Ceremony of Holy Fire in a Pandemic: A Beacon of Hope

Like much of the world, the Holy Land has felt the impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Lockdowns, economic downturns, and the near-instant evaporation of the tourism and hospitality industry have come to define 2020, but the experience of Jerusalem’s Christians has been unique.

This year, the Christian community of the Holy Land celebrated Easter Sunday at home, in common with the rest of the world. But Jerusalem would normally be packed with Christian pilgrims from around the world. Their absence was most noticeable during the Ceremony of Holy Fire, an annual celebration in which Patriarch Theophilos III enters the tomb of Christ with unlit candles and emerges with a holy fire.

In an article describing this year’s celebration, National Geographic documented the ceremony, held in a near-empty church, for the first time since 1349 when the Black Death spread across the globe. The magazine’s powerful side-by-side photographs compares Easter 2020 with years past. It is a powerful reminder of the impact the pandemic has had on the ways in which we worship.

Although faithful pilgrims could not witness the emergence of the Patriarch from the Edicule with the holy fire in person, the world was able to watch the ceremony unfold on their phones, tablets, and computers. Just as it has for centuries, the fire emerged from the Edicule and made its way out of Jerusalem, where cars and planes carried it to other parts of the world. National Geographic reports:

“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.

The Holy Fire also travels by air to other countries…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 disruptive nature of this global pandemic is felt strongly in Jerusalem, where history runs deep. Church leaders in Jerusalem have had to adapt services and traditions spanning centuries to the new reality we find ourselves in. And in doing so, they showed the world that the resurrection is a beacon of hope in a dark world.

That is worth celebrating, no matter what part of the world we find ourselves in.