Reflections on Holy Fire Saturday
Let me begin by saying that there is nothing in my tradition about celebrating a fire on Holy Saturday. In fact it is usually a sad and solemn day as we imagine that Christ is either dead or in hell. Most churches do Palm Sunday and maybe a Maundy Thursday service with foot washing or a community meal. If they do either of these they usually end with stripping the altar and turning off the lights. In some churches I have been in we do a reading and reflection on Jesus’ last words. Some churches will have a noon time Good Friday service but most will wait until Easter Sunday for the next gathering. Some have created alternative Stations of the Cross readings to emphasize immigrant rights or the environment. In Chicago we marched downtown lifting up the social justice issues of the day. I remember the year my home church Wellington UCC carried a large portrait of Jesus behind bars to highlight our Lenten work on mass incarceration.
For many years I led a Stations of the Cross walk on my peace labyrinth. I adopted Henri Nouwen’s wonderful meditations into a reader’s theater. We included foot washing because you have to take your shoes off to walk and sometimes singing in between the readings. It was lovely. People often cried because the Passion story that was His and become theirs.
Now I live in Jerusalem, the city that kills its prophets and knows no peace still. I walk the Via Dolorosa on my way to places barely stopping to remember this is the path of suffering Jesus took .I do stop at station 6 and rest sometimes in the cool cave where Veronica is said to have wiped Jesus’ face and also put my hand over the rock of station 8 from time to time to remember the weeping of the women of Jerusalem.
What I appreciate about the Stations is the invitation to accompany Jesus through his Passion. This is not a very Protestant way of looking at things. We are usually asking Jesus to walk with us, help us, save us. We hardly ever think about what part we play in the passion narrative. So it is with great appreciation that I get to participate in the Good Friday walk with my fellow Protestants on Good Friday. I will read again the scripture from Station 8 early in the morning. And I will weep as the women of Jerusalem have always wept for the terror of occupation.
When I was an ecumenical accompanier in 2011 I welcomed the holy fire coming to Beit Sahour from Jerusalem. I was shocked to see my fellow Christians singing and dancing in the streets wearing tight fitting clothes and drinking beer. I was shocked because I had been living with mostly Muslims who would never do this and because it seemed like we were celebrating too soon. Easter was Sunday. I did not understand what all the fuss was about and why we were celebrating a light from Jerusalem. My Protestant piety made me suspicious of too much fun.
The next year while living in Chicago I wrote about Holy Saturday and the celebration of the holy fire, a fire that is miraculously lit somewhere on Saturday afternoon around 2:00 Pm. The Greek Patriarch goes into the tomb and comes out with the lit fire. The light is shared by all and sometimes can be seen in photographs jumping around the church.
Catholics and Orthodox regard Holy Saturday as the big day for celebration and if possible wish to come to their church, the Holy Seplechure, to pray and be there when it happens. People come from all around the world to Jerusalem to participate in this holy event and some come even come the night before to camp out and be ready. It is a main event for my Orthodox and Catholic sisters and brothers.
I, myself, have avoided this event because the city is overcrowded and in the past few years there has been a huge military presence and even violence as the soldiers block off the city and literally create checkpoints withing letting foreigners like myself through but not Arab Christians
This year I have come to this day with a new awareness that is both theological and political. They are intertwined. So what are the origins of this holy fire? The light, the fire is the light that came off the stone where Jesus was laid to rest inside the tomb. It is the light that was present when the tomb was opened. It was the light surrounding the angel. It was the sign that he had risen. For me it is the missing chapter in our holy narrative. It is the light overcoming the darkness of the tomb, of death, of the endless Nakba, the ongoing occupation.
We here in Palestine are entombed and we know it is not enough to roll away the stone. Seeing an angel or a light helps us to know that death has no dominion, that there is hope. Theophilos III, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, said in his Easter Proclamation this year “Our very existence is centered around the Life-giving Tomb, which is first and foremost the physical expression for the divine-human encounter, as well as a marker of our sacred history.” From this he went on to say, “As a result of Christ’s emancipation of our souls, the hallowed ground of Jerusalem impacts everyone.” he concluded by saying, “Lord, illumine our hearts and minds with your radiant light, as the holy fire illuminates your empty cave. For only you bestow life from the Tomb.”
This focus on the fire illuminating the cave has become now part of my Holy week narrative and so I invite you too to embrace its physical and metaphorical meaning. We all need this light for our sanity and our peacemaking. My fellow Christians here say “We are all Children of the Resurrection.” And because of this then we all have the right to demand entry to our holy city and the Holy Seplechure.
So whether or not the light is miraculously lit every year on a Saturday at 2:00 or not, I don’t care. It’s not the miracle that I am concerned about it’s the fire that lights up the tomb. Jesus has risen or is on the road ahead of us. He will meet us there in the breaking of bread or the sharing of breakfast on the beach. But for now we need this light.
It illumines the darkness of our despair. The world needs this light and so for this Jerusalem needs to be open to all who wish to receive it.
So come and stand with me and your fellow Arab Christians this Saturday at New Gate as we attempt to process down to Holy Seplechure. Those of you who are foreigners do not go through until all the people are free to pass. Jesus, the one we are still following, always stood at the gate and at the margins. Let us meet him there this Holy Saturday. Amen.