Entering this space through huge, ancient wooden doors; Footsteps, hushed voices, songs, chants, echoing off worn marble floors, smoke-stained pillars and ceilings, circling through a multitude of nooks and caves; Remnants of artwork dating from the 4th century onward; Icons, lots of icons; Gold, silver, ornate cloths; Candles, a plethora of candles, along with tendrils of incense wafting the prayers of the saints upwards; All senses are a nexus pointing to the commemoration of Jesus’ death and the celebration of his resurrection.
One of the places, in which I have enjoyed spending times of reflection, is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. The feeling of sacredness and connection to ancient expressions of the Christian Church are palpable. Yes, some of the expressions throughout the centuries (for example, reminders of the Crusades) are regretfully less than honoring to the name of Jesus and require repentance. Yet, there is also the connection to the deep faith of Jesus’ followers, who sought to be transformed and to become more like him throughout many centuries. Plagues, wars, separation from loved ones, loss of families. These walls, broken, destroyed, and rebuilt, hold a grim, yet complex testimony to all this.
As a Western Christian, with Evangelical roots, it took me a while to adjust to the expressions of Orthodox and Latin Christianity in the Middle East. But the testimony to the historic steadfastness of faith, and personal connections to individual believers opened my heart to appreciate the different expressions of faith and transformation in Jesus.
Holy Saturday and the receiving of the Holy Fire is probably the most intense expression of faith in the calendar of Middle Eastern Christianity. Knowing nothing about it, I decided to check it out, on the ad hoc prompting of a friend, in my first Easter season in Bethlehem. I was drawn by the intensity of devotion that I observed. During our second season of Easter there, we went to a local Orthodox church, where I managed to get inside. In my home congregation as a lad, we thought a service was full, when we had to set up additional chairs in the aisle. I learned that “full,” in this setting meant packing the entire sanctuary so tightly with eager worshippers, that one barely had room to raise one’s hands (in which I carried a pack of prayer candles). Experiencing the intensity of anticipation, worship, and celebration in that setting was a welcome addition to my life experiences of Easter.
I am including a link to a Christianity Today article that documents a short movie about the receiving of the Holy Fire in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. I encourage you to also watch the movie, Holy Fire, on Amazon. Our friend Salim Munayer is a contributor in the film. It is less than half an hour in length.
Yes, I anticipate that the violence and fighting that breaks out between the various traditions holding ownership of areas in the church, will be offensive to many as they watch. To be honest, it is to me also. I still believe that it is a tragic outcome of the intensity of the Holy season, which certainly grieves Jesus. At first, I scoffed at this ungodly display, delegitimizing the traditions of faith represented. A friend, a Jesuit who served at the Church of the Nativity helped me understand the complexity of trying to maintain a holy place, a service of worship, in a site that is also a major tourist attraction. Later, in 2013, I returned to the USA, only to watch the expressions of faith that I grew up in, be torn apart, assaulting others verbally to protect their “space” and put those who don’t belong “in their place.” Whether we come to physical blows, or verbally assault and exclude the “other,” the result to Jesus’ honor and His message of grace is the same. I hope you are able to appreciate the celebration of faith that is displayed in the movie and somberly examine our own traditions, before pointing an accusing finger at others.
Blessed Holy Saturday!