Holy Saturday: Miracle of the Holy Fire – Jerusalem

Background: The Eastern Orthodox believe that every Holy Saturday, around 1pm, God sends down a fire from heaven into the edicule within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch enters the edicule alone, with an unlit candle, after being checked by whoever happens to be security at the time (currently it’s the Israeli soldiers, but in the past were the Jordanians and before them the British and the Turks), for anything that could light a fire. The Patriarch then enters the tomb and prays until the fire comes down from heaven and lights the candle. He then leaves and passes the Holy Fire to all the faithful pilgrims, around the church and in Jerusalem. It is also brought to nearby cities like Bethlehem and even flown to Ukraine. The flame is said to be cold and does not burn anything it touches. The event is televised in the east, but is largely unknown in the west. The Catholic Church has nothing to do with this, and one Pope even went as far as to denounce this as a fraud. There are many challenges to the authenticity of this miracle (white phosphorous which spontanteously ignites after some time, or just the presence of a lamp in the edicule) but you can read the Wikipedia article and decide for yourself.

Impressions: This was amazing. It was one of the coolest things I’ve seen in Jerusalem. And it was ridiculous. It was also one of the scariest things I’ve witnessed ever. First of all, security was everywhere. It was impossible to get even close to the Church because every small street near it was filled with barricades guarded by ten Israeli policemen, because so many people want to get in.

The only way in was through the Jaffa Gate (1), (all other gates except for the Damascus Gate were closed) and a mob of a thousand or two were  constantly trying to get in (2). I wanted to see what was up so I asked a Russian reporter when the flame was going to light up. He smiled an unsettlingly smile at me and said, “You mean when it comes down.” I weaseled my way through the side and close to the front when two men were pushed up next to me. They were Egyptian Christians who had arrived in Jerusalem for this. We struck up a conversation waiting for the gate to open about Israel and the situation in Egypt. I asked how it was being a Christian in Egypt and they just shook their heads and said that the Muslims there were horrible to them. We stuck close together and we were pushed in during the next wave. We made our way through the side streets of the Old City until we reached a barricade close to the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, adjacent to the Holy Sepulchre (3-6). There I waited for about two hours, squashed (and I mean really really packed) between about three hundred Russian pilgrims, thinking I would eventually be let into the Holy Sepulchre until it happened.

People started screaming. Screams turned into cries into tears into loud prayers of joy. And annoyingly, someone kept throwing the Native American holler in there too. I instinctively looked up, and raised my camera over my head and started shooting. I took a picture of  TV broadcasting what was going in in the Sepulchre, but all I got was this:

Now I can see that the TV is showing a circle of lit candles, but I couldn’t make out much from the photo at the time. People were still screaming and shouting at nothing and after about 10 minutes it started to die down. And then it started again. I looked up this time and started screaming too, but not in miraculous joy because what I saw was this:

An inferno. They were passing the Holy Fire back. A blazing wall of flames were rushing towards me as fast as the Russians could pass it back, which, if you know enthusiastic Russians is pretty fast. I had just taken the above photo when I looked up to see this:

and back to see this:

And I looked to the right and to the left to see this and this:

Clearly not everyone was enjoying this.

I realized that this was probably the most dangerous situation I’ve been in, which is pretty hard to say when you’re living in the Middle East. I was afraid the canopy that was draped over the street to shield us from the sun was going to go up in holy flames, so I decided to try and get out of there. But I couldn’t. I was still blocked in by the hundreds of pilgrims behind me, and by now they hard started blowing out the candles (so they could save them). Some people’s bundles of candles were so big that they couldn’t blow out the fire, so they started to throw the candles on the floor and stomp out the flames. And when that didn’t work they created a bonfire on the side of the street with piles of candles just burning. You can imagine that smoke starting to spill everywhere. And there was no way this fire doesn’t burn. I found one of my Egyptian friends going through the bonfire trying to rescue candles. He handed me one that he did and it was quickly dropped it. He sheepishly admitted that the flame wasn’t cold. You could feel the heat everywhere; there is no way this fire wouldn’t burn.

But still people were in rapturous joy. The shouting, screaming, crying, praying continued. People lit their, ten, twenty, thirty candles and continuously blew them out. It was amazing. It was the wildest thing I’ve ever seen. I made my way to the back, which was a mistake because the people there had just received the Holy Fire and this was going on:

(the fire breathing priests are my favorite)

People were still testing the flames, trying to make their pendants and icons holy:

Eventually the people were satisfied with the fire and crowd began to thin. The people trickled out leaving the smoke and melted wax everywhere. I looked around at the Israeli soldiers who were sitting on the side, very, very amused. And so was I. This was the craziest, most intense thing I’d ever seen in Jerusalem, and again, that’s saying a lot. It was extremely unsettling and dangerous but at the same time was awesome. It makes me happy to see so many people genuinely excited about something, and I think we should have more events like that, except maybe not with so much fire.

~ by jonathanmtsai on April 27, 2011.

2 Responses to “Holy Saturday: Miracle of the Holy Fire – Jerusalem”

  1. […] If you read anything it should be the posts about the Easter Mass and Miracle of the Holy Fire because they by far the most interesting. Otherwise just scroll down or look at the bottom of this […]

  2. What are something of the things that those 2 Egyptian Christians had/have to go through as Christians in Egypt?

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