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My Experience at the Last Holy Fire Before the Israel-Hamas War

The Holy Fire is an incredible, powerful event which takes place in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem’s Old City every year on Bright Saturday, the day before Orthodox Easter. This is a deeply meaningful and moving spiritual experience for Orthodox Christians. It is also a way to personally connect with the power and miracles of God in the holiest city in the world.

Shortly before I returned to Israel in 2023, I told my priest I was going to be in Jerusalem for Orthodox Easter. He then told me about the Holy Fire. Although I’d heard a little about it before, I didn’t realize what an important experience it is. I had never considered trying to be in Jerusalem to see it for myself. As soon as he told me, I knew that I would go. 

It turned out that this year was an unusual year to go to the Holy Fire, for a few reasons. For one thing, there was extreme tension in the air. Now, there is always tension in the Old City of Jerusalem due to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This year, though, tension was heightened. That is because authorities had instituted capacity limits inside and immediately around the church for the day of the Holy Fire. This was also one of the rare years that Easter, Passover and Ramadan all occurred at the same time. This meant that the Old City was much more crowded than normal. It was also an unusual time because my first Holy Fire turned out to be the last Holy Fire before the Israel-Hamas War. 

Now here is my personal experience of the Holy Fire 2023, written in as balanced and neutral a way as possible.

Exactly what is the Holy Fire?

The Holy Fire, also called the Holy Light, is a miraculous event that takes place at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem’s Old City every year the day before Orthodox Easter. 

Many people do not know that there are two Easters. In the Western world, most Christians are either Catholic or Protestant and celebrate Easter on a certain Sunday each Spring. In the Eastern world – including Palestine, Egypt, Ukraine and Russia – as well as the western country of Greece, most Christians are Orthodox and celebrate Easter each year on a Sunday after the Protestants and Catholics. These Easter dates differ because the churches use different calendars. Protestant and Catholic churches use the Gregorian calendar for religious holidays. The Orthodox church uses the Julian calendar for religious holidays.

On Saturday morning the day before Orthodox Easter, thousands of Orthodox Christians from around the world begin gathering inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. In the early afternoon, an Orthodox patriarch enters the church’s sepulcher, or tomb. This is where Jesus lay after He was crucified and before He was resurrected. While the patriarch is inside the tomb, a light appears. The light then transforms into a fire. 

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch Diodorus gave this account of the lighting of the Holy Fire several years ago.

From the core of the very stone on which Jesus lay an indefinable light pours forth. It usually has a blue tint, but the color may change and take many different hues. It cannot be described in human terms. The light rises out of the stone as mist may rise out of a lake — it almost looks as if the stone is covered by a moist cloud, but it is light. This light each year behaves differently. Sometimes it covers just the stone, while other times it gives light to the whole sepulcher, so that people who stand outside the tomb and look into it will see it filled with light. His account continues here.

Is the Holy Fire Real?

The Holy Fire is definitely real. Every year on Bright Saturday it ignites. Christians inside the church all have candles and light their candles from the Holy Fire. The number of people who have personally witnessed the Holy Fire certainly numbers in the hundreds of thousands. There is no question that the Holy Fire is real. Many people, however, question whether or not it is a miracle. 

There is lots of evidence that the Holy fire is a miracle. The first piece of evidence is the fact that no lighting materials are allowed inside the tomb. Before each Holy Fire, someone inspects the patriarch who enters the tomb to ensure he does not have anything with which he could light the fire. Someone also inspects the tomb itself to ensure no lighting materials are inside. More evidence is the hundreds of thousands of people who have attended the Holy Fire throughout the years. Thousands have stated that after the fire was lit in the tomb, the candles they were holding suddenly ignited without any explanation. Additional evidence is that thousands of people have said they’ve run their hands through the Holy Fire and it did not burn them. 

Naysayers have plenty to say about the matter. Some say it doesn’t seem realistic that God would perform a miracle on the same day and time every year. Others point to several recent court cases in Greece in which a journalist was acquitted of charges brought against him by the Jerusalem Patriarchate and two archbishops. The journalist, Dimitris Alikakos, had written a book in which he attempted to debunk the miraculous nature of the Holy Fire. 

Personally, I haven’t yet formed a solid opinion on whether or not the lighting of the Holy Fire is miraculous or natural.

