JERUSALEM — The dark hall inside Christianity’s holiest shrine was illuminated with the flames from thousands of candles on Saturday as worshippers participated in the holy fire ceremony, a momentous spiritual event in Orthodox Easter rites.
Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected at the site where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher now stands in the Old City of Jerusalem. While the source of the holy fire is a closely guarded secret, believers say the flame appears spontaneously from his tomb on the day before Easter to show Jesus has not forgotten his followers.
The ritual dates back at least 1,200 years.
Thousands of Christians waited outside the church for it to open Saturday morning. Custody of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is shared by a number of denominations that jealously guard their responsibilities under a fragile network of agreements hammered out over the last millennia. In accordance with tradition, the church’s doors were unlocked by a member of a Muslim family, who for centuries has been the keeper of the ancient key that is passed on within the family from generation to generation.
Once inside, clergy from various Orthodox denominations in robes and hoods jostled for space with local worshippers and pilgrims from around the world. Top Orthodox clergymen descended into the small chamber marking the site of Jesus’ tomb as worshippers eagerly waited in the dim church clutching bundles of unlit candles and torches.
After a while, candles emerged lit with “holy fire” — said to have been lit by a miracle as a message to the faithful from heaven.
Bells rang as worshippers rushed to use the flames to ignite their own candles.
In mere seconds, the bursts of light spread throughout the church as flames jumped from one candle to another. Cameras flashed and mobile phones documented what is for many, the spiritual event of a lifetime.