From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
[PCUSANEWS] Holy Fire
PCUSA NEWS <PCUSA.NEWS@ecunet.org>
13 Jun 2003 09:28:34 -0400
Note #7812 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:
June 12, 2003
A missionary letter from Israel/Palestine
By Elizabeth and Marthame Sanders
PC(USA) mission co-workers
ZABABDEH, Occupied West Bank - The Easter tradition among the churches of
Palestine and Israel is unique.
On Holy Saturday, the day before Orthodox Easter (April 27 this year), the
Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem enters the tomb of the Holy Sepulchre.
After a moment of prayer, he emerges with the Holy Fire, passing it on by
candle to the gathered faithful. From there, with shouts of "Christ is
risen!" it is spread to the churches of this land, a symbol of the miracle of
resurrection spread throughout the world.
In past years, someone would go down from Zababdeh to Jerusalem to bring the
light back. It has been three years since that has happened because of travel
restrictions on Palestinians in the territories.
On Friday night, Marthame borrowed a car, lanterns and a clergy robe from
local religious leaders. We cleaned the two lanterns from their years of use
and disuse, and experimented with what kind of candles would last longest.
Early Saturday morning, we left in our Catholic car, carrying our Orthodox
lanterns, and with Marthame wearing an Anglican robe borrowed from the
Melkite priest. We picked up our friend Jonathan from the University and made
our way towards Jerusalem.
We knew the Tayasir checkpoint might be tough. On the outskirts of nearby
Tubas and built on confiscated Latin Patriarchate land, the checkpoint is one
of two outlets for Palestinians traveling southwards from Jenin. Three years
ago, traffic from Jenin could take Palestinian roads directly to Nablus, on
to Ramallah and Jerusalem, a commute as easy as connecting the dots.
However, these roads have been destroyed to prevent such free movement,
meaning southward travel from our area must take a round?about route going
east then north to enter the southbound Jordan Valley Road. This highway is a
main transportation artery, running north from the Red Sea, through the Negev
Desert, along the length of the West Bank, and into the Galilee. As such it
is heavily guarded by the Israeli military.
Checkpoints at the borders of the West Bank prevent Palestinians from
entering Israel on the road, but the army also controls and often refuses
Palestinians access to the road for travel within the West Bank, hence
checkpoints like Tayasir.
We arrived at 7:00, and the cars were already backed up. Men sat on the side
of the road, gawking at our yellow?plated (and thus Israeli?registered) car.
"Good! Some foreigners," we could hear them say each other. They hoped we
could part the waters for them to pass.
We pulled up to the front of the line, our Israeli plates giving us
preferable treatment over the Palestinians, who had already been waiting for
hours. Marthame walked slowly towards the checkpoint, clearly marked by a
large iron gate across the road and concrete blocks on either side. There
were no soldiers in sight, not even in the military camp adjacent to the
"Maa! What do you want?" A voice came in Hebrew.
"Good morning. I need to speak with you." Speaking English often causes
surprise, especially in this area where foreigners rarely tread these days.
"Where are you going?"
"I'm going to Jerusalem. It's our feast today."
The voice seemed to be coming from a tower to the far side of the checkpoint.
Another came from a tower on the near side: "Are you a priest?"
"Yes." The finer points of priest and pastor are lost on non?native speakers.
"OK, "you can go," said the closer voice. "No he can't!" protested the other.
"Seger! It's closed!" They argued back and forth for a minute. The soldier in
the near?side tower came down and examined Marthame's passport, then motioned
for him to bring the car forward.
As Marthame walked back to the car, the men waiting asked him what happened.
"What did he say? Is it closed?"
"He said we could go. I don't know about you." In his anxiety about passing,
Marthame had forgotten to ask about the others.
"Take me with you!" shouted one man, half in jest, half in seriousness. We
drove around the barrier, as the soldier instructed us, and rolled down our
window. "We'll be back this afternoon. We can pass, right?"
"Of course! You're OK," he said, giving us the thumbs up.
"What about them?" we asked, motioning towards the waiting throng.
"Today it's Shabbat (Sabbath). It's, eh, seger. Closed." We drove off. We had
our own problems to worry about. Checkpoints can breed selfishness.
We arrived early in Jerusalem amid a buzz of excitement. Our tickets to enter
the Church of the Holy Sepulchre were from the Anglicans, who got them from
In the last few weeks a dispute had flared between the Greeks and the
Armenians about how the ceremony would take place. Apparently tradition can
be rather fluid. During the time of the last Greek Patriarch, his physical
frailty led to an ecumenical arrangement in which the Armenian Patriarch
would enter the tomb with him and carry the light to the waiting masses. Last
year, the new Greek Patriarch, wanting to return to the older tradition,
tried to bypass the Armenian Patriarch. The Armenian grabbed his arm, a
struggle ensued, and the light was extinguished. Now, both sides were loaded
for bear, and everyone was anxious about what would happen.