My personal experience with the Holy Fire in Jerusalem 2023

Shortly after arriving in Jerusalem two days before the Holy Fire, I walked over to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Thousands of Christians including religious leaders were inside, from all over the country and the world. The atmosphere inside the church was extremely tense. This seemed strange to me, but then again Jerusalem is always a very tense place. It was really only the religious leaders who were tense, though. You could see it in their behavior and the way they were handling the crowds in the church. Everyone else in the church seemed perfectly relaxed. Since there were limits on the number of people who could be present when the Holy Fire would occur on Saturday, I asked one of these religious figures if it was possible if I would be able to attend. No,” he said tensely. 

Historically, anyone could enter the church to witness the Holy Fire. Beginning in 2020, though, the government began placing restrictions on the number of people allowed inside. Now in 2023, the powers-that-be apparently wanted to keep up the momentum of restrictions, saying it was for safety and hoping everyone would just continue to follow along. They initially placed a limit of 1,800 people allowed inside the church during the Holy Fire. The day before I arrived in Jerusalem, they increased that limit to 2,200 inside the church and an additional 1,100 allowed in the courtyard and on the roof. Still, this was far less than the approximately 10,000 people who could freely go inside the church for the Holy Fire in previous years. Also, at the same time, approximately 100,000 Muslims were allowed to pray on the Temple Mount (a/k/a Haram al-Sharif) during Ramadan, with no one placing limits on their numbers.

Although there were restrictions, for possibly the first time anywhere in the world since March 2020 thank God the majority of the people did not just follow along with those restrictions.

Clashes between soldiers and Christians

Saturday morning, I left my guesthouse in the Old City around 11:30 and began the approximately ten-minute walk to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I had no idea what to expect. 

After about five minutes, I encountered a blockade of Israel security forces and metal barricades. They were preventing perhaps a few hundred Christians from moving any closer to the church. At the front of the barriers several Palestinian men sat on the shoulders of other Palestinian men. They were all loudly singing and chanting. 

Someone in the crowd around me spoke to one of the security forces holding us back. They then moved the barriers aside and began letting a small group of people through. I decided to try to slip through with them and succeeded. We now stood on the street with a few hundred people who had already advanced further than the first group of people. Now the situation changed from just tense to aggressive. 

More barricades, soldiers and police officers were holding back this group of people. Before long, with shouting and shoving, the people at the front were able to push through the barricades. The security forces then moved aside, and we advanced further. 

A very short distance later, we encountered more barricades and more security forces. The people at the front again began pushing through, and the security forces moved the barricades aside. The rest of us then were able to easily walk through.

Like most streets in the Old City, these streets were very narrow. At each barricaded area, hundreds of people were pushing and shoving. I was concerned that a stampede could occur, that people would start falling and getting hurt. Everyone was calm and peaceful, though. That is, except for the people at the very front who were doing all the work to get us through. Each time they enabled us to move forward, we joined even more people who were already ahead of us. Elsewhere in the Old City I knew other people were certainly also moving towards the church from different directions. 

What for me personally had begun as a walk by myself to the church had quickly transformed into hundreds of people pushing past security forces and barricades and then into thousands of Christians converging from different directions in an effort to get to the church. As the videos I’ve posted here will show, 99.9% of these people were completely peaceful. We were simply walking through the areas that the people at the front had managed to push through. 

We were definitely making good progress toward the church. Each step, though, was met with more tension and aggression and then even violence. At one point a police officer pushed my back and yelled Move! Moments later, security forces managed to barricade our group off in two different directions. Now I was with maybe a hundred people on a small, empty street. After we stood there for a few minutes, a larger group, barricaded off to the right side on a street perpendicular to us and led by Arab Christians, started shouting and charging toward the barricades, soldiers and police. Many succeeded in getting completely through. Others ended up getting in a fracas with the security forces. This time it was violent.  

All of the videos here I took myself, except for the following video. A man who worked at my guesthouse sent this to me after he received it from someone else who was going towards the church from a different direction. Viewer discretion is advised. This one is blurry but even more violent

The situation was totally peaceful, however, for me and the small group I was amongst. We stood quietly waiting on this quiet and peaceful street for maybe an hour and a half. The sole shopkeeper in that area started handing out water. I wondered if he might be a non-Orthodox Christian who supported us wanting to go to the Holy Fire but not wanting to join us. Then he placed a prayer rug inside the entrance to his shop and started praying, so I knew he was Muslim. 

