By Maria C. Khoury, Ed.D.
In the last few years during Great Lent, I have developed a pattern of promoting our Christian presence in the Holy Land with a book tour (using the book Christina Goes to the Holy Land) and returning to Palestine for Holy Week, to wait for the most marvelous miracle that is at the core of our Christian presence in the Holy Land: The Miracle of the Holy Fire. I have failed to do a book tour this year so I do not want to fail to be a witness for this magnificent miracle that everyone always asks me about and appeared for the first time during the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Luke 24:4; Matthew 28:1-4)
Every Great and Holy Saturday, for centuries, pilgrims from all over the world gather in Jerusalem to witness this miraculous event. The Holy Fire – the actual miraculous flame – is received by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch in the most holy place of Christ’s Life Giving Tomb, inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Most years, it happens at approximately 2 p.m. The patriarchate time, I believe, is actually 1 p.m. because the time for the patriarchate is never changed for the daylight savings time that we in the secular world always go back and forth, an hour, according to spring or fall. Please know I did not make a mistake with my a.m., p.m., (as editors in the past have tried to correct me) I do mean in the middle of the afternoon on Great and Holy Saturday.
It is very difficult to witness the momentous event. Not everyone can fit inside the church. Many people want to sleep inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre the night before so they can be inside when the miracle happens. This has been forbidden in the last few years although it was true in the past. Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank – who are well accustomed to restrictions on their freedom – need special permits from the Israeli army to enter Jerusalem; as an added security measure, especially instituted in the last few years, there are numerous checkpoints set up in the Old City of Jerusalem before entering the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This year only four hundred permits were issued to Christians from Gaza and only to persons over forty years of age with no guarantee they will enter the church.
The Holy Fire comes from the core of the stone that covers Christ’s Life Giving Tomb as the Patriarch recites prayers that have been handed down from the time of Christ’s Holy Resurrection. This celebration is the oldest unbroken Christian ceremony in the world. Thousands of people squeeze into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but most must wait within or even outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. Muslims and Jews also come to watch because we simply go crazy with the chanting on this particular holy day. The ceremony is an exciting celebration, with the sound of many languages being spoken at the same time as church representatives from all over the Holy Land come to receive the Holy Fire and carry the flame in small lanterns to their home churches for the Midnight Resurrection Service.
In every town that has even a small Christian community, a spectacular parade forms to celebrate and receive the Holy Fire. In Taybeh we anxiously wait at the outskirts of our village at five in the evening. The priests of all three churches and the mayor (which still happens to be my husband David Khoury) lead the faithful, with the choir chanting, and the scouts beating the drums to meet our cousin Ibrahim with his eleven-year-old son Philip, who go to the city of Ramallah, where a patriarchate representative brings the flame from Jerusalem for the Palestinian Christian communities that cannot reach the Holy City. Again, the Israeli army does not automatically grant permits to all Christians. It is a frustrating and aggravating procedure to get a permit so it has become easier in the last few years just to wait for the Holy Fire to come to us instead of fighting our way with soldiers and police to get to the actual spot of our Lord’s Holy Resurrection which we should have the basic human right to move around and get there according to my opinion. It should be a basic right and basic freedom to worship in Jerusalem, the Holy City for all. Ibrahim use to go to Jerusalem from the time he was a child to receive the Miracle of the Holy Fire and bring it for the Taybeh community and it has been a beautiful family tradition that he is trying to pass to his son despite all of the Israeli restrictions.
A solemn procession takes place from the outskirts of Taybeh all the way back to St. George Church, where the flame is placed on the altar to await the faithful for the midnight Resurrection service of Holy Pascha. As we chant in our Midnight Resurrection Service: “Come ye and receive light from the unwaning Light, and glorify Christ, Who arose from the dead.”
The significance of the Miracle of the Holy Fire is that Christ offers eternal life and is truly among us. This uncreated light was first seen by the apostles. The magnificent ceremony is considered a miracle because there is no explanation for the way the flame comes from the Life Giving Tomb of Christ (which is actually coming down from Heaven) when all candles are not lit. When I experienced the miracle for the first time in 2002, it was like a bluish light that sparkled; it flashed like lightning but not a natural light. This miracle continues to be the message of Christ’s unchanging promise of salvation and true life. When I told the monk, “Please I need to be in the front so I can write about this.” He simply kicked me out of the way to make way for the ambassadors and he said in Greek, “My child, it is not only the eyes that see.”
We witness the truth and receive the Holy Fire on Holy Saturday in Jerusalem so that all who are not living in the land of Christ’s Holy Resurrection can believe that Christ is the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world” (John 1:9). Here in the Holy Land it is every day that one might say, “Truly the Lord is Risen.”
– Maria C. Khoury contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.