“O Gladsome Light, of the Holy Glory of the Immortal Father, heavenly Holy, blessed Jesus Christ! (Orthodox Holy Saturday Morning Prayer) It was Orthodox Holy Saturday in this devastating year of terror 2002 where Christians across the Occupied Palestinian Territories could not carry out their centuries old traditions throughout their cities and villages.
“O Gladsome Light, of the Holy Glory of the Immortal Father, heavenly Holy, blessed Jesus Christ! (Orthodox Holy Saturday Morning Prayer)
It was Orthodox Holy Saturday in this devastating year of terror 2002 where Christians across the Occupied Palestinian Territories could not carry out their centuries old traditions throughout their cities and villages. Either people were under strict curfew as in Bethlehem or collective punishments as in Taybeh (my husband’s village) were residents were blocked in with concrete blocks and large dirt piles to prevent their movement anywhere. As a Christian, I thought it was appalling to be so close to such a sacred place like the Holy Sepulchre and not be able to partake in the special Holy Week services. I was determined to make it into Jerusalem and have this unique lifetime experience of receiving the miraculous Holy Fire as it comes from the Tomb of Christ each year while the Greek Orthodox Patriarch prays at the very spot where Christ’s Body was laid over two thousand years ago.
The Great Saturday of the Holy Fire has traditionally been the highlight of the Easter services in the Holy Land. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Irineos I is the only one that can conduct the service of the Holy Light at the Tomb of Christ inside a tiny chapel in Greek called “Kouvouklion.” The tomb itself is enclosed within a highly ornamented marble. The tomb is reached through a second doorway in the “Kouvouklion,” which is very low that it forces one to enter bowing. Not too many people fit inside this small sacred spot at the same time (maybe up to four or five). Usually this is the reason pilgrims wait many hours to enter this sacred place found inside the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre where many chapels exist for various Christian denominations. Constantine the Great and his mother Helen take credits for building this magnificent Church complex in the fourth century.
When I first came to live in the Holy Land after the Oslo Agreement, The Saturday of the Holy Light was the most glorious celebrated event of the year. Thousands of pilgrims and local Christians would flock to see the Holy Fire and experience the miracle of Christ in our midst. A designated representative of the Christian community from each city and village awaited the Holy Fire to appear and take the Holy Light from the Holy Sepulchre to their city or village accompanied by the local scouts in a long joyous procession with drums, music and singing. To show their unity, Christians from the Orthodox, Eastern Catholic and Western Catholic Churches along with their local priests marched together in the procession in cities like Ramallah and other Palestinian towns throughout the West Bank.
My two sons along with many other altar boys carried candles and crosses from their churches to the outskirts of our village awaiting the Holy Light to arrive from Jerusalem. Once the Holy Light arrived from the “Life Giving Tomb” everyone marched back to his or her particular church conducted another procession three times around the church and prepared to celebrate the midnight Resurrection service. Most people would carry the Holy Light with candles and small lanterns to their homes to receive God’s blessings. The elders in the village would touch the flame of the candle from Jerusalem with both of their hands and wipe their hands on their faces. This was a ritual that allowed them to feel the Grace of God would be with them and to seek the Holy Light to guide them and protect them in their lifetime.
However, this year, nothing. The destruction and devastation in the Holy Land overshadowed this beautiful religious and cultural celebration. Hardly any Palestinian Christian outside Jerusalem could enter the city to partake in this glorious event. In order to preserve the beauty, the values and traditions as they were handed down to us from generation to generation, the patriarchate staff arranged for the Holy Light to be delivered by priests that had permission to travel to Bethlehem and Ramallah. The curfew was uplifted for a few hours to allow the faithful to pray. No parades. No drums. No altar boys. No singing. Just the religious service of receiving the Holy Fire but in mourning because of the current situation in Palestine.
Other years I could not get anywhere near the area of the Holy Sepulchre. I would stand blocks away near the souvenir shops because people that had slept overnight inside the church were the only ones that could get inside. Unless of course you were a special government official like Mr. Petros Panagotopoulos, our Greek consul general in Jerusalem you would get a front row seat. After many checkpoints and by the Grace of God, I stood at the altar steps inside the Resurrection Church directly across from the first entrance to the Tomb of Christ. I noticed all of the vigil lamps in the church were extinguished. I looked up to see more than one bird flying very high. I heard Patriarch Irineos and everyone chanting “Lord have Mercy” in Greek. The loud church bells began to ring thirty-three times in a joyous sound that is very familiar to me. The Holy Fire rushed out of the Life Giving Tomb as thousands of people lit their bundle of thirty-three candles at the same time while the Greek patriarch stood in front of the entrance to the tomb. I am too short and I could not see him. I felt extremely hot as in burning. It was like being inside a hot oven. In seconds the entire area was illuminated very quickly by passing the Holy Light.
The Israeli policemen had small red cans of spray and they would put out many candles for “security.” We have extraordinary things happening on this side of the world in the name of “security.” But the little old ladies from Greece were very upset and they were franticly screaming “min mou ta svinis” (Don’t blow them out). I found myself on the floor from all the pushing, shoving and blowing out of candles by the dozens of policemen in the church. I didn’t really mind so much that my candles were blown out because the true light of Christ can truly illuminate the soul and the candle itself is only the symbolism of this Light that wins over the darkness. But, I felt better when my son said: “Don’t worry mom, I got it.” He showed me his little red lantern with a candle lit inside that could not be blow out by the Israeli policemen. I thought it was so wonderful for my son to receive the Holy Light as his father had done so many times before growing up as a child in the minority Christian community of occupied Palestine.
This is a remarkable ritual with a long and complex history that adds to the tapestry of the Christian legacy in the Holy Land. I remember once when I asked a local priest does the Light really come miraculously from the Holy Tomb? He laughed and said that it is not something you only see with your eyes. It is something you also feel. It is something the soul knows. But some people like my friend Mother Agapia Stephanopoulos actually have seen the physical aspects of the Holy Light in three different years appear in the same bluish color. Mother Agapia said it was a very low-key service this year. The faithful little Greek lady next to me that had spent the whole night inside the church said she has also seen the Holy Light in clouds of bluish color glowing all over the church three different years. She has been to the Holy Land ten times to venerate the Holy sites. I asked her how in the world did she not feel scared to be in Jerusalem this year. She told me we must always travel with the Grace of God. Little did she know this is especially very true for me with every breath I take.
What we see or don’t see is totally based on our faith in God. There will always be believers and non-believers. As Christ said to Thomas blessed are the ones that have not seen and believe. To believe that Christ came into the world to save you is a very personal choice. To have faith that the Light of Christ can guide you, simply and clearly gives you hope. To have faith that the Grace of God is with you can only move you to serve humanity. To believe in Christ is the way to gain a new life in the Kingdom of God. And, to believe we have a right to be witnesses for Christ in the land of His birth should be a basic freedom allowed to people in the Holy Land. “Come ye and receive Light from the Unwaning Light, and glorify Christ, who a rose from the dead” (Orthodox Easter Sunday Midnight Resurrection Service)