BETWEEN THE FRIDAY ON WHICH HE DIED, nailed to the cross, and the Sunday of his supposed resurrection, many Christians believe that Jesus descended for a day into Hades, where he preached to the souls there imprisoned. Some Christians maintain that during this journey, known as the Harrowing of Hell, their Lord was absent both body and spirit from the world—a benighted interval for the apostles, who were bereaved of their messiah, and had no foreknowledge of his return.
For centuries, Orthodox Christians have been celebrating this sombre day, which they call Great and Holy Saturday, with what they profess is a miracle of light. Every year, on the eve of the moveable feast of Pascha (which Western Christians call Easter), thousands of Orthodox worshippers from around the world, bearing small, wooden crosses draped in garlands, and unlit candles bound together in bundles of 12 (to represent the original apostles) or 33 (to represent Jesus’s age at the time of his crucifixion), flood Jerusalem’s Church of the Anastasis.
The church is built over the mound of Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified, and over the garden sepulchre in which his body was entombed. Custody of the hallowed ground is shared, at times tensely, by a number of major Eastern and Western Christian sects, including the Roman Catholics. Western believers, who refer to the sacred building as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, hold their own Easter rituals there, on days reckoned according to the Gregorian calendar and the vernal equinox; the Orthodox Pascha is determined by the relationship between the Julian calendar and the first day of spring.