A small group of Christian clergy celebrated on Saturday the Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in a deserted Jerusalem as pilgrims who normally attended the ancient ritual stayed home due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Clergymen entered the Edicule, a chamber built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was buried two thousand years ago and rose from the dead after being crucified. Bells tolled above a near-empty church as the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, Theophilos III, emerged from the crypt carrying a candle lit by the flame. The source of the flame is a closely-guarded secret.
Clerics from different Orthodox denominations then circled around inside the empty church, chanting prayers that echoed off the walls. In the medieval courtyard outside, instead of the tens of thousands of worshippers who usually attend the ceremony, there were a few Israeli police and clerics maintaining social distancing.
Sunbeams that pierce through a skylight in the church’s dome are believed by worshippers to ignite a flame deep inside the crypt, a mysterious act considered a Holy Saturday miracle each year before Orthodox Easter Sunday.
Jerusalem’s Greek Orthodox Patriarch then lights a candle with the Holy Fire and disperses it to the faithful. The Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox churches share custody of Church of the Holy Sepulchre with Roman Catholics, who celebrated Easter last week.
In normal years there would be thousands of tiny candles held by cheering worshippers packed into the passageways of the building. But this year only a handful of Greek, Armenian, Russian and Coptic clergy, many garbed in black and wearing face masks, were present inside the church to receive the flame from the patriarch.
Ripples of applause broke out from a small group in Jerusalem awaiting the flame outside the church, including envoys from Orthodox Christian countries.
As the fire passed through the Christian Quarter of the Old City, worshippers who had been unable to attend the church ceremony thronged into the back streets to receive it, ignoring coronavirus restrictions as they chanted, banged drums, waved crucifixes and climbed on each others’ shoulders.
The flame was also transported by oil lamp a few miles south to the Palestinian town of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, where clergy witnessed the Holy Fire arrive at the Church of the Nativity.
The church, revered in tradition as Jesus’s birthplace, has been closed for weeks because of a coronavirus outbreak in Bethlehem, as have other churches in the Holy Land.
As Israel has reported more than 13,000 coronavirus infections and 158 deaths, it made special arrangements with church leaders to allow the holy flame to be carried abroad to other Orthodox communities.
Because anyone entering Israel must go into quarantine, foreign dignitaries coming to pick up the flame will receive it in special containers on their planes and immediately return home.
Jerusalem has sites sacred to Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Leaders of all three religions have closed holy sites or restricted access, and have urged followers to celebrate festivals at home this year.