How a sacred flame spreads across the world despite the pandemic

Photograph by Natan Dvir, Polaris for National Geographic
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Reverend Father Arbak Sarukhanyan of the Armenian Apostolic Church holds the Holy Fire aloft as he emerges from the Edicule, the small structure inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that houses what is traditionally believed to be the tomb of Jesus Christ.

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Three years ago this weekend, I had a ringside seat on one of the most ancient, exuberant, and terrifying events I’ve ever witnessed in a house of worship: the Ceremony of the Holy Fire.

According to church tradition, each year on the day before Orthodox Easter (April 18 this year), a flame miraculously appears inside the tomb of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The flame is captured by the Greek patriarch of the city, who first enters the tomb with fistfuls of unlit candles and emerges with flaming standards held aloft. More than 10,000 expectant pilgrims packed around the tomb burst into triumphant cheers as the church bells peal and the Holy Fire is hastily passed from candle to candle.

In normal times, more than 10,000 pilgrims pack the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to receive the Holy Fire. Due to social distancing during the coronavirus quarantine, this year’s ceremony was closed to the public and restricted to about a dozen clerics from several of the Christian denominations that make up the Holy Sepulchre community.

Father Vasilios of the Greek Orthodox Church lights lamps inside the Edicule during Holy Week. On Holy Saturday, the lamps are lit with the Holy Fire that is said to materialize above the tomb of Jesus.

In mere seconds the dark, cavernous interior of the ancient church seems to explode into open flame as the shouts and singing reach their crescendo. Their candles lit, the faithful spill out beyond the towering wooden doors of the church and into the cobbled streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, where others wait to receive the sacred flame. To the hundreds of millions of Orthodox believers, the Holy Fire symbolizes the resurrection of Jesus, and the appearance of the flame inside his tomb is an annual miracle whose arrival is anticipated and celebrated.

Theophilos III, the Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem (center), circles the Edicule in the empty church before the Holy Fire ceremony begins.

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Representatives of (from left) Jerusalem’s Armenian Apostolic, Greek Orthodox, and Franciscan communities stand before the closed doors of the Edicule ahead of the Holy Fire ceremony. The tomb inside is inspected for foreign objects and the doors sealed with a cloth sash and beeswax seal until the Greek Patriarch arrives to receive the fire.

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Pilgrims at the 2005 Holy Fire ceremony joyfully pass the flame around the church. Many of the faithful carry bundles of 33 beeswax candles, representing the 33 years that Jesus spent on earth.

The annual ceremony of the Holy Fire has taken place inside the Holy Sepulchre on Holy Saturday for more than a thousand years. In the time of coronavirus, however, Jerusalem is locked down under strict quarantine. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is closed to the public indefinitely for the first time since 1349, when an outbreak of the Black Death forced the holiest site in Christendom to shutter its massive doors. Yet the Holy Fire ceremony was celebrated in Jerusalem again yesterday—albeit with provisions particular to a pandemic that is challenging how the world lives and worships.

Only a dozen or so clerics from the six different Christian communities that lay claim to the Holy Sepulchre were present at the event this year, as well as a few officers from the Jerusalem Police and some media. As in previous years, the ceremony was broadcast live, but this time spectators tuning into their TVs and phone screens from Nicosia to Moscow saw a scene bereft of pilgrims and without that breathtaking moment when the church erupts in a wave of flame and yelps of joy. The robed celebrants, some with long beards that refused to be contained by face masks, appeared somber, though there were a few smiles (and one not-quite-socially-distanced pat on the back) after Patriarch Theophilos III emerged from the tomb with the Holy Fire.

Attendants flank Patriarch Theophilos III as he carries the Holy Fire from the Edicule. The flame that is believed to miraculously materialize in the tomb of Jesus appears each year on Holy Saturday and symbolizes the resurrection of Christ.

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Reverend Father Sarukhanyan holds candles lit with the Holy Fire inside the church of the Holy Sepulchre. The sacred flame is passed from candle to candle within local communities, and ferried to far corners of the Orthodox world by car and airplane.

