Holy fire

The Easter tradition among the churches of Palestine and Israel is unique. On Holy Saturday, the day before Orthodox Easter, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem enters the tomb of the Holy Sepulchre. After a moment of prayer, he emerges with the Holy Fire, passing it on by candle to the gathered faithful. From there, with shouts of Christos Anesti! (‘Christ is risen!’), it is spread to the churches of this land, a symbol of the miracle of resurrection spread throughout the world.

In past years, someone would go down from Zababdeh to Jerusalem to bring the light back. It has been three years since that has happened because of travel restrictions on Palestinians in the occupied territories. On Friday night, Marthame borrowed Fr. Aktham’s car keys, Fr. Thomas’ lanterns, and a clergy robe from Fr. Firas’ brother (the Anglican priest in Ramallah). We cleaned the two lanterns from their years of use and disuse, and experimented on what kind of candles would last longest.

Early Saturday morning, we left in our Catholic car, carrying our Orthodox lanterns, Marthame wearing an Anglican robe borrowed from the Melkite priest. We picked up our friend Jonathan from the University and made our way towards Jerusalem.

We knew the Tayasir checkpoint might be tough. On the outskirts of nearby Tubas and built on confiscated Latin Patriarchate land, the checkpoint is one of two outlets for Palestinians traveling southwards from Jenin. Three years ago, traffic from Jenin could take Palestinian roads directly to Nablus, on to Ramallah and Jerusalem, a commute as easy as connecting the dots. However, these roads have been destroyed to prevent such free movement, meaning southward travel from our area must take a round-about route going east then north to enter the southbound Jordan Valley Road. This highway is a main transportation artery, running north from the Red Sea, through the Negev Desert, along the length of the West Bank, and into the Galilee; as such it is heavily guarded by the Israeli military. Checkpoints at the borders of the West Bank prevent Palestinians from entering Israel on the road, but the army also controls and often refuses Palestinians access to the road for travel within the West Bank; hence checkpoints like Tayasir.

We arrived at 7:00, and the cars were already backed up. Men sat on the side of the road, gawking at our yellow-plated (and thus Israeli-registered) car. “Good! Some foreigners,” we could hear them comment to each other. They hoped we could part the waters for them to pass. We pulled up to the front of the line, our Israeli plates giving us preferable treatment over the Palestinians who had already been waiting for hours. Marthame walked slowly towards the checkpoint, clearly marked by a large iron gate across the road and concrete blocks on either side. There were no soldiers in sight, not even in the military camp adjacent to the checkpoint. “Maa! What do you want?” A voice came in Hebrew. “Good morning. I need to speak with you.” Speaking English often causes surprise, especially in this area where foreigners rarely tread these days. “Where are you going?” “I’m going to Jerusalem. It’s our feast today.” The voice seemed to be coming from a tower to the far side of the checkpoint. Another came from a tower on the near side. “Are you a priest?” “Yes.” The finer points of priest and pastor are lost on non-native speakers. “OK,” said the closer voice, “you can go.” “No he can’t!” protested the other. “Seger! (“It’s closed!”).

They argued back and forth for a minute. The soldier in the near-side tower came down and examined Marthame’s passport, then motioned for him to bring the car forward.

As Marthame walked back to the car, the men waiting asked him what happened. “What did he say? Is it closed?” “He said we could go. I don’t know about you.” In his anxiety about passing, Marthame had forgotten to ask about the others. “Take me with you!” shouted one man, half in jest, half in seriousness. We drove around the barrier, as the soldier instructed us, and rolled down our window. “We’ll be back this afternoon. We can pass, right?” “Of course! You’re OK,” he said, giving us the thumbs up. “What about them?” we asked, motioning towards the waiting throng. “Today it’s Shabbat. It’s, eh, seger. Closed.”

We drove off. We had our own problems to worry about. Checkpoints can breed selfishness.

We arrived early in Jerusalem amid a buzz of excitement. Our tickets to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre were from the Anglicans, who got them from the Armenians. In the last few weeks a dispute had flared between the Greeks and the Armenians about how the ceremony would take place. Apparently tradition can be rather fluid.

During the time of the last Greek Patriarch, his physical frailty led to an ecumenical arrangement in which the Armenian Patriarch would enter the tomb with him and carry the light to the waiting masses. Last year, the new Greek Patriarch, wanting to return to the older tradition, tried to bypass the Armenian Patriarch. The Armenian grabbed his arm, a struggle ensued, and the light was extinguished.

Now, both sides were loaded for bear, and everyone was anxious about what would happen. Some people told us that the Mayor of Moscow was in town, with a dozen toughs to support the Greeks. The Israelis, concerned about the possible disaster of a mob fight involving thousands of people with fire in a building with one exit, tried to mediate the disagreement, and on Holy Saturday they sent extra police to the church.

