During the last week in April 2016, I had the incredible opportunity to make the long journey to the heart of Jerusalem for Holy Week and Pascha along with thousands of Christian pilgrims from Greece, Russia, Ethiopia, Egypt, and various other Slavic and Arab countries. While there, I was able to experience truly beautiful events that I felt are my responsibility to share with those who are curious, enamored, or maybe a little skeptical but open to hearing a firsthand account of Orthodox Easter in the Holy Land.
As many of you may know, the date of Orthodox Easter often follows the date of western Easter celebrated by Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians due to differences in the ecclesial calendars. When I arrived in Jerusalem, it had been four weeks since western Easter had taken place but Orthodox Holy Week had only just begun (and concurrently, Jewish Passover). In addition to ordinary tourists and locals, the streets of the old city were animated by Christian pilgrims getting ready for Pascha and Jewish pilgrims getting ready for Passover. This multiethnic, multicultural, and multireligious epicenter invoked a truly surreal sensation of being caught up in a bustling spiritual intersection yet feeling like a spectating shadow.
What brought me to Jerusalem in the first place was a blend of intentions. For one, Jerusalem has always been on my travel list, even before I was an Orthodox Christian. More recently, however, I’ve been itching to do as much traveling as I can for adventure therapy and personal growth and so I simply decided to make it happen. I also decided that I would go during Easter because I wanted to see and experience the Paschal celebrations in the city where it all began. I wanted a personal encounter with the birthplace of the Christian faith, the ancient and rich traditions that grew out of it, and most importantly, I wanted to experience the same continuity with the resurrection that Orthodox Christians have been experiencing for the last two thousand years. Ad fontes in the fullest possible sense! As a bonus, my dad came with me.
I had also heard about something called the “Miracle of the Holy Fire”. Although not as well known in the west, this renowned miracle has been occurring every year at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem for the last nineteen hundred years. On Holy Saturday, the Patriarch of Jerusalem enters the Holy Sepulcher where Christ was entombed, kneels down to pray, and then receives a miraculous light from God. He then spreads the holy flame to everyone present in the church. Like the fire that did not consume the burning bush or the three young men inside the fiery furnace, pilgrims who journey there to witness the miracle claim that the holy fire does not burn them. Intrigued by this ceremony, I had to investigate.
The first couple days in Jerusalem were amazing. Our visit was action-packed and we utilized every spare minute visiting the holy sites, exploring the corridors and bazaars inside the old city, and soaking up as much history as we could. I even stopped to get inked by Wassim, a Coptic Christian tattoo artist whose family has been tattooing pilgrims for over seven hundred years. One of the most memorable segments of our stay was the trek out to Bethlehem and into Palestinian territory where we beheld the infamous wall dividing Israelis and Palestinians. Truly unreal, but that is another story for another time. All in all, the first few days in Jerusalem were a tiring but gratifying prelude to what was to come.
On Holy Saturday morning, I awoke at 6:30 a.m. to make a phone call to my internet acquaintance Khader, a Jerusalem native and parishioner/subdeacon at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher who was also our avenue into the holy fire ceremony. The ceremony wasn’t supposed to begin until the early afternoon but pilgrims line up by the thousands long before the miracle occurs and sometimes camp out as early as Holy Friday. We discovered that the old city had already secured the main gates and blocked off most of the roads near and around the church in preparation for the crowds. Khader told us to meet him outside of the New Gate at 7:00 a.m. where those with special permits were waiting to enter (the masses at Jaffa Gate were already swelling). I quickly dressed and, dragging my sore feet and still jet lagged body, we hurried over to the New Gate.
By the time we arrived at the New Gate two minutes before 7:00 a.m., Khader had already entered through security and had to maneuver his way back to us because we could not enter through the gate by ourselves. Since we didn’t have special permits, it took us multiple attempts at convincing the Israeli police that we were here by Khader’s invitation. I was doubtful at first and began to worry that they wouldn’t let us through, but I guess if you argue with Israeli police long enough they eventually change their minds (and I think it helped that Khader was a local). This happened at multiple checkpoints along the route to the Holy Sepulcher, but each time we were somehow allowed to continue.
