Mount of Olives panorama

Mount of Olives panorama
A panoramic view of the Mount of Olives

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Holy Fire before Orthodox Easter

Sharing the fire of the resurrection with Kent and Nancy Jackson
Tomorrow is Easter according to the Eastern Orthodox calendar, which made today their Holy Saturday.  Here in Jerusalem, the day is marked with the ceremony of the Hagion Phōs, or "Holy Fire," which features what is accepted by many as an annual miracle that has occurred in the Holy Sepulchre since as early as A.D. 870.  

Tradition claims that when the Orthodox patriarch, who is clad only in a white robe and is checked for matches or other lighting devices, descends into the Aedicule or tomb monument in the Holy Sepulchre, fire spontaneously appears upon a bundle of 33 candles (one for each year of Jesus' life).

While it is easy to be skeptical about the story, some decrying it as a pious fraud, the symbolism of the ceremony is still quite moving: just as Christ arose from the tomb with new life, fire representing the resurrection and the Light of the World is brought out of the tomb each year, where it passed from the patriarch to other clergy and then to the worshipers in the church and then out of the Holy Sepulchre to the crowds outside.
Streets of the Christian Quarter filling with pilgrims

Various Christian flags festoon the streets

So today after sacrament meeting, I slipped out of the center with Kent and Nancy Jackson and we made our way down to the Old City.  Because of the ever-increasing crowds for celebrations such as this, the Israeli authorities have clamped down on who can even get close to the Holy Sepulchre.  Those with passes arrive hours before.  Even though we were in the Damascus Gate and most of the way down Khan az-Zait Street a good two hours early, we were stopped by a road black at the VII Station of the Cross, right where the Via Dolorosa intersects the street and goes the remaining block towards the main Christian center.

The Israeli mishterah or police hold us back
After waiting in the rapidly increasing press with no chance of getting any closer, we were bailed out by a friend, Shaban, who took us through some back allies and got us closer by back tracking around St. Savior's and the the Franciscan Custody.  Though in the end we were not that much closer, we were in a much more comfortable position on a broader street that was actually open to the air, and Shaban stayed and visited with us for the next hour and a half.  He secured for each of us one of the clusters of candles, each consisting of 33 long, thin tapers that were blue at the bottom and white towards the top, the whole bunch bearing a picture of a Risen Christ rising from an open tomb.  He also bought two Easter rolls, warm bread wrapped around a red, Orthodox Easter Egg.  We ate one there and saved another to bring home to show to Rachel and Samuel.

Shaban with the Easter Rolls
Waiting with our bundles of candles and our Easter rolls
Where we were waiting, we were deep in the heart of the Christian Quarter.  The Arab Catholic Scouts were practicing for their post-ceremony parade (even though this is an Orthodox event, ecumenical cooperation and support has been growing between the different Christian communities, a welcome development).  Suddenly we heard excited cheers and saw down the crowded streets the flash of fire and some torches were passed down the way.  Then the fire, which had been brought out of the church, spread like a wave, passed from hand to hand, cluster of candles to cluster of candles.

Here it comes!

I did not have my good HiDef video camera with me, so these two clips are not of as good quality, and I could not edit them . . . so the first one needs to run for a bit before the fire actually begins to be passed down along the crowd:

It really was quite exciting, and it was surprisingly moving to pass the fire along, symbolically sharing the joy of the resurrection in the form of a flame representing the flame of hope and faith.  And after it was all over, it was heart-warming to be wished a Happy Easter by all whom we passed, Christian and Muslim alike.

 Happy Easter to all our Orthodox friends.  I am glad I am getting to mark it twice this year!

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