This Easter season I have had the great privilege of worshiping alongside of my Arab Christian brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. One of my favorite traditions practiced by the Orthodox churches happens on Holy Saturday. Holy Saturday is a sacred day because it is the only day of the year when the Holy Fire – the fire that lights the tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – comes out into the world. Priests from different traditions receive the light and pass it along to gathered pilgrims and worshipers throughout the church and the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem. The beautiful and powerful image of candles burning throughout the sacred city is a symbol of the way Christ’s light is spread into the world.
As I was participating in the processionals and activities of worship in the Old City, I was struck by many of the daily challenges that are experienced by Christian Palestinians living in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Many of these Christians are the children and grandchildren of refugees who were displaced during the 1948 war between the State of Israel, the local Palestinian people, and the surrounding Arab states. As the descendents of refugees, many Palestinian Christians, particularly those living in Jerusalem, do not hold passports. They are literally a people without a land and without the security of a home from which to build their lives, support their families, and from which to worship. A
small glimpse of these harsh realities was seen on Holy Saturday when entrances to the Old City were blocked by security forces, police, and the Israeli army. Almost all West Bank Palestinian Christians who wanted to make the few mile pilgrimage were not allowed to travel through the nearby checkpoints of Ramallah and Bethlehem to come to Jerusalem to worship. However, Christians in Jerusalem flocked to the Old City to participate in the events of the day. From the early morning until the end of the
processionals, dozens upon dozens of local worshipers were prevented from entering the Old City and passing through its streets. If one was lucky enough to be allowed through one of the barricades another was located just around the corner only a few dozen yards down one of the windy streets of the Old City. In attempting to reach the church of the Holy Sepulchre, worshipers were pleading with the military forces to be allowed passage. A woman cried, others implored, with hope that they might see the Holy Fire spread from its origin at the church.
However, despite the military presence and the physical obstacles placed along the pathway of the worshipers, it was impossible to prevent the spreading of the Light. As the Holy Fire passed by, crowds of people gathered behind the many barriers reaching out their hands filled with candles to receive the Light. Men, women, and children clapped, cheered, and celebrated as candles were shared flame to flame and the light was spread. For the rest of my life I will carry with me the image of Christian worshipers reaching out toward one another; exuberantly stewarding candles holding a sacred flame; then neighbor to neighbor sharing that light with one another. In a matter of moments the entire length of the street was full of singing and worship. The light that burned radiated a powerful heat that could not be contained by physical obstacles and barriers. As the season of Pentecost is upon us and the church once again celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit may we be reminded of the words of John the Baptist: “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Mt 3:11). By the power and grace of the Holy Spirit, may the church be inspired and compelled to spread the light of Christ in our homes, our churches, and our communities regardless of any barriers that might stand in our way.
My friend Rev. Mae Cannon is Senior Director Advocacy & Outreach – Middle East, for World Vision US.