The streets were mostly empty except for the police, a few other VIP pilgrims, and loitering clergy. Other than the intermittent checkpoints, it was a relatively easy and quick walk over to the Holy Sepulcher. Khader led us into the Greek chapel and told us to wait inside a small doorway facing the outside courtyard. In a few more hours, the police would unblock the main entrance and we would be allowed to enter. We thanked him for his help and before parting ways he exhorted us: “God brought you this far. He will see you the rest of the way.”
Time passed quickly and before long the police announced the opening of the gates. Immediately, a herd of pilgrims descended on us like starving prisoners scrambling for their rations and so we found ourselves in the middle of the first mob rush. The next six hours were purgatory. Between waves of anticipation, excitement, shock, boredom, restlessness, fatigue, lightheadedness, irritation, claustrophobia, and many prodding elbows, I tried my best to preserve my sanity with lots of water and granola bars. At times we moved only inches at a time. At times we stood in the same position for hours unable to stretch an arm. I loathed the pushy pilgrims and the obnoxious old lady with frizzy blonde hair and bad breath in front of me. I started to doubt that the miracle was even real. I wanted the suffering to end and to return to the comfortable guesthouse to catch up on lost sleep, but at this point even that was impossible.
It was almost 3:00 p.m. when it finally happened. The pilgrims had been chanting hymns and shouting “Christ is risen!” in all possible languages for over an hour. I shouted with them until my voice cracked. Our exhilaration mellowed a bit after the lights dimmed but the air was thick with anticipation and I began to feel connected again with my Orthodox brothers and sisters. I made friendly conversation with a Greek and a Copt next to me. I don’t know at what point the authorities searched the tomb for hidden sources of fire or when the Patriarch of Jerusalem entered to pray. I couldn’t see when the light emerged from the tomb, but suddenly the long wait was over, everyone forgot about their exhaustion, and the pilgrims’ bellows resounded as the holy light made its way over from one person to the next. I grabbed my lump of compacted beeswax candles and turned on my iPhone camera, trembling with joy and astonishment as the light crept closer and closer. Within a few minutes, the holy fire ignited my wicks. I was afraid at first and hesitated to wave my hand through the flame. I remember gathering the courage to test the flame and then feeling stunned that I felt no heat. I looked back at the woman behind me who washed her face with the fire and she let me wave my hands through her flame. Everything else was a blur and seemed like a dream.
Within half a minute, the holy fire grew hot again and pilgrims frantically snuffed out their candles. Many of them had brought oversized bundles and torches that rapidly dripped hot wax as soon as the fire returned to its natural state. We exited the Sepulcher quickly after receiving the holy fire and I returned to the guesthouse to get some rest before the midnight Pascha service.
I’d like to think I’m a fairly levelheaded and objective person. Having grown up in an evangelical Protestant tradition with very little room for divine miracles inside our theological boxes, by default I’ve always approached such claims with caution. Since embracing Eastern Orthodoxy six years ago, however, I have become more receptive to the possibility of tangible miracles, especially since witnessing a myrrh-streaming icon several years ago. Long before our expedition to the Holy Sepulcher began, I told myself that I was going to be at peace no matter what I discovered. If the holy fire was a true miracle, then glory to God. If the holy fire was merely an exciting but counterfeit ritual, then I would still be okay with that. My faith would not depend on the outcome of this investigation, but I sure hoped it was true.
I didn’t even plan on writing anything until someone suggested that I should because many of you know that I was there and have asked to hear more about my experience. Am I a transformed person? Is my faith stronger? Would I make the long pilgrimage again to Jerusalem? It’s hard to say what I will ultimately take away from an experience I am still processing and will probably continue to process for a while, but I believe so. I believe that the holy fire was a vehicle for God’s grace and did something for me and the pilgrims who were there, even if I can’t quite put it into words. What I do know is that I am an Orthodox Christian who traveled to Jerusalem during Pascha in April 2016 to see this phenomenon and this is my firsthand account of the “Miracle of the Holy Fire”. Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!