Religious and spiritual pilgrimages are a universal of human experience. They may be most familiar to readers here in their Abrahamic forms, but pilgrimages were part of pre-Abrahamic worship in Egypt, and are a feature of Dharmic religions as well. Aboriginal peoples the world over have a notion of pilgrimage, and spiritual retreats or wanderings.
In essence, a pilgrimage is a religious or spiritual journey that is deliberately undertaken to honour religious obligations, or figures and sites, to achieve greater spiritual awareness of self and others, or ideally both religious and spiritual experiences.
On the road to Calvary
This week is Holy Week in the Christian Calendar, which overlaps with Passover or Pesach in the Jewish Calendar. Both Holy Week and Passover are times of religious pilgrimage in the Judeo-Christian tradition, much as Hajj, the 5th Pillar of Islam is the main pilgrimage for Muslims, though the later is more a celebration of Allah’s providing a well for the Prophet Ibrahim’s wife Hagar and their son Ishmael, and thus not directly connected in subject matter to the Judeo-Christian ones of Pesach/Pasqua (Easter). These aspects of the Muslim Hajj, and the Lesser Hajj, or Umrah, have been addressed in an earlier post: Saudi Arabia and Hajj.
None of these major events preclude other pilgrimages within their respective religious traditions, or other types of spiritual pilgrimage for their adherents. In fact, Muslims also make pilgrimages to Jerusalem, as holy ground where Jesus/Isa walked, preached, prayed, and was received into Heaven.
As the Christian Holy Week grew out of Jesus’ pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover I will address both, as well as showing the distinctions in belief about the Christian version of Jesus’ last days on earth, and the Muslim one of Isa’s (Arabic عيسى for Jesus, which will serve here to distinguish the 2 faith beliefs). These three major belief systems will be addressed in order of the chronology of the Abrahamic faiths.
In Judaism, the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses which from the opening of the Christian Old Testament, also called the Pentateuch) mandates that Jews make 3 pilgrimages annually to Jerusalem, when the Israelites were to travel from their lands in Judea and Sumeria to worship Yahweh (God) in formal rituals centred on the Temple in Jerusalem , conducted by the kohanim or priests (the family of the Kohens, Cohens, Kahans, etc whose current names show their affiliation and prestige as direct descendants of Aaron (Aharon), brother of Moses (Moshe), a family dynasty within the Hebrew tribe of Levi, the Levites). Other festivities accompanied the religious rites. The 2 other obligatory pilgrimages to Jerusalem are Shavuot (“Weeks”), in late May or early June in the Gregorian solar calendar, celebrating God’s gift of the 10 Commandments to Moses, and Sukkot (“Tents”), in late September or early October, to mark the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness after the Jewish Exodus from Egypt.
The Temple of Jerusalem or Holy Temple, “the footstool of God”, refers to the locus of Jewish faith constructed on the Temple Mount,. The First Temple was built by King Solomon who reigned from c.970-c.930 BCE, as the first permanent place of worship for the Israelites. It was destroyed in 586 BCE by the Babylonians. The Second Temple was constructed between 583 BCE and 515 BCE, and then renovated by Herod in 20 BCE, giving it the name “Herod’s Temple”. This is the temple that stood in Jesus’ time, until it was destroyed by the Romans, in 70 CE, during their Siege of Jerusalem. All that remains of Herod’s Temple is the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, or in Arabic, al-Buraaq Wall. After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans, the 3 Jewish pilgrimage festivals are celebrated, but the journey to Jerusalem is not obligatory. However, the Jews expect to build a Third Temple on the same site.
Fresco of Moses leading the Exodus, synagogue, Syria
Passover is a major holiday for Jews, even for ones who are less religious. It has greater weight in Jewish rites, culture, and family tradition than the other 2 pilgrimages do. Passover represents a passing over of the Jews by the protection of God from the Egyptian Pharaoh’s intention to kill the firstborns throughout the land. Jews were warned to put a sign above their door that would lead Pharaoh’s men to pass them over. This was the 10th of the plagues sent upon Egypt by God for enslaving the Israelites, after which Pharaoh released them. Thus Passover also celebrates Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt into the wilderness where they wandered for 40 years before returning to their Promised Land.
The primary message of Passover is that slaves can go free, and the future holds the promise of something better. As part of their Biblical Old Testament this message is an inspiration to Christians as well as Jews, and of course to those who are, or were enslaved, like the African Americans, whose enslaved ancestors sang “Negro Spirituals” to give them courage and hope, hymns still sung today, including in “Black Churches”.
