One of rituals that stands out at Easter time, especially for the Christian worshipers, is the lighting of the Holy Fire in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
It goes like this…
They prayed that Saturday morning, all the high priests and the small ones, believers and worshipers, then they killed all the candles from the Church ’till the light was so dim that only the rays of the holy sun that shone through the stained glass windows showed them the way around. And with two white strips of cloth that crossed one over another they sealed the entrance to the Holy Tomb and they put a wax seal too, for all to see that nothing and nobody will go inside – till the time was right.
Police guarded the sealed door too, for none to doubt.
Later, the time had come. It is now.
But only one can step inside the chapel where the Holy Tomb is, the Patriarch. He is dressed like any other man, like the Man that once was and now is in Heavens, after He paid for our sins. He is dressed in a plain white sticharion, symbolizing the simplest of shrouds.
The simplest of shrouds for the purest of Men.
That through our belief in Jesus as the Son of God, and in his death and resurrection, God’s forgiveness was made once and for all through the death of Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Patriarch disappears inside, and outside the door awaits a deacon, holding a gold chalice made of the purest gold. Yet nothing is pure enough for this purpose.
Inside the Holy Tomb the Patriarch kneels and prays from all his heart and through him believers from inside the church and from all over the world pray. The prayers that were whispered in the morning, the day before and the week before, pour now through the Patriarch’s heart, towards the Holy Tomb. The marble slab atop the tomb is the same as it was two thousand years back, when He was laid to rest there and their hearts were heavy with grief. For they though they lost Him.
And the Patriarch prays further, his head on the Holy slab, his lips moving in silent prayer, a confidential prayer, for God only.
And outside the Holy Tomb everyone holds their breath in waiting.
In waiting of the Holy Fire.
Almost everyone. The Arab Christians run throughout the church clapping their hands, and with loud voices show their faith. They too, pray, they ask God to send the Light.
The Holy Fire.
It is said, by those who witnessed, pilgrims from the four corners of the world speaking as many languages as there are stars in heaven, or almost, it is said that while you wait quietly for the Patriarch to step outside with the Holy Fire… While you wait on your knees, or standing, or even seated… While you wait quietly, or praying, or crying… you feel, and everyone does, a breeze.
For a breath of air has flown over the Holy Tomb.
It is quick. Look for it one second too long and it is gone. By the time you ask yourself if you really felt it, it is gone.
And after it is gone, drops of light, sparks of blue-light fire dance on the holy marble slab of the Tomb. The Patriarch’s heart swells with joy, the same joy worshipers must have felt when He has Risen, and he gathers the dancing flames with his hands in a loving gesture. The same one you and I use when cradling the light of a candle. And he steps outside, holding the Holy Fire in his hands, and then setting it with care, with love and worship, in the purest gold chalice.
It does not burn his skin.
It does not burn anyone for 33 minutes.
Then, taking two bunches of 33 candles each, he lights them both from the Holy Fire and calls for all the worshipers in the Church, for the entire Christendom:
‘Come Receive the Light!‘
And everybody cheers and rejoices and the bells sing and the Patriarch, holding the Holy Fire, is carried on the worshipers hands around the Church for everybody to light their own candles from the Holy Light, and then to pass it on.
From candle to candle. From man to man. From believer to believer. They are Christian Orthodox, Roman-Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox…
The Holy Fire is taken, by special flight, to other orthodox countries: Greece, Romania, Georgia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Ukraine and Russia, being received by churches and millions of believers. And spreads from candle to candle, from hope to hope, from heart to heart.
From year to year, over the centuries.
The Holy Fire of Easter, a Memory
Each Easter Saturday, Sâmbăta Mare, the Saturday of Light or Holy Saturday, for as long as I remember of my life in Romania, my parents and I would walk to the church nearby, shortly before midnight, to receive the Light.
The vast church yard would be filled with people, young and old, neighbors and friends, my school friends and my parents’ friends, their relatives too, people standing in groups or alone, different in their dreams and ideals, yet all carrying a candle. Waiting, with hope in their heart, for the Holy Light. To see it. To share it, from one to the next. To take home.
The Holy Light is Hope. Hope for forgiveness. Hope for a blessed life. But it is also a common denominator. An equalizer. A reminder that we are all His children, we are not alone.
And so the Holy Light burns in our hearts for one more year. And forever.
Below is a 3 minutes video recording from the Metropolitan Cathedral, Iași, north-east of Romania.
PS Did you know?
Many Orthodox churches base their Easter date on the Julian calendar, which often differs from the Gregorian calendar that is used by many western countries. Therefore the Orthodox Easter period often occurs later than the Easter period that falls around the time of the March equinox. This year the Orthodox Easter will be celebrated on the 19th of April.