We arrived to see some young Greek and Armenian men dressed in seminary robes but looking for a little action. We noticed their sneakers and chain-smoking, another bystander pointing out that they were more along the lines of football hooligans than Christian worshippers. People were predicting violence and even bloodshed. Since we were gathering for an Easter miracle in a land suffering so much bloodshed these days, it all seemed profoundly inappropriate.

We entered the church and opted for a higher vantage point, somewhat out of the way of whatever chaos might break out. Several processions passed through the church: the Armenians and Copts parading slowly, the Arab youth dancing and singing on each others’ shoulders. A few hours later, the Greeks arrived. The air was thick with tension. The two sides taunted each other. From where we stood, we could see lots of commotion and shoving around the Patriarch. At one point, it appeared that a Greek priest and an Armenian layman were engaged in a shouting match. It was better not to know, but we were filled with dread. Thousands of people carrying fire mixed with the possibility of rioting was daunting. It dawned on us that this was possibly the most dangerous thing we had done in three years!

Eventually the Patriarch entered, the church’s lights were extinguished, and the crowd settled down a bit. Soon, light emerged from the tomb, and as soon as it did, the air of animosity and fear was suddenly transformed into cries of joy amid the clanging, celebratory bells. Perhaps this was the greater miracle of the Holy Fire this year. The light spread from the door of the Sepulchre, from candle to candle, and soon filled the church. The temperature rose noticeably from the flames. We lit the lanterns (re-lighting one of them twice) and made our way though the joyful crowd and out of the church.

We walked tentatively through the narrow Old City streets, carrying the fire back to the parking lot and hoping it wouldn’t go out. Once back in the car, we rode just as anxiously, double-checking the flame every few seconds. As we sped up the Jordan Valley Road, from the Dead Sea towards the Galilee, we sang every hymn we could think of that mentioned light. “This Little Light of Mine” and “I Saw the Light” soon gave way to less-sacred fare like “Candle in the Wind” and “You Light up My Life.”

It had been a long day already, and the Tayasir checkpoint was still in front of us. We had to stop several times along the way to replenish candles, one from the other, hands shaking (it was a long way back to Jerusalem if they went out). We understood exactly why people always take two. Cellphones rang the whole way back, everyone in Zababdeh anxious to know where we were and when we would arrive. “We’ve just left Jerusalem.” “We’re at the Dead Sea.” “We’re at Jericho.” “We’ll call you when we get through the checkpoint.” “Pray for us.”

The scene we left at Tayasir was not the one we found when we returned. One car was coming from the other side, but a soldier waved it away. It obliged. We were left alone. The soldier waved us away, too. Marthame stepped down from the car, still a good fifty yards from the soldier. He shouted something in Hebrew. We understood it’s meaning, though: “Go away.” “Do you speak English?” Marthame asked. “A little,” he replied. “I need to speak with you. We are going to Zababdeh.” “You can’t.” “We were told we could when we came through the morning.” “You can’t.” “I’m a priest, with an American passport, and I’m bringing the light from Jerusalem back to the churches. It’s our feast today.” “You can’t go,” he insisted, nervously fingering his M-16, still half a football field away. “I’m a priest. Komer, Komer.” Marthame repeated the word for priest, one of the few Hebrew words we know. “No.” “Then I need to speak to your captain.” ” Rega. Rega. Just a minute.”

He disappeared into the camp, re-appearing a few minutes later, still standing as far away as he could. Marthame stood at the concrete barrier, checking his watch. Elizabeth put her lantern up in the dashboard so it was visible. After a few minutes, the soldier called us forward. “Come here. In your car.” We obliged. “Stop. Turn off. Get out.” We did. “You. Give me the passport.” Marthame followed orders. “Now open the baggage.” He checked a first aid box in the trunk. “Now the engine.” It took us five minutes to find the latch, opening the gas tank, the trunk again, and adjusting the steering wheel before succeeding. “OK. Thank you. Have a nice day.”

We began calling frantically, letting everyone know we were on our way. In Tubas, some of the Christians there joined us for the last leg of the journey into Zababdeh. When we reached the edge of town, we started honking the horn. Some were baffled by the noise, others excited. We parked at the gas station in the middle of town, where the Orthodox, Catholic, and Melkite priests met us, along with the village’s Scouts. We began our procession around the village, stopping at each of the churches - Orthodox, Melkite, Anglican, and Catholic - to pass the light along and to say a brief prayer. We joked that a new tradition had been established, that Presbyterians always brought the Holy Fire to Zababdeh.

Everyone agreed that the arrival of the Holy Fire this year paled in comparison to the celebrations of brighter days, but it was the biggest event in years. The days are still dark here. The economy is destroyed. The roads are closed. The army comes to town far too frequently. But for a brief moment, the Christians in the northern West Bank were reconnected with the miracle of resurrection.

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.


P.S.: Our webpage is down briefly due to system updates. We hope that the situation will be rectified soon.

Elizabeth and Marthame Sanders are American Presbyterians working in the Palestinian Christian village of Zababdeh.