15-year-old Latvian singer Aminata Savadogo sings Louis Armstrong’s arrangement of
“Let My People Go”
Holy Week (Pasqua)--Yeshua/Jesus/Isa
From a religious perspective, Easter is more accurately called Holy Week, during which time the Passion of Christ is celebrated. The Passion of Christ refers to the suffering (passio in Greek)—physical, mental, and spiritual—of Jesus leading up to his crucifixion and resurrection. Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday, and ends on Easter Sunday. The 3 days of the Passion, Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday are the Triduum, the core of the Holy Week that often coincides with the main celebrations of Passover.
One might say that at the beginning of Holy Week, Jesus was a Jewish rabbi or teacher, Yeshua, the minister of a flock of Jewish followers who became an increasing irritant to the more powerful, entrenched Jewish priests, and thus to the Romans trying to keep peace in their Province of Palestina, and the Roman jurisdiction of Judea within it. Over the course of Holy Week,He fulfilled the Old Testament prophesy of the coming of the Messiah, the Saviour of the Jews. He did so by dieing and being resurrected. To accomplish his divine fate and role, Judas had to betray him, the Jewish Sanhedrin had to condemn him, and the Roman Government had to execute him. At the time of Jesus’ death, Pontius Pilate was the 5th judge, and the chief financial officer of the Roman jurisdiction of Judea, Herod Antipas was the head of the jurisdiction of Galilee, and Caiaphas was the High Priest, a Roman appointee, of the Jewish assembly or governing council, the Sanhedrin, of Jerusalem.
On what is now celebrated as Palm Sunday, Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, to fulfill his duty of pilgrimage there as a Jew, in celebration of Passover. He arrived humbly, on a donkey, accompanied by His disciples, in a procession reminiscent of that of King David, from whose line Jesus was descended, and from whose line the Messiah or Saviour was to arrive. The people received Jesus as the coming of the Messiah, laying down their cloaks, palm leaves, and olive branches before him. They sang part of Psalm 118 "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father, David." The choice of entrance was that predicted for the coming of the Jewish Messiah to Jerusalem. Thus Jesus' entrance was a triumphant one, that of the Jewish King despite the Roman occupation, His victory symbolized by the palms that signified triumph in Ancient Judaism, yet riding on an animal symbolizing peace.
This event is celebrated now, in Christendom, by a special service with palm leaves at the altar and among the congregation. In some places the scene, like others of Holy Week, is re-enacted by the parish, or congregation.
A Medieval rendering (and contemporizing) of Jesus arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday
Holy Monday has a different meaning and importance in Western and Eastern Christianity. In Western Christianity it celebrates the Gospel story of Jesus stay in Bethany, prior to entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and being anointed with a very expensive perfume. Though the 4 Gospels are not in agreement on the events, the act in itself symbolizes both his anointing as a religious leader, and his anointing in preparation for his upcoming death and burial. This is a celebration more in the Roman Catholic than the Protestant Churches. In Eastern Christianity, Holy Monday is Great Monday or Fig Monday, when a fruitless fig tree withers, symbolizing the day of Judgment; and, commemorating the Old Testament story of Joseph, the son of Jacob, sold into slavery by his brothers, condemned by false accusation as Jesus will be later in Holy Week.
Holy Tuesday, similarly differs in the Western and Eastern rites of the Christian faith. Roman Catholics focus on readings from the Old Testament and the Gospels which prophesy and announce the coming of the Messiah, while Protestant Churches are less likely to hold services on this day. The Eastern Christian denominations celebrate Great Tuesday as the day of the Christ as the Bridegroom of the Church. Services focus on this theme, and on the Parable of the 10 Virgins, and the Parable of the Talents (a talent being a large unit of money).
Holy Wednesday, is also called Spy Wednesday, in Western Christianity, and Great Wednesday in Eastern and Orthodox Christianity, commemorates the day when Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus' disciples, first conspires with the Sanhedrin, the council of Jewish priests, against Jesus, ultimately leading him to betray Jesus and cause the Romans to sentence Him to death by crucifixion. This was believed to have occurred even prior to Passover, and the arrival in Jerusalem, when the disciples became indignant at the money wasted by anointing Jesus with such expensive perfume, while in Bethany. The Western rite emphasizes Judas' role, while the Eastern one focuses on the unworthy woman who anointed Jesus in Bethany.
