Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Holy Fire, Jerusalem, 2009 (Photo Nostalgia)

The pinnacle of our time in Jerusalem, other than the Pascal (Easter) service itself, was the ceremony of the Holy Fire, on Holy Saturday.  For the Orthodox, the Holy Fire is a miracle that has occurred for over 900 years (it has been recorded consistently since 1106, but has happened prior to that).  It involves a "Holy Fire" (hence the name) that spreads from the Holy Sepulchre itself via the Orthodox Patriarch.  The fire is said to not burn human flesh, and is thought to be a manifestation of God's divine grace and salvation (indeed, it takes place on the day in which Christ's sacking of Hades is commemorated).  

I fully expect criticism, skepticism, and the rolling of eyes at what was just said.  I also realize that because of my faith, I will appear biased or naive, and supposedly not wish to say anything against the Holy Fire that will cause doubt in Orthodox Christianity.  

However, I'm an American, and it's an intrinsic part of my nationality to not suffer fools gladly.  I was prepared to report on the Holy Fire exactly as I saw it.  If it didn't appear any different from regular fire, I would be the first to tell you.  If my hand burned inside of the flames just as it would in a normal fire, I would tell you (I would be somewhat distressed, but I would admit its characteristics).

As you've probably guessed, I'm posting this article because the miracle was undeniably real, both in my eyes and in those of others.  I'll get to that in a moment.

What follows is a photo sequence of the whole process of the Holy Fire, starting at 5am when the pilgrims started out to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, only to be rebuffed by Israeli security police.

 The previous year (2008), there were skirmishes inside the Holy Sepulchre during the Holy Fire ceremony. There was a new patriarch, and apparently he had made some enemies.  Also, keep in mind that many Christian Palestinians descend upon Jerusalem from the West Bank (they MUST get permission from Israel beforehand), and Israel deems it an extra security nightmare.  As a result, this year (2009), the Israeli police deemed it necessary to blockade the streets leading to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  We found this out at 5am, along with about a thousand other early risers.

 The makeup of the crowd was a cross-section of the Orthodox world = Greek yayahs, Russian babushkas, Serbs, Cypriots, and a trio of twenty-something converts from California.  

 We congregated at the checkpoint near Jaffa Gate (the western side of the Old City).  Previously, we had to sneak past a momentarily unmanned checkpoint a few hundred yards away from here.  At the risk of boasting, the very reality is that once we went through (meaning the 3 of us), many other people became bold and did likewise.  And we all met up here.

 Sadly, ambulances would be needed later in the day, as a few people received broken bones = I blame this on the mob mentality created only by the Israeli security types, since we were expecting to PEACEFULLY walk to the Holy Sepulchre.  What was going through peoples' heads was that the Israelis didn't want us to receive the Holy Fire = obviously this was not true, but you can hardly fault people for believing it.

 Yes, I'm wearing exactly what I wore the previous day, why do you ask?  :-P

 A picture says a thousand words, and this one says a mouthful about the intimidation we encountered by the thuggish Israeli police.

 I don't normally post lousy photos, but this one of the back of Herman's head was right before we LITERALLY toppled the security barrier and ran as fast as we've ever run before.  Yes, we were tempting arrest, but we didn't care.

I want to take a moment to condemn the idea of putting a security barrier at the top of David Street, which descends downhill at a steep angle.  The Israelis were asking for people to get injured (and I'm sure it happened, although I never looked back once through).

 Lo and behold, it's another barrier (one that a different group of people had already gotten to from their hotels that were inside the barrier we just toppled).

 Well, we got through that barrier too, before it was reinforced!  We're now at our THIRD barrier, looking back at the second one we got through.

 This was the LAST thing any of us expected going to the Holy Fire ceremony.  I may be speaking for myself, but we were cognizant of the effect that these trials would have on our souls.  The last thing I wanted to do was to accept the Holy Fire with anger in my heart and foul thoughts for those persecuting us (yes, persecution is a strong word, but I'm letting it stand).
 Clearly I wasn't too happy with the circumstances.  I've seen bureaucratic nonsense of varying degrees in other countries, but this takes the cake.

 I think this is looking back at the third checkpoint after getting through.  Fortunately they didn't come back to get us, but merely strengthened the number of agents guarding it.  

 There were lookouts from the rooftops, armed with guns (standard).

 Goodie, it's another checkpoint (but the church was just around the corner to the left, so we were making progress).

 Four and a half hours had gone by.  The ceremony was at either noon or 1pm (I forget which).  We had been up for five + hours, and we weren't drinking water simply because we knew there wouldn't be any bathrooms.  The price we pay for miracles.  :-D

 An accidentally striking photo of the augmented security detail (i.e. riot police) that was piercing the crowd.

 Here's a look at them from above.  By the way, orders were barked at us in HEBREW ONLY before someone wised up and started throwing in broken English phrases.  However, we were some of the only ones that understood, since the majority of the people spoke only Greek or Russian.

 Markos and Herman are up for anything, but even this started to wear them down, as seen on their faces.

 Tempers were starting to calm, believe it or not.  However, there was a lot of "hurry up and wait."

 Our goal is in sight over the rooftops.

 Huzzah!  We made it to the entrance.

 Wait, they actually have an orderly system of entrance?  Imagine that!

We were among the first couple thousand people inside, which meant we actually would be able to glimpse the Holy Sepulchre (even if our view wouldn't be very good).

 The Mosque of Omar, behind us.  

