathers of the Church gave a big importance to the holy places, but at the same time they used to teach that they are, in a sense, something of a paradox. The angels tell the women to visit the tomb, but it is an empty tomb. It's an empty place, but it’s so important to see that this place is empty, that this tomb is empty. So this is just an example of how important the holy places are, what a great special grace is in them.

God wanted to reveal himself in a particular land — this land, with all its problems, like our own lives. And so for me, it's a grace to live the Holy Week in this kind of wholeness, in these holy places.

You say that it’s a holy and at the same time problematic land, what does the Christian community look like where you are?

Yes, it's a great richness because, first of all, the Christian communities have different Churches: the Orthodox Churches, the Catholic Churches, and also smaller Protestant communities of different confessions.

Here in Galilee, the majority of Catholics are from the Greek Catholic Church and the Byzantine Church, they have the same rite as the Orthodox Greeks, but, of course, they are Catholic.

And so we have here the Greek Churches and the Latin Church and the Maronite Church, each with all of the richness of their rites: a Holy Thursday and a Good Friday, and also the Easter vigil, but with different traditions, which is a great richness, because the celebration of the  Resurrection of Jesus Christ at the center of our faith, the Paschal mystery, is expressed in different forms because it's so big, it's so powerful, it is impossible to express it just in one form.

This is very important, I think, for our Church of today, because we have the temptation all the time to exalt a form, or one traditional form, over and against other forms. But, since the first centuries in the Church, there was also a richness of different rites to express what is impossible to express. 

Just as the four Gospels are all of them the Word of God, but also they are different expressions, because the experience of the Resurrection, or the powerful experience which the disciples have of Jesus Christ was impossible to express just in one form.

At a practical level, in how many different languages will you celebrate Mass during the Triduum?

Well, here it's in Arabic, because the majority of Christian people in Galilee are Israeli Arabs, they speak Arabic as their mother language, also as the language of the liturgy, but they also speak Hebrew. Also, there’s the Greek Byzantine rite, and the Maronite rite in Arabic, but with  many very important parts of the liturgy in Syriac, which is very, very similar to Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

Each of these will have their own liturgies and traditions and proper rites which are very strong. For example, the Greek Catholic Church would on Good Friday read the Gospels of the passion all day long and have what they call the “funeral of Christ.” 

It's a very, very moving celebration and on Easter, they have a special rite called the “rite of the Resurrection” in which they go outside of the church and proclaim the Gospel of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Afterwards the priest, in the person of Christ, knocks on the door of the church so as to break open, in a very strong way, the gates of the Church and to lead the people in, as a sign that Jesus Christ, through his Resurrection, allows us to enter the Holy of Holies in heaven.

People often see photos of the big liturgical celebrations at the major Holy sites in Jerusalem. Is that the experience of the average Christian living in the Holy land?

Normally, [before the pandemic] we would all try to participate in at least some liturgies of the Holy Week, starting with Palm Sunday. But the Holy Triduum is usually kept more local, more intimate, with liturgies in their proper parishes and villages, because they have very strong traditions related to their families because here, Easter is like Christmas is in many Western societies. It's a very, very family centered and traditional feast.

We thought that this year very few people would go to Jerusalem, but on the contrary, it was crowded on Palm Sunday. We have come out from the very difficult situation of the coronavirus with this very, very ancient procession.

The procession of Palm Sunday in Jerusalem, starting from the Mount of Olives, from Bethany from the top of the Mount of Olives and going down into the old city and entering the whole city of Jerusalem, is very, very traditional, of course, but it's also something very, very moving. There is an immediacy and intimacy to the liturgy, we live it deeply.

Of course this is a preparation for Holy Week and especially Holy Thursday in Jerusalem, first of all, in the morning at the Holy Sepulcher. All the Catholic priests of the Holy Land would go to celebrate with the patriarch.

In the afternoon, there is the celebration in the cenacle [the traditional site of the Last Supper]. It's the only occasion for the Catholic people to go and to have a kind of liturgy in the cenacle, not the Eucharist, but to celebrate the washing of the feet and have a liturgy.

In the evening, it’s something very moving to pray in the same place in which Jesus prayed this prayer to the father — Abba —on Holy Thursday. On Good Friday there is a celebration of the passion of Jesus Christ, starting more or less at eight o’clock in the morning, and then the via crucis. For Christians in the Holy Land, it is very important to celebrate the Triduum in their own parishes, but almost all the people in Israel and Palestine try to go for at least one Good Friday to participate in the via crucis.

