Christian High Holy Days

Sami El-Yousef shares his bittersweet Easter in Jerusalem

by Sami El-Yousef

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Childhood dreams. I was 14 years old when my father decided I was ready to participate in the Holy Fire celebration on Holy Saturday, according to the Greek Orthodox tradition.

I belong to one of the 13 oldest Christian families in Jerusalem. Hundreds of years ago, locals commemorated these early Christians by placing in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre 13 banners, each named after one of these families. The only privilege the families’ descendants enjoy is that once a year, on Holy Saturday, a representative from each family carries the banner in a procession that marches around Christ’s tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre three times.

After the procession, the Greek Orthodox patriarch enters the sealed tomb where the Miracle of the Holy Fire occurs, symbolizing the flame of the Resurrection. The fire is then passed out to the waiting crowds through a small window in the outer chamber of the edicule, which enshrines the tomb. Within seconds, the whole church lights up. This must be the most amazing surge of faith I experience throughout year. At that precise moment, I feel renewed as a Christian and prepared to face the many challenges we Arab Christians confront daily in the Holy Land. Since my first experience, I have never missed this amazing celebration except when I was out of the country.

Recent trends. Every year, as Easter approaches, we begin discussing who will represent our family on Holy Saturday. Though I must admit that, in recent years, with so many of us emigrating from the Holy Land, selecting our representative has become less of a problem. The number of adults still around who can carry the heavy banner has dwindled to a handful. As a matter of fact, about half of those 13 families have no one left in the Holy Land. For the last few years, three of my relatives have joined me in carrying the banners representing these families — an honor we deeply cherish.

These days, the discussion has shifted in my family from “who will carry the banner” to “who can even access the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.” For the past few years, Israeli authorities have closed the Old City and the area around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during Holy Week, preventing local Christian and pilgrims from attending the Holy Fire celebration.

My 88-year-old father remembers when Jordan controlled East Jerusalem. During Holy Week, fleets of buses packed with pilgrims from Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Iraq would park along the road to Jericho. The crowds of pilgrims would walk to the celebration in the Old City. Their numbers far exceeded today’s turnout at Easter time, yet the Old City never closed its gates and the streets inside were never blocked. Access was open to all.

A couple of years ago, Israeli authorities attempted to impose a permit system limiting the number of people who could attend the Holy Fire celebration. Incensed, local Christians demanded the government respect the church’s centuries-old Status Quo, which prohibits any restrictions on the faithful visiting the church. After all, pilgrims naturally want to get as close as possible to Christianity’s birthplace, especially during Holy Week.

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Tags: Jerusalem Christianity Pilgrimage/pilgrims Easter