A relevant anecdote (and forgive me for probably messing up some of the finer details, although the main points are true) = one year a few centuries ago, a different sect of Christians tried to block the Orthodox from receiving the Holy Fire.  The doors to the church were closed, so the congregation wailed outside.  The Ottoman authorities watched from above at the Mosque of Omar.  Suddenly, the Holy Fire appeared in the form of a lightning flash at one of the columns adjacent to the doorway of the church.  One of the Muslim leaders was so amazed he leaped from the balcony (he landed unharmed, a miracle in of itself) and proclaimed, "Great is the Christian faith!"  He was beheaded on the spot by his fellow Muslims (the penalty for apostasy in Islam is death).  Today, the Orthodox remember his conversion and subsequent baptism in his own blood.

UPDATE = I found more specifics on this man (though it does not mention his martyrdom).  Once the Armenians paid the Turks, who then occupied the Holy Land, in order to obtain permission for their Patriarch to enter the Holy Sepulchre, The Orthodox Patriarch was standing sorrowfully with his flock at the exit of the church, near the left column, when the Holy Fire split this column vertically and flashed near the Orthodox Patriarch.
A Moslem Muezin, called Tounom, who saw the miraculous event from an adjacent mosque, abandoned immediately the Moslem religion and became an Orthodox Christian. This event took place in 1549 under Sultan Mourad IV, when the Patriarch of Jerusalem was Sophrony II. (The mentioned split column still exists. It goes back to the XII c. The Orthodox pilgrims embrace it at the “place of the split” as the enter the church).

 Security forces watch from above, more than a bit bored.

 Inside the Holy Sepulchre, we still had to wait a couple of hours.  At least we were in, baby.

 Our glimpse of the Holy Sepulchre, near the time that the Patriarch emerged with the Holy Fire to disperse it not only to the Greek / Russian Orthodox, but also the gathered Coptic priests, Armenian priests, Syriac priests, and others [note - the Catholics were not present, despite having their chambers right behind me, because the pope decreed that the Holy Fire is a fraud].

 This is the only photo I have of the Holy Fire itself.  Understandably, the Israelis force people to leave almost immediately after getting the fire (they don't want the church to burn down, etc etc), so I only had time for one quick photo.  Notice that the man is reaching his hand towards the flame.

What I Observed in the Holy Fire

1. It had heat, like normal fire.  One young Russian man piously stuck his whole face in his mini-bonfire of a candle, before recoiling in shock.  After seeing this, I was worried that the fire was a bust.

2. It had smoke (seen in the photo).  If you passed your fingers through the flames, you would get a smoke mark just like with any normal candle flame.

3. The color was, to my eyes (although not to others I spoke with), similar to regular fire.  Others said they saw different hues, but I can't testify to this.

4. THE ONE KEY DIFFERENCE?  After getting over the initial heat shock, I could keep my hand in the flame for over ten seconds (and it would have been more except that it was obvious by then that I wouldn't be burnt even if I kept it in for minutes).  This should have given me third degree burns.  Of course I expect skepticism of my report ("He didn't have any water for 9 hours!  He was delusional!"), but I assure you that 1. I was (and am) in my right mind; 2. I would never pass on a lie (which many erroneously believe the Holy Fire to be, including the Roman pope); 3. THERE WERE ONLY THOUSANDS OF OTHER PEOPLE THERE WHO EXPERIENCED THE SAME THING.  

And for those who claim (as I've seen time and time again on the internet) that our poor little pilgrims' hands were icy cold and could withstand the heat longer than normal, HOGWASH.  This was a balmy Middle Eastern day, and we were even warmer than usual.


At this point, you might be wondering why God would want us to have the Holy Fire in the first place.  Perhaps you're recalling Biblical verses regarding faithless generations seeking after a sign (you were, weren't you? ;-) ).  

Here are my two cents, which might ruffle some Christian feathers: we live in an age of a multitude of Christian sects, each with different viewpoints on dogmatic principles as well as the nature of Christ.  While I do not deny in the slightest that these sects are Christian, there is no way that all of them can be right.  Truth is not relative, despite what this age believes = if one church believes that Christ is fully human AND fully divine, while another believes that Christ's divinity swallows up His humanity, THEY CANNOT BOTH BE RIGHT.

The Holy Fire started to appear (without anyone first asking for it, although we now pray for it yearly) at a time when the One True Catholic (Universal) Church was fraying at the seams.  Indeed, the Great Schism between the Orthodox East and what is now called the Catholic West would take place in 1054.  The Crusades were also going on around this time, in which Western Christians not only fought Muslims, but their one-time Eastern Christian brethren as well.  Clearly, it was a sad state of affairs that, really, hasn't changed all that much over the centuries other than becoming a bit more subtle.

In short, I believe that it is a sign by God that the Orthodox Church is, was, and will continue to be His One Holy, Apostolic Church, over which hell will never triumph.  

After receiving the Holy Fire, we had to exit.  Outside were many multitudes who were unable to get inside; however, they too received the Holy Fire and carried it throughout the city.

Later on (at least 30 minutes later), we were walking in the Muslim Quarter, and someone had put a gigantic torch with the Holy Fire in it on a post.  I checked it to see if it still had the qualities of the Holy Fire (many have said that after 15 minutes or so that the Holy Fire reverts to having the qualities of regular fire).  It didn't burn me, so I kept my hand in the flame for quite some time, in full view of everyone on the street.

Those that passed by lowered their eyes at the sight as if they saw nothing, and moved on with their lives.

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