Hours of tense waiting, fatigue and rivalry turned instantaneously to joy and relief when the densely packed Church of the Holy Sepulchre was lit up on Saturday afternoon with fire, swiftly spreading between the Christians attending the Holy Fire ceremony.
Police estimated that at least 10,000 worshipers crowded the ancient church in Jerusalem’s Old City, which is, according to Christian tradition, the site of Jesus’s burial and resurrection.
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The ceremony is the holiest event for the Orthodox Christian sects, as evident in the heavy presence of Greek, Russian, Armenian, Coptic and Syrian Christians, with some Catholics also visible in the crowd.
As the anticipant believers – many of whom had been in the complex since
the early morning – waited behind police barriers keeping the groups
apart and the pathways free for the clergymen, the Greek Orthodox
Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theofilos III, accompanied by a senior Armenian
priest, exited the Edicule, a small structure within the church marking
Jesus’s grave, with burning candles.
These were used to light three more candles borne by young men – one who
sprinted to light the candle of a senior clergyman, and the other two,
who touched the candles outstretched by the believers, whistling and
yelling their enthusiasm as bells began to toll and the air became thick
Burning candles will also be flown out to Orthodox communities throughout the world.
The faithful believe that it is through divine intervention that the
first flame comes to life – much like Jesus did at the same spot a day
after his crucifixion, marked by Saturday’s midnight Easter Mass.
“This was fantastic,” beamed Sambart, a physician from Armenia, who was
one of the young men ensuring ahead of the ceremony that the Armenians
received the meters of church space that were their due. It is his
fourth time in Jerusalem for the ceremony.
“Everyone must see it,” he said. “I feel stronger.”
Other people swiftly passed a hand through the fire burning on their
multi-wicked candles, then wiped their faces and heads. “I feel clean,
pure, like I was just born,” another man from Russia said.
To Andrew, a member of a group of Russian Orthodox Christians from
Belarus who was attending the Holy Fire for the first time, “the fire
represents that life prevails over death,” and “the ceremony shows the
unity of the Orthodox Church.”
Tensions between different Greek and Armenian Orthodox Christians have
in the past climaxed in fights within the church, which is run by a
status- quo committee composed of members of those churches as well as
Copts, Assyrians and Ethiopians Orthodox also bear certain rights to the
building, which contains various chambers built, destroyed and rebuilt
since the fourth century, when the site was destined a church.
But on Sunday, the peace was well kept between the laymen of these
groups, although there was the inevitable vying for a better view of the
ceremonial action. Policemen heavily deployed throughout the church,
carrying small fireextinguishers on their backs, ensured that none of
the enthused pilgrims went beyond their destined limits, and the entire
ceremony was broadcast live throughout the world.
Sami, a Maronite Catholic from Jaffa who came to be part of the ceremony
but didn’t carry a candle, noted that Easter fell on the same day for
Catholics and Orthodox Christians, an event that happens on average once
every three years due to the different calendars used by the groups.
“To me,” he said, “the most important part of the event is the unity between the different parts of the church.”