Students at the BYU Jerusalem Center worked to follow the teachings of Elder Gary E. Stevenson by striving “toward a more Christ-centered Easter.”
One of these members is Dr. Eric Huntsman, the academic director for the BYU Jerusalem Center. Huntsman has been celebrating Holy Week with his family since he was a young bishop in 1996.
Holy Week is the celebration of the eight days leading up to Christ’s death and resurrection in which the acts done on each day are considered and commemorated. Huntsman said his original attempts to celebrate Holy Week were “very basic” and “not accurate,” but that overtime he has adopted many traditions and has adapted others to fit into his family’s unique circumstances.
Huntsman co-authored a book with Trevan Hatch to give members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ideas on how to celebrate Easter. The book is titled, “Greater Love Hath No Man: a Latter-day Saint Guide to Celebrating the Easter Season.”
His book contains the details of the last week of Christ, historical context, how the day is celebrated by other Christian religions and helpful suggestions about what members of the Church could do to focus on the Savior during each day leading up to His resurrection.
Although their new book aims to help “fill the void by offering scholarly research and ideas on ways we as Latter-day Saints can celebrate — and make more memorable — the Easter season,” Huntsman said he focused this Holy Week on giving the BYU Jerusalem Center students a week to remember.
The students had the opportunity to participate in extra activities that were tailored to the specific day in which they would be celebrating.
Palm Sunday commemorates the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. The center began their celebration with a Palm Sunday service. They gathered in the auditorium where they read the scriptural accounts of the triumphal entry and sang Psalms.
They then passed out 180 palm branches to the students and faculty and proceeded to the Mount of Olives where they joined a congregation in a procession, or a religious parade. They made their way to the city through the Lion’s Gate singing, praising and praying.
“As we walked, we shouted hosannas and praises. That part was a little different from our typical, more reverent ways of worship, but I loved feeling the jubilation and happiness that comes through the Savior,” Brandon Checketts, a senior in political science who is currently attending the center, said.
The procession eventually arrived at the Church of St. Anne’s where the group stopped to sing, dance and pray together. The experience reminded Checketts of how much joy and love the gospel brings.
Monday through Thursday was relatively normal for the Jerusalem Center. They took their classes, conducted their weekly announcements, visited the Western Wall, the Pool of Bethesda and other sacred Christian holy sites in the city.
The students started the celebration of the day of the Last Supper and of the suffering of Christ in Gethsemane by holding another procession from St. Savior’s Church to the traditional location of the upper room where the Last Supper would have taken place.
After arriving, they had to sing their hymns outside of the room as it was crowded with pilgrims from around the world. The students then split up to join foot washing services with different Catholic congregations.
Alessia Merrill, a junior in exercise and wellness at BYU, explained that it was an amazing experience to celebrate in Jerusalem with people of many different faiths. She described the walk that the students took to Gethsemane and then to the Church of Peter in Gallicantu, which is the place Peter denied Christ three times.
She passed by Muslims celebrating the month of Ramadan as they broke their fast and partied in the streets. She witnessed Jews celebrating the Passover with their families as she walked past the Western Wall. She also joined with local and pilgriming Christians from all different sects in the processions, allowing her to feel united with them in Christ.
Later the Church of Peter in Gallicantu opened up the stairs that Jesus would have walked on as he went from the Garden of Gethsemane to his trial outside of the Old City of Jerusalem. These stairs are one of the one places where it is known that Jesus would have walked, and it is usually closed throughout the year.
“Being in a holy place at a holy time does not make up for holy habits,” said Merrill as she reflected on what she learned throughout the week. She explained that the only way an individual can feel the Spirit in these circumstances is by putting in the preparation to do so. She said that this can be done by strengthening one’s personal connection with God beforehand.
BYU Jerusalem students started the morning with the opportunities to attend a celebration of the Passion at the Holy Sepulchre, a traditional location of Christ’s crucifixion, and a Good Friday meditative service at the Garden Tomb.
Later students were able to walk the Via Dolorosa, also known as the Way of the Cross. This is the traditional route in which Christ carried the cross from the inside of the Lion’s Gate to the Holy Sepulchre, stopping at 14 stations to recount what occurred at each.
BYU Jerusalem students had their weekly Saturday church in the morning with the opportunity to visit the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional place of the burial of Christ, and could participate in and listen to their Easter Vigil Concert.
On Easter morning, many of the students woke up early to walk down to the Garden Tomb for an Evangelical service. The Garden Tomb is a probable location of the tomb of Christ and serves as a place where visitors can feel what the garden by the tomb of Christ could have been like.
Jens Mickelson, a sophomore in accounting at BYU, shared that it was an amazing experience to feel united with many different Christians to celebrate the resurrection of their Lord in such a holy place. He and other students spent the rest of the day visiting various churches in Jerusalem that commemorate Christ’s miracles.
“The amazing thing is that I don’t need to be in the Holy Land to have a focused study of the Holy Week. I’m hoping to apply this new version of Easter study into my life every year,” Emily Baird, a BYU senior studying human development, said. She discovered that going through the week with a personal study of what Christ did each day allowed her to see that Easter is more of a season than just a holiday.