This article was first published at Christianity Today, on April 10, 2020.
With the new coronavirus canceling Holy Week services around the globe, one of the most severe blows will be felt by Orthodox Christians. On the Saturday before Easter, which the Orthodox will observe on April 19 this year, thousands of pilgrims flock to Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre—the traditional location for Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection—to witness the “miracle” of Holy Fire.
The historic church houses six ancient Christian sects—Greek, Franciscan, Armenian, Coptic, Syriac, and Ethiopian—which more or less cooperate in the administration of its affairs. By tradition, the Greek and Armenian bishops enter the tomb alone, but emerge with a divinely lit flame. The fire is shared candle-to-candle throughout the expectant and jubilant crowd.
Eventually it is transported to Greece in a special container, and then on to Serbia, Russia, and other nations in the Orthodox world.
Despite the social distancing restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Israel is nevertheless facilitating a scaled-back religious ceremony. And to avoid quarantine, foreign dignitaries will receive the flame at their airplane after it lands and immediately return home.
Mentioned obliquely in fourth-century sources, the first Western mention of the Holy Fire dates to Bernard the Wise, a monk from modern-day France who went on pilgrimage in 876 A.D. Disputed by many, its popularity with Orthodox communities worldwide makes the Holy Fire one of the world’s foremost Christian celebrations.
Local Christians are known to chant in Arabic: “We are the Christians, we have been Christians for centuries, and we shall be forever and ever. Amen!”
Filmmakers Reuben and Brittany Browning grew up in Israel and Palestine as children of Nazarene missionaries, traipsing around the holy sites. As adults…
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