After a couple of hours, a police officer stepped forward and announced that we could stand here all day, it didn’t matter, they weren’t going to let us through. If we wanted to get to the church, he said, we should leave and go in another direction. A few people did walk off at that point, but most of us realized what he was saying wasn’t true. They weren’t going to let us into the church if we simply came from a different direction. So we stayed there. 

Shortly after the announcement, the soldiers and police removed the barricades in front of us. They told us to move over to the street next to us where the people earlier had forced their way through. This was a bigger street with more shops. On this street, I sat on a little ledge in front of a closed shop door. Next to me I sat a woman from the country of Georgia. She told me that she travels to Jerusalem to attend the Holy Fire every year. 

Across from us, one of the shopkeepers let a little girl come sit on a chair inside his door. After she left, I went up to him to buy some candles. Everyone brings bundles of 33 long candles to the Holy Fire so that they can hold the Holy Fire in their own hands.

“You can sit too,” the shopkeeper smiled, pulling the chair towards me.

“Oh, no, I just want to buy candles,” I said.

Holy Fire in the streets of the Old City, Jerusalem

Now it had been over three hours since I’d begun my walk to the church. Suddenly, without warning, the security forces removed the barricades that had been holding us back.

Now hundreds of people began moving through the streets. They were moving not in the direction of the church this time but away from it and towards us. All were carrying lit candles. It became apparent that these were some of the people who had been inside the church for the lighting of the Holy Fire. As they walked through the streets, they used their candles to light the candles of everyone else. Now there were thousands of people filling the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem holding candles lit with the Holy Fire. This was absolutely amazing. 

People during the Holy Fire on a street in the Old City of Jerusalem smiling and lighting each others' group of 33 candles

As I stood on the street holding my candles filled with the Holy Fire, a reporter with a cameraman walked up to me. She asked me if she could interview me for a segment on Easter in Jerusalem. “I’m with Russia Today,” she said.

She asked me to talk about Easter and afterwards, as they began to away, I asked where I could find the segment. “Telegram,” the reporter said over her shoulder. Later, on the Telegram app I saw that Israel had blocked the Russia Today channel. Weeks later, back home in the States, I saw that Russia Today was also blocked. Maybe this is why the reporter told me to look on Telegram, so I would learn that their Russian TV station is blocked. 

The Holy Fire in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where the Holy Fire takes place, is deep in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City. It is ancient, built in 330 A.D. by Emperor Constantine. Like many buildings in the Holy Land, it is made completely of stone. It is also quite large, well over an acre in size and several stories high. Now that the Holy Fire was lit, everyone could go inside the church. Letting us in after it was lit and not before or during the ceremony made no sense as far as safety standards go, though. This was evidence that the limitations on the number of people had nothing to do with safety. 

Before the lighting of the Holy Fire, there was no fire in the church. Now that the Holy Fire had occurred and everyone inside the church was holding their 33 lit candles, there was fire all over the place. Although this is a very large church, there are many different rooms and structures and enclosures inside. It is not one big open space. So now inside a church that is filled with many different structures, thousands of people were holding hundreds of thousands of flaming candles. 

For this reason, it would have seemed more logical for the authorities to prohibit large numbers of people from being in the church after the Holy Fire ceremony rather than before or during it.  After all, so many people holding lit candles inside an enclosed space could be a safety issue. However, the situation inside the church actually was not dangerous at all. The fire injured no one. It never does. This is because the Holy Fire is unlike any other fire. One of its miraculous qualities is that it does not burn.

It was a spectacular experience to be with thousands of Christians from around the world, walking through this famous church in the Holy Land, holding candles flaming with the Holy Fire. I am so grateful that I was able to do this. This was not the experience that most people get to enjoy, but it was unique, powerful and memorable. I’m looking forward to attending another Holy Fire after the war.

Me during the Holy Fire 2023 standing on a street in the Old City, Jerusalem, Israel holding a few candles lighted with the Holy Fire

Have you ever been able to attend the Holy Fire in Jerusalem? I’d love to hear about your experience. Please leave a comment and tell me about it. 

Sabina Lohr is a freelance writer who shines a light on the cultures of the Middle East through non-fiction storytelling, interviews with local figures, and insightful articles. She has traveled extensively through the region for more than 15 years and has lived in Israel, Egypt and the U.A.E.

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