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What does the Easter vigil look like for you?

We celebrate the Easter Vigil all through the night. The vigil begins at 11 o'clock and lasts until four or five in the morning. 

Because of the richness of the local Catholic community, I have to have lots of permissions from the Holy See to be able to celebrate in all the different rites. It’s a very powerful experience for me as a priest, but also not easy because I have to celebrate in Arabic and in the Greek Catholic rite. I have to spend a lot of time in Holy Week studying the liturgy to prepare.

There is a very moving part of the Greek Catholic rite, the liturgy of fire. They used to celebrate it on Saturday morning, and it is linked to the Orthodox reception of the Holy Fire from the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. In the Greek Catholic Church, we have the blessing of the fire, and there is something similar in the Latin liturgy, and we receive and bless this new fire, new light, in the dark church.

There is a beautiful prayer about this light, which Adam and Eve lost in the garden, but in this night, this light of Christ reappeared for mankind to free him from the slavery of darkness.

You said that, in the Holy Land, Easter is culturally for the Christian community like Christmas is in other countries. What does that look like?

Easter is central for the family. Everyone gathers for dinner after the vigil, and also later again on Sunday all of the families come together; not just the immediate family of father, mother, and children, but the family in the bigger sense, the clan.

But, because in the Arabic culture, the culture of the family is so important, the date of Easter makes things very complicated.

There is a problem between calendars because the Orthodox Churches follow the Julian calendar, and we have the Gregorian calendar. And this is a big problem because, for example, this year the Orthodox date of Easter is very far from the Catholic date and this creates a very deep wound here between the Christians of the Holy Land.

In some parishes, many Christian families are mixed. It's very common that an Orthodox, for example, marries a Catholic woman. And so how to celebrate Easter with all the family, if they have two different dates, becomes a real problem. Some Catholic parishes ask to celebrate Easter with the Orthodox date, but this creates another problem of how to keep the union with our Catholic Church if they celebrate a month after everyone else. I want to mention this because Pope Francis is looking for a solution to this big problem at the level of Rome, but it is especially important here in the Holy Land.

But when the family does come together it is a huge feast, and for an important reason. 

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Our Oriental brothers, especially Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and the Maronites, they fast all of Lent in a particular way - one that used to be common also in the West. They fast from meat for the whole of Lent, but also from eggs, from fish, from all kinds of things. So the first thing they do after Easter is to feast - especially with roast lamb.

And when I say feast, I mean really barbecue, which is the special expertise here.  Barbecue is very important here in Galilee; remember that Jesus, the first thing he does for his disciples when he appeared here, in front of the Sea of Galilee early in the morning, is to prepare the barbecue. They are very expert barbecuers here, believe me.

So there's this season of celebrating, a big feast, and the Easter greeting is very important in the whole culture: they don’t say to one another “hello,” or “how are you” or “good morning,” but always “Christ is risen!” and the answer is “He’s truly risen!" This might be something strange to do in other Western, even Christian, countries, but here it is so important. Traditionally, when they proclaim the Resurrection of Jesus Christ they would sing this 100 times, 1000 times, to truly announce it.

This holds also in the wider society, even for people who don't believe so much in Christ. 

Here, to be Christian is also —  we have to understand —  it's also a cultural identity. Sometimes this is a pastoral and practical problem, but in another sense, it's something good.

Christian people have suffered throughout history, for example, because of Islamic domination or pressures from the outside, and also pressures from the Israeli people.

The identity of the people is to be Christian, and it is good to have this religious background, to feel that you are a Christian, you are baptized, but in another sense it's also a problem, because sometimes they have kind of faith by tradition which can be a faith of tradition but not a real living faith.

For example, I remember once someone saying to me, “I am an atheist, but I'm Christian.” It's very interesting, this idea that “I don't practice my faith, I don't believe in God, but I am Christian.” In a way, it’s like some Jews know, who feel that they are Jews, even if they don't believe in God at all. It’s something similar for Christian Arabs here.

There is something very deep in the people about Christianity, something that we are losing maybe in some parts of the world, for example in Europe, where the roots of Christianity need to be re-evangelized.

But here, we have to help them to rediscover the faith at the center of the Paschal mystery. We have to help the Christians who have only a “traditional” faith to bring the faith of their tradition to life in them, and this is of course the challenge for all the Churches everywhere.