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An officer with the Jerusalem Police shares the Holy Fire with some of the few attendees present at the ceremony. Due to quarantine restrictions, the popular Holy Week event was closed to the public.

As it has for centuries, the Holy Fire this year was also dispatched to the far-flung corners of the Orthodox world. Lanterns containing the flame were bundled into cars and driven to Gaza, Ramallah, Bethlehem, and border crossings with Egypt and Jordan. From Jordan, the flame ignited in Jerusalem will likely go on to the small Christian communities deep inside the war zones of Syria and Iraq.

Greek Archbishop Demetrios of Lydda carries lanterns bearing the Holy Fire on HaNotsrim (“The Christians”) street in Jerusalem’s Old City. A handful of lucky faithful were able to capture the Fire from the tiny procession as it moved along the quarantined streets.

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Jerusalem Police officer Wassam Ali urges bystanders to maintain social distancing as the cars of ten foreign dignitaries line up to receive the Holy Fire for transport to the airport and on to their respective countries.

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Christos Sofianopoulos, the Greek General Consul of Jerusalem (right), lights a large lantern designed for air transport of the Holy Fire as his driver, bearing the Fire in a smaller container, looks on.

General Consul Sofianopoulos delivers the Holy Fire to Archimandrite Damianos, the Exarch of the Holy Sepulchre in Greece, as pilots of the country’s national air carrier watch. The Fire is flown to Athens and other nations with large Orthodox Christian communities, where it is traditionally welcomed with great ceremony by the faithful.

The Holy Fire also travels by air to other countries, in specialized containers designed to transport open flame in pressurized cabins. Usually the Fire is spirited away from Jerusalem by VIPs and dignitaries and received with joyful fanfare at its destination. This year, however, with the coordination of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, 10 planes—one for each of 10 countries: Greece, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Cyprus, Romania, Moldova, Belarus, and Poland—sat on the tarmac at Ben Gurion airport, a remarkable sight at a time when the country is usually receiving only one or two flights a day. The planes were waiting for the arrival of a convoy of cars that made a quick trip along the empty highway connecting Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. After a carefully choreographed, socially distanced handoff to each plane’s quarantined passengers, the flights took off one by one into the sky, carrying the Holy Fire to muted and anxious receptions at their destinations.

Before I attended the Holy Fire ceremony in 2017, I had little grasp of the deep significance and history of the event. It’s one of the largest and most ancient celebrations on the Christian calendar—an annual “miracle” that was first recorded by a French monk in 876. But it’s the nature of this miracle that has also made it a target over centuries.

Archimandrite Damianos holds a lantern at Athens International Airport bearing the Holy Fire brought from Jerusalem to Greece just hours earlier on Holy Saturday.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was destroyed in 1009, allegedly after the Muslim ruler of Jerusalem became enraged over the “fraud” of the annual fire. (The tomb of Jesus, in which the fire allegedly materializes, survived the destruction and rebuilding of the church). Then two centuries later Pope Gregory, also alleging fraud, forbade his followers from taking part in the ceremony. The subsequent Great Schism of 1054, which divided Christianity into Eastern and Western churches, ensured that the ceremony of the Holy Fire would continue—but only for the Orthodox faithful.

Women carry the Holy Fire, flown in hours before from Jerusalem, back to their home on in Athens’ quarantined Plaka district. Greek authorities have enforced strict social distancing measures to prevent crowds from assembling during Holy Week.

I do not count myself among the 260 million people who practice Orthodox Christianity, but I often think back to that Holy Saturday in April 2017 and the unbridled elation and reverence of the thousands of people around me as the flaming candles first emerged from the tomb. The sudden eruption of heat and light and joy took my breath away.

I was certainly thinking of it on this Holy Saturday, as I sat peering at my computer screen from my quarantined apartment, watching this impossibly small group of celebrants perform the elaborate steps of a ritual that has survived destruction and schism and the passage of more than a thousand years, and continues to persist in this uncertain time of pandemic.

The Holy Fire glows in a lone lantern near the closed door of the Metohi Panagiou Tafou church in Athens, where the arrival of the Holy Fire is usually celebrated by large crowds of the faithful.

This story was supported in part by the National Geographic Society.
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