Ann George attends the Feast of Feasts in the Church of the Resurrection
Although I have been on pilgrimage to the Holy Land twice and have lived in Jerusalem for 4 years, I have never been to the Garden Tomb, (the ancient tomb outside the Damascus Gate, which gives a good idea of what Jesus’ tomb could have looked like) not, I hasten to add, for any doctrinal or partisan reason, but simply because an occasion never turned up. The Church of the Resurrection, however, has always beckoned me; I would often say my prayers at Calvary, walk through it and, on rarer occasions, pause at the tomb of Jesus (an Edicule, or copy, as the original tomb had been totally destroyed by the 11th Century) and light a candle from the flame always burning at the entrance, which is re-lit every year from the New Fire at the ceremony on Holy Saturday afternoon.
On the occasion of my third Holy Week and Easter celebrated in Jerusalem, I was offered an amazing and humbling opportunity: my Armenian friends asked me to join them at the Ceremony of the New Fire as part of the Armenian Community. They told me to come to their shop at midday on the (Orthodox) Holy Saturday with my hair well tied back, and to bring with me nothing except a pilgrim’s candle bundle and a scarf to cover my hair completely.
Jerusalem had been filling up with pilgrims all week. The Ambulatory of the Church of the Resurrection had been used as a well-organised camping ground for the poorest and most pious of the pilgrims, mainly from Greece and Cyprus, and I knew that the huge Rotunda around the tomb would be packed with people from all round the world who had been waiting patiently and prayerfully for days. How would we get in?
My friends took me round to a side door of the church and we were met there by an Armenian monk who greeted us, made a cursory security check, asked the women in our party to cover their heads, then allowed us through to a narrow passageway which wound in a devious manner before emerging close to an altar of the Armenian Monastery within the Rotunda. As we stepped out under the dome the noise of thousands of people was deafening, and the sight of this space where not only were people packed in neat circles at floor level, but also in the clerestories above, made me think of the Last Night of the Proms, albeit without the flags. Every woman had her hair carefully covered, not particularly for religious reasons but because of what would happen at the ceremony.
We waited a long time. Finally, there was movement, a procession to the entrance of the tomb, the congregation quietened, and we saw the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem praying before entering the tomb completely alone. We waited again, it seemed forever, in absolute silence; the sense of anticipation was palpable. Then, just as it felt as if we could not wait a moment longer, an enormous and fierce tongue of fire shot out of each of the strange, angled holes in the tomb’s sides, holes that I had noticed before but hadn’t properly appreciated what they were for. There was a shout of triumph touched with fear and then the New Fire started to be passed from one person to the other. In moments the whole space was full of fire, movement and light and I saw out of the corner of my eye men clasping lanterns with candles in them, who were darting through the crowds towards the exits. Suddenly I realised that the fire was being handed on to my candle bundle, it was alight, and, as I gasped at the sudden flare, a large hand enclosed in a leather glove grabbed at the wicks and put them out immediately. For a moment I was furious, but then understood it was a safety precaution and was thankful.
My friends nudged me to follow them to a door that led out into the Parvis, the entrance courtyard. This was also full of people and the fire was being passed, candle to candle, here also. As we pushed through the crowd I realised that the New Fire was gradually being passed up into the streets which were also packed with people waiting with candles. My friends explained that the men I saw rushing off with candles in lanterns were taking the New Fire to churches all over the Holy Lands, even, they said, to Cyprus and Greece. I don’t know whether this was true, but they said that the New Fire was carried on a plane to Athens so that it could be shared at the Easter Vigil there.
I returned to my courtyard clutching my pilgrim candle bundle, and put it away safely. One day, I promised myself, I would share this flame with others. It came back to England with me, along with others lit at the candle in front of the Tomb of Jesus on other occasions, and over the years they all have been shared and lit again, but on these times the tapers have been lit and left alight, at Walsingham.