Eastern Orthodox mark Holy Fire in Jerusalem

Called the Saturday of Light by some eastern churches, the holiday is observed according to the Julian calendar which the Orthodox adhere to, explained Armenian historian George Hintlian.

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem stands at the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the Good Friday service amid restrictions due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Jerusalem's Old City April 10, 2020. (photo credit: STEPHEN FARREL/REUTERS)
Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem stands at the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the Good Friday service amid restrictions due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Jerusalem's Old City April 10, 2020.
(photo credit: STEPHEN FARREL/REUTERS)
Just as Jews last week celebrated Passover – albeit in groups of no more than three family members in accordance with Health Ministry coronavirus pandemic regulations, and next week Muslims will begin marking the holy month of Ramadan in accordance with social distancing rules, so too Eastern Orthodox Christians on Saturday celebrated the Holy Fire ceremony.
But instead of the tens of thousands of pilgrims who typically come from Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece and elsewhere to witness the annual “miracle” inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher – the site for most Christians of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection – this year the ceremony was carried out on a very limited basis.
While Israel Police barricaded the Old City of Jerusalem to prevent the public from entering the medieval ramparts, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs let the Crusader-era church open for Saturday’s 2 p.m. celebration. In attendance were clerics of various Orthodox churches based in Israel.
Under police escort, they then carried the flame of the Holy Fire to Ben-Gurion Airport to be handed over to various overseas delegations which had flown to Israel. In accordance with quarantine regulations, those prelates remained on their planes waiting for the delivery.
The Foreign Ministry with the help of foreign embassies organized the transport of the flame by special aircrafts to the following ten countries: Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Russia, Greece, Cyprus, Georgia, Belarus, Moldova, Romania and Poland.  In Greece the flame was also taken by chartered jet to the monasteries on Mount Athos near Thessaloniki. The colorful ceremony was broadcast live throughout much of the former Soviet Union.
Foreign Minister Israel Katz said: "The Foreign Ministry, together with many foreign delegations and partners, led an extraordinary mission that brought the holiday to millions of believers around the world so they could continue to celebrate this tradition even during these special days [of COVID-19]. Katz added that he hoped that in the coming years thousands of tourists would once again flock to Jerusalem to celebrate the holiday.
The Unit for Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories also coordinated the passage of the Holy Fire from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher into the Gaza Strip and to West Bank Churches in Bethlehem, Ramallah, Jenin and the Jerusalem periphery. COGAT also coordinated the transfer of the flame though the Allenby Bridge Crossing by Jericho to the patriarchate. in Jordan.
COGAT head Major General Kamil Abu Rukun said: "Even now, COGAT is working in support of freedom of worship and freedom of religion for the residents of the Judea and Samaria area and the Gaza Strip, while preserving the security and health of the worshippers. Despite the complex situation surrounding us at present because of the spread of the coronavirus, we are doing everything we can to sustain the various religious rituals— in a form adapted to the accepted instructions for public health."
"On this occasion I send greetings to the members of the Christian community, along with warm wishes, and may we all enjoy sturdy health and a rapid return to normal life," Rukun said.
The logistically complicated operation demonstrated the Jewish state’s commitment to preserving the Holy Land as the cradle of not only Judaism but of Christianity.
Called the Saturday of Light by some eastern churches, the holiday is observed according to the Julian calendar which the Orthodox adhere to, explained Armenian historian George Hintlian.
The ceremony was established in the ninth century when Bernard the Wise was told that an angel lit the fire on Easter night. By Crusader times it had become a famous miracle. In Ottoman times horsemen stationed in the church courtyard carried the flame to Bethlehem and Nazareth. By the 19th century the fire was transported by steamer from Jaffa to the Greek Orthodox churches of the eastern Mediterranean.
In normal times, thousands of Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Coptic and Assyrian faithful crowd into the church. Top clerics carrying an extinguished torch enter the Aedicule – the tiny chamber in the rotunda of the Holy Sepulcher marking the site of the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea in which Jesus’s body was placed on Easter Friday following his crucifixion.
At 2 p.m. amid mounting tension in the darkened medieval basilica, a flame of “holy fire” – said to be miraculously descended from heaven – is thrust out one of the portals of the shrine, which emits a blue hue. Details of the flame’s source are a closely guarded secret. The “divine” spark is then quickly passed from candle to candle in a wall of flame while the faithful literally bathe in its glow and pass their hands unharmed through the fire.
While impressed by the ceremony, Mike Ney – a material science engineer with Boeing Aircraft in Seattle currently stationed on contract in Tel Aviv – was skeptical of its miraculous nature. “It’s an easy trick we used to do in grade eight chemistry,” he explained. “You mix phosphorus with an organic compound. As the organic solution evaporates, it leaves the phosphorus behind which spontaneously combusts with water vapor in the air. Imagine that someone in the 13th century didn’t know that. They didn’t know chemistry like we do today. They would have thought it was a miracle.”