Thus, Holy Monday-Wednesday are days of looking back to the time before Palm Sunday and the entrance of the Jewish pilgrims into Jerusalem, in preparation for the events of the Passion of Christ, from Holy Thursday to Easter or Paschal Sunday.
On the Thursday of Holy Week, also called Maundy Thursday, Jesus celebrated a Passover Seder with his disciples--the last one, which has come to be known as the Last Supper. One might say that it is with Jesus' recognition and announcement that one of his disciples would betray him before the night was over (in Judaism the "day" starts from sun down and ends at sun up) that he begins the transition from a Jewish teacher to the Passion of the following three days that will culminate in his death and resurrection as the Messiah. Those Jews who recognized him as the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament became Christians, or followers of Jesus Christ. Those who didn't remained Jews, and followers of other sects within Judaism.
Leonardo da Vinci's L'ultima cena, The Last Supper, Yeshua's/Jesus' Passover Seder with his disciples
During the Last Supper, Jesus speaks to his disciples of his imminent future. He inaugurates the blessing and taking of wine and bread as symbols of his blood and his flesh which will form the core of Holy Communion for Christians, who by taking blessed wine and bread join in the covenant of the faithful to Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Jesus also tells that he will be betrayed by a disciple, will be put to death as it is written of the Messiah, and forgives Judas without naming him. In the Gospel according to John, the communion covenant is not recounted, but rather Jesus' washing the feet of his disciples, an initiation rite. Also in John, Jesus gives a long farewell speech on his divinity.
Later, all go to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane (the Garden of the Olive Press, on the Mount of Olives). There, the disciples fall asleep under the influence of the wine, and Jesus is left to face his mental and spiritual trials alone. Identified by Judas, He is arrested by the Garden guards on behalf of the Sanhedrin, and taken for trial to Caiaphus, their High Priest.
Andrea Mantegna, Agony in the Garden(c.1460)
Also called Holy Friday, Black Friday, or Great Friday, this is the day of greatest solemnity and sadness in the Christian Calendar. During this day, Jesus is tried by Caiaphus, the High Priest of the Jews, found guilty of claiming to be the Messiah, and turned over to the Roman judge Pontius Pilate. Pontius Pilate initially finds no fault, but is persuaded by the Sanhedrin that Jesus, proclaiming himself King of the Jews had previously encouraged Jewish Roman subjects to refuse to pay their taxes. This challenge to Roman taxation was a capital offense, one for which Pontius Pilate, also chief financial officer for Judea, and head of tax collection, was willing to condemn Him. The Gospel according to Luke has Pilate send Jesus to Herod Antipus who served the same functions for Galilee, Jesus' home, but Herod sent him back.
Subsequently, Pontius Pilate had Jesus flogged and beaten, and forced to wear a crown of thorns in mockery of his alleged claim to be the King of the Jews; but offered the populace the opportunity to spare Him. They didn't, so Jesus, along with the others to be crucified, began the road to Calvary, carrying his own cross, and being further abused and reviled. He was crucified between 2 thieves, on a cross marked with his offence, INRI: IESVS·NAZARENVS·REX·IVDÆORVM [Jesus, the Nazrene, King of the Jews]. He prayed, despaired, forgave, and expired. Taken down from the cross, He was buried and sealed in a tomb.
Giotto, Christ before Caiaphus
A depiction of the "Stations of the Cross" and of the Crucifixion
La Pietà (The Pity, or Sorrow), Mary holding the body of her dead son, brought down from the cross
Michelangelo, St Peter's Cathedral, Rome
Holy Saturday commemorates the time the dead Jesus spent in the tomb. It is also called Easter Vigil by Roman Catholics as it is the time of vigil over the dead body, and the time of waiting for the prophesied resurrection "on the third day". This is a time of rest for Jesus in the Western belief, and in the Eastern one a time of further trials and tribulations, over which Jesus triumphs, making this "Joyous Saturday" as well as "Great Saturday".
Easter Sunday, the day of the Resurrection, and its manifestation, is as joyous a day as Good Friday is somber. The Resurrection is the proof that Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah, ascended to rejoin God the Father, having died for the sins of Man, so that Redemption is possible for all earthly sinners, and the Original Sin is forgiven. On this day, the women followers of Jesus discovered his empty tomb, and according to some Gospels Jesus appeared to them as proof, or in John to Mary Magdalene alone. Subsequently Jesus appeared as the resurrected Christ to a number of disciples, most famously Thomas, who doubted. Later still He appeared to the rabbi Saul, a persecutor of the followers of Jesus, on the road to Damascus. Saul converted and became St Paul the Apostle.
