Immaculate Fire

Orthodox worshippers throng a church in Jerusalem every year to witness an apparent miracle

01 May, 2013

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.

As the Pascha celebrants mass, chanting “Kyrie eleison” (Lord, have mercy) in the dark church, its lamps extinguished since the night before, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of the holy city undergoes a ritual search, breaks open a wax seal on the doors of the koubouklion—a small temple, within the larger edifice, erected over Christ’s burial chamber—and enters the tomb. For a period that is not preordained, the patriarch prays inside the koubouklion, as the expectant throng, encircling and circling the temple, grows increasingly distressed. Finally, there streams out from the chamber, through an ancient chink in the stone wall, a glorious blaze. The Holy Spirit, believers say, has descended upon the sepulchre and lit a lantern in the tomb. The congregants, some weeping, some furiously ululating, rejoice. (“Oh, what a strange and most wonderful sight!” the Russian monk Parthenius wrote of the event in 1846. “The whole church was transformed into fire. Nothing could be seen in the church besides the heavenly Fire. Above and below, and round all the balconies the Holy Fire was being poured forth.”)

Soon, the patriarch emerges from the sanctum, holding aloft candles burning with the flame, into which the gathered flock thrust their wicks, to partake of the apparently miraculous flame. As the fire moves from wick to wick and worshipper to worshipper throughout the church, and into the streets, the ostensibly divine light passes back out into the world. (In recent times, special lanterns lit with the flame have been flown to parishes across Europe to illuminate the lamps of local churches.) Inside, the vesperal Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great begins, signalling that Pascha, the Orthodox feast day of Christ’s resurrection, is at hand.

The earliest extant attestation of the miracle of the Holy Fire dates from the 9th century. (Many elements of the attendant rite were recorded as early as 384, only six decades after Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine I, constructed the original Anastasis church, on the orders of her son.) Over the subsequent 1,200 years, many of the rite’s details have apparently been altered—in previous eras, for example, the Greek Orthodox patriarch entered the sanctum accompanied by senior ecclesiastics from other Orthodox sects, including the Armenian and Ethiopian churches—but its major elements, including the apparently spontaneous ignition of the Holy Fire, have remained unchanged.

In 2012, the year these photographs were taken, approximately 300,000 Orthodox pilgrims, from countries including Russia, Armenia, Syria, Romania, Greece and Ethiopia, crossed into Jerusalem to celebrate Great and Holy Week, which includes Great and Holy Friday, the final day of the Passion. In addition, many of the 50,000 Palestinian Christians living in the West Bank or Gaza sought the permission of the Israeli government in order to cross the border. Of these, only about 2,000–3,000 were reportedly permitted—the Israeli government said the number of permits was closer to 20,000—to enter the holy city.