This entire expedition was built around one thing: To spend Easter in Jerusalem. In fact, the only hotel that I had booked before leaving home was the hotel here in Jerusalem. I have finally arrived and it signals the pinnacle of a four month long expedition.
I drove into the city and I was immediately lost. Being such an old city, it was not designed with the automobile in mind. There are also not many street signs so I had to ask many different people before I was able to find my hotel. As soon I as I did, I dropped my bags off, parked the car and walked to the old city.
It was good Friday and the streets were full of pilgrims from all around the world. The first place I wanted to visit was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (also called Church of the Resurrection). Just getting to the church was almost an impossible task as the narrow streets and passages were packed with people. When I finally got there, it was amazing. The architecture of the church was magnificent and the enormous structure was build surrounding the most important object: The Holy Ciborium. This is the actual spot where Jesus Christ was buried, over 2000 years ago. After soaking it in and capturing some images here, I made my way to the office of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, the most important religious figure in my faith. I waited over two hours for the honour of meeting him and to ask for his blessing to enter the Church for the Holy Light ceremony the following day. When I finally met him, I was surprised at how humble, friendly and generous he was on the busiest day of the year for him. I expected to speak with a man that was for good reasons, rushed and frantically busy. His calmness and peace really spoke volumes to me. It made me realize that even in the most hectic and busy of times, there is no need to let stress affect you.
After introducing myself and asking for his blessing, he gave me a blue card that he said would help get me into the Church the following day. He also signed a note on his stationary saying “With our Patriarchal wishes and blessings, Jerusalem 22.04.2011”. I did not understand the power of these two small pieces of paper until the following day. I was just happy to meet him and to get his blessing.
That evening I was able to attend midnight liturgy, thinking full well that I was going to be sleeping in the church to secure a spot for the Holy Light service. At 3:00am, everyone was told they had to exit the church and I thought my chances were sunk. I went back to my hotel and slept for two hours, vowing to return to try again when the church reopened at 6:00am. I accidentally slept in and did not end up leaving my hotel until 6:30. This is when I realized how special those two pieces of paper were.
There were crowds of people at every police checkpoint trying to get to the church. The police had closed it off completely to all pilgrims. As I pushed my way to the front of the barricade, I flashed the blue card and I was immediately pulled through the checkpoint! There were three more checkpoints on the way to the church and with every one, the same result!
I made it to the church at about 7:30am and there was a Catholic service in progress. There is no Catholic or any other denomination at the light service, the light only appears for the Greek Orthodox Patriarch.
Let me explain what the Holy Light is before I go any further. Every Greek Orthodox Easter on the Holy Saturday beginning at around 11:00am, the Christian Arabs chant traditional hymns accompanied by the sound of drums. Some of the local authorities then enter the tomb and check for any source of fire: a match, a lighter, etc. The Patriarch then enters the Holy Ciborium with two unlit candles, kneels at the spot where Christ’s body was laid to rest and begins to recite prayers that have been handed down through centuries. After the prayers, the candles then ignite!
Ok, so now you have a little bit of the history, let’s get back to my experience in the church. At 10:00am, we were allowed to start securing spots in the church, as I was one of the first ones there and the police had recognised me, one of the officers waved me into the closest gated area in the entire church! I literally had a front row seat now and I was not giving it up. From 11:00am until 3:00pm, I stood in that exact spot, not being able to move my feet. No wonder I am tired today.
I watched the ceremonies that I explained earlier and the atmosphere was electric. The Christian Arabs screamed their chants and beat their drums with passion and enthusiasm. They climbed on each other’s shoulders as they waved flags, unlit candles and crosses. As the Patriarch’s precession entered, the crowd became less vocal and waited as they circled the Holy Ciborium three times. He was searched for lighters or matches which seemed pointless to me. This event has been happening on the same day for over 1600 years, there were no Zippos or campfire matches back then. As he entered the Chapel, there was silence for a few minutes and then out of nowhere, I saw the light of God. Fire from nothing! It was surreal. This was no ordinary fire, it danced around and was much larger than a normal candle’s flame. There were pillars of fire from every candle in the entire church. If you look at the images you will see exactly what I mean. Where have you seen a candle with a flame that large while dancing like it was in a wind storm? I cannot think of enough adjectives to describe it. The most amazing part was yet to come. I was shooting images before receiving the light from another pilgrim. As my 33 candles ignited, they danced like there was a tornado in the room. I had heard from a close friend of mine that the fire will not burn you, and I also wanted to experience it. I held my hand in the flame for minutes and as my hand became blackened with soot, I felt no pain. I had no blisters and not even the slight bit of redness!
A documentary film crew was beside me the whole time, they were there to document the occasion and from things that they said I could tell they were sceptical of the whole thing. Anika, one of the film crew was also sceptical when I told her about the Holy Fire that does not burn you as we were waiting. When I had the holy light in my hands I tapped her on the shoulder and then I held my hand in the huge flame. I could tell that her perception of the whole idea had changed slightly. The videos you will see below are just as the Holy Light was received. I am not a video guy, as always I focus on the still images so forgive me if the videos are short.
Many times have other denominations tried to receive the light, but since the miracle started in the 4th century, the light will only come to the Greek Orthodox Patriarch. Imagine that, a yearly miracle that has been happening for over 1600 years is virtually unheard of in the western world! In my next blog entry, I will tell you about a lightning bolt that struck the church in 1579.
I was just happy to be here to witness the whole event. I was a believer before this weekend, but being here and witnessing it firsthand changed me forever. If you ever get the chance, I suggest you come to Jerusalem and witness a miracle with your own eyes.