One of the highlights of Orthodox Easter is the Holy Fire service that takes place in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. The Holy Fire is, according to tradition, acquired by the patriarch while inside the sepulcher. When the fire ignites he then comes out of the tomb and passes it literally thousands of people who then pass it around to one another and then attempt to head to the airport in Tel-Aviv with the fire still burning.
In 1998 Lori and I were living in Jerusalem and were literally caught in the midst of the Holy Fire procession. We were on our way to visit a shop and, aware that it was the day of the ceremony decided to take a different route to avid the crowds. What we didn't realize was that those who couldn't fit into the church were at various locations in the city watching the ceremony on CCTV. All at once doors began opening and the quiet street we were on was filled with Orthodox pilgrims from around the world clutching a fistful of candles that burned like a torch. Lori and pressed ourselves against the wall as we watched of a parade of people and fire pass by. In some ways it resembled a scene from a Frankenstein movie as the angry peasants hunted the monster.
Below is a report on the ceremony as well as a short video of it. I suspect that it would be both an awe inspiring as well as frightening experience.
Thousands of Orthodox Christian braved hours of waiting to witness the Holy Fire ceremony in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre – an important annual rite for the Church’s eastern denominations.
In what believers regard as a miracle, every year the day before Orthodox Easter, an unlit blue fire from a stone in the Church descends from the dome and ignites a candle held by the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem.
Around 10,000 people squeezed into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – regarded by many as the place where Jesus was laid to rest and resurrected – with about as many waiting outside. As the Patriarch received the fire, he passed it around, to other clergymen from other denominations (six of them share the church and consider it a holy site) and onto the gathered pilgrims.
The appearance of the flame is symbolic of Jesus’ rise from the dead three days after his funeral. Pilgrims let the flames touch their hands – as the Holy Fire supposedly does not burn those who come in contact with it. Those outside watched the ceremony on giant broadcast screens.
Candles lit by the Holy Fire were then taken to Nazareth, where Jesus was born, and to the home countries of the assembled clergymen. There are around 300 million Orthodox Christians in the world.