Easter1988 I had the privilege of being present at the Holy Fire Ceremonies at the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem. The ceremony of the Holy Fire belongs to the Orthodox Churches. As a member of the
Western Roman Tradition it was necessary for me to be in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre from early morning. After the celebration of our Eucharist I managed to stay by going up the stairway onto the roof of the building. I stayed there along with an Israeli soldier until the ceremonies were about to begin in the early afternoon. (This could not happen to-day)
Watching the process down below was fascinating. Each time one of the Patriarchs of the Coptic or Armenian Churches arrived the doors were opened followed by a great rush to get into the Church before the doors were closed again. Eventually the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church arrived and the doors were opened and closed for the last time before the ceremony began.
I came down to find the church packed with people. There was a real sense of carnival singing, dancing, drum-beating. Each one present carrying bunches of candles, often in carrier bags to be brought back home and distributed to friends and neighbours alike. When the official chant began a deep silence descended on the crowd. The Patriarchs entered the Tomb and the door of the tomb was closed. Everyone stretched out their hands, full of candles, towards the tomb of Christ. The silence was pregnant with expectation and profoundly moving – one of those extended moments which lasted, in reality for three or four minutes, but stretched into eternity and like Jacob’s ladder of old moved between heaven and earth. Then the door of the tomb opened and the Greek Patriarch emerged with a lighted torch and the words CHRIST IS RISEN. Words taken up by the whole group shouting Christ is Risen. The light passed to runners who circled the church three times, everyone trying to stop them to have their own candles lit – and within moments the interior of the church which was in darkness became bright with the light of Christ. Eventually the doors of the Holy Sepulchre were opened and the light entered the square. The shout went up even higher ‘Christ is Risen’. (The light from the tomb is flown in a protected container to Athens where the paschal fire there is lit from the fire in Jerusalem).
The following thought hit me: ‘If the fire from the tomb had been blown out by some freak occurrence– some people would literally have died.’ The whole experience was so powerful. And I instantly regretted our more prosaic approach to the world of symbol- take it or leave it. That evening I joined our own Easter Vigil celebrations at St Anne’s Church. The Paschal Fire was lit overlooking the pool of Beth-zatha where Jesus had healed the man waiting thirty-eight years to be put into the waters. The setting was and is elemental. That night there was a fairly strong breeze and the Paschal Candle was blown out three times before we reached the doors of St Anne’s Church. Each time it was just lit again and we all smiled. It was a beautiful ceremony yet unlike the afternoon celebration I had no sense of our lives depending on it. The thought I came away with, which still haunts me, is the need to develop a deeper sense of the power of symbol in our lives and liturgy. I hope that for all of us who have taken part in the Easter Vigil and Mass the experience may echo that of the poet Elizabeth Jennings.
“And in the cold night underneath the stars
I felt something like love and nothing of fear
For here was the holy ground and rising day
And it was right to be there.” (Elizabeth Jennings – Easter Vigil and Mass)