Easter lilies and other spring flowers symbolize the rebirth of Jesus, and its meaning of renewal and rebirth for Christians..
The Islamic place of worship, the Dome of the Rock, also stands on the Temple Mount, built in 691, to protect the Foundation Stone, which is the holiest site in Judaism, and a holy site in Islam. For Muslims it is the site from which the Prophet Mohamed ascended into Heaven and returned, the Journey of Al-Israa and Al-Mi'araj (night travel and rising up), to receive a message and guidance from Allah. The whole of the Temple Mount, Al-Haram Al-Qudsi (The Holy Sanctuary), is particularly sacred to Muslims. Jerusalem is also holy ground where the Prophet Isa walked, prayed, preached, and from whence he ascended to Jannah. As such it is a site of pilgrimage for Muslims too.
The story of the Prophet Isa is told primarily in Surah 9-Maryam, of the Quran. Isa is most often referred to as Ibn Maryam, but also as a prophet (nabi) and messenger (rasul) who was sent to preach to the Israelites the Injil (Gospel), a new message of love that respects the older message of Musa, that of the law given in the Torah and the Psalms. Isa, is both conceived by the word of Allah and Allah’s Word (kalimat Allah), the "messiah", or prophet, who announces the future coming of Ahmad, the Prophet Mohamed. For, although the original words of the Torah, Psalms, and Gospel were pure, extant biblical manuscripts distort them. Mohamed will come as the final messenger, and the Quran will be the final message.
Muslims believe that Allah raised Isa bodily to Heaven, alive--there was no crucifixion or death of Isa, although there are different interpretations of how that occurred. One interpretation is that Allah provided an illusion as a substitute for Isa. The most common understanding is that another was crucified in Isa’s place--one of his tormentors, a criminal, Simon of Cyrene, a disciple, or Judas himself.
“That they said (in boast), "We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of God";- but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not:- Nay, God raised him up unto the himself; and God is Exalted in Power, Wise.” [Qur'an 4:157–158]Unlike Jesus, Isa is neither God nor the Son of God, and was not sent to die for the sins of Man. He was, like all the prophets, a man, even though Isa was conceived of a virgin mother, particularly blessed, and one of the 3 great messengers of Islam along with Musa and Mohamed.
Al Masjid al Nabawi the Prophet's Mosque, Madinah
Some Muslims, following certain Hadith, believe that the Prophet Isa waits in Jannah to return to Earth as a Sign of the coming of the Hour of Judgment. He will come at a time of war fought by the Mahdi (the rightly guided one) against the Anti-Christ, ie the False Messiah, al-Masīkh ad-Dajjāl. Isa will slay the Anti-Christ, and all will believe in him. He will become the leader over a world of peace and justice when all the peoples of the Book (Jews and Christians) will join together in Islam. After 40 years he will die, and after a Muslim funeral rite be buried in Madinah in a grave saved for him along side the Prophet Mohamed, and first and second Caliphs, Abu Bakr, and Umar.
The Green Dome over the centre of the mosque,
marking the location of the Prophet Mohamed's tomb
This has been a much simplified attempt to convey some basics of the events, meanings, and relationships among Passover, Pasqua or Easter, and pilgrimage; and of the understandings each of the 3 Abrahamic faiths has of the rabbi Yeshua, Jesus Christ the Messiah, and the Prophet Isa--all referring to the same person.
I felt it was important to share here even such a gross simplification, as many Muslims have told me in the days prior to Easter and during Holy Week that they do not know much about it, nor do they understand it. While they, of course, understand the Quranic narrative, the Christian one is particularly confusing for both the underpinning religious concepts, for example the Trinity, and for the conflation with pre-Christian celebrations of the Vernal Equinox--the celebrations which mean that what is most obvious, to those not attending Church services, are: the Easter Bunny, Easter Eggs, chocolates, pastel colours, and family dinners of lamb, veal, ham, or turkey.
Please feel free to share your Holy Week celebrations and experiences whether you are Christian or not.
What understanding have you had of the different Abrahamic faiths' beliefs about Yeshua, Jesus, Isa?
Where did you learn about them?
How do interfaith families deal with these particular religious interpretations, which have commonalities, but are ultimately mutually exclusive on the nature, and purpose of Yeshua, Jesus, and Isa?
What celebrations have you experienced?
With whom and in what circumstances?
How do you usually spend Holy Week?
Any other comments, thoughts, experiences?
Coming next...The Easter Bunny!