Some people told us that the Mayor of Moscow was in town, with a dozen toughs
to support the Greeks. The Israelis, concerned about the possible disaster of
a mob fight involving thousands of people with fire in a building with one
exit, tried to mediate the disagreement, and on Holy Saturday they sent extra
police to the church.
We arrived to see some young Greek and Armenian men dressed in seminary robes
but looking for a little action. We noticed their sneakers and chain?smoking,
another bystander pointing out that they were more along the lines of
football hooligans than Christian worshipers. People were predicting violence
and even bloodshed. Since we were gathering for an Easter miracle in a land
suffering so much bloodshed these days, it all seemed profoundly
We entered the church and opted for a higher vantage point, somewhat out of
the way of whatever chaos might break out. Several processions passed through
the church: the Armenians and Copts parading slowly, the Arab youth dancing
and singing on each others' shoulders.
A few hours later, the Greeks arrived. The air was thick with tension. The
two sides taunted each other. From where we stood, we could see lots of
commotion and shoving around the Patriarch. At one point, it appeared that a
Greek priest and an Armenian layman were engaged in a shouting match. It was
better not to know, but we were filled with dread. Thousands of people
carrying fire mixed with the possibility of rioting was daunting. It dawned
on us that this was possibly the most dangerous thing we had done in three
Eventually the Patriarch entered, the church's lights were extinguished, and
the crowd settled down a bit. Soon, light emerged from the tomb, and as soon
as it did, the air of animosity and fear was suddenly transformed into cries
of joy amid the clanging, celebratory bells. Perhaps this was the greater
miracle of the Holy Fire this year. The light spread from the door of the
Sepulchre, from candle to candle, and soon filled the church. The temperature
rose noticeably from the flames. We lit the lanterns (re?lighting one of them
twice) and made our way though the joyful crowd and out of the church.
We walked tentatively through the narrow Old City streets, carrying the fire
back to the parking lot, hoping it wouldn't go out. Once back in the car, we
rode just as anxiously, double?checking the flame every few seconds.
As we sped up the Jordan Valley Road, from the Dead Sea towards the Galilee,
we sang every hymn we could think of that mentioned light. "This Little Light
of Mine" and "I Saw the Light" soon gave way to less?sacred fare like "Candle
in the Wind" and "You Light up My Life."
It had been a long day already, and the Tayasir checkpoint was still in front
of us. We had to stop several times along the way to replenish candles, one
from the other, hands shaking (it was a long way back to Jerusalem if they
went out). We understood exactly why people always take two.
Cellphones rang the whole way back, everyone in Zababdeh anxious to know
where we were and when we would arrive. "We've just left Jerusalem." "We're
at the Dead Sea." "We're at Jericho." "We'll call you when we get through the
checkpoint." "Pray for us."
The scene we left at Tayasir was not the one we found when we returned. One
car was coming from the other side, but a soldier waved it away. It obliged.
We were left alone. The soldier waved us away, too. Marthame stepped down
from the car, still a good fifty yards from the soldier. He shouted something
in Hebrew. We understood it's meaning, though: "Go away."
"Do you speak English?" Marthame asked.
"A little," he replied.
"I need to speak with you. We are going to Zababdeh."
"We were told we could when we came through the morning."
"I'm a priest, with an American passport, and I'm bringing the light from
Jerusalem back to the churches. It's our feast today."
"You can't go," he insisted, nervously fingering his M?16, still half a
football field away.
"I'm a priest. Komer, Komer." Marthame repeated the word for priest, one of
the few Hebrew words we know.
"Then I need to speak to your captain."
"Rega. Rega. Just a minute." He disappeared into the camp, re?appearing a few
minutes later, still standing as far away as he could. Marthame stood at the
concrete barrier, checking his watch. Elizabeth put her lantern up in the
dashboard so it was visible. After a few minutes, the soldier called us
forward. "Come here, In your car."
"Stop. Turn off. Get out." We did. "You. Give me the passport." Marthame
followed orders. "Now open the baggage." He checked a first aid box in the
trunk. "Now the engine." It took us five minutes to find the latch, opening
the gas tank, the trunk again, and adjusting the steering wheel before
succeeding. "OK. Thank you. Have a nice day."
We began calling frantically, letting everyone know we were on our way. In
Tubas, some of the Christians there joined us for the last leg of the journey
into Zababdeh. When we reached the edge of town, we started honking the horn.
Some were baffled by the noise, others excited.
We parked at the gas station in the middle of town, where the Orthodox,
Catholic, and Melkite priests met us, along with the village's Scouts. We
began our procession around the village, stopping at each of the churches --
Orthodox, Melkite, Anglican, and Catholic -- to pass the light along and to
say a brief prayer. We joked that a new tradition had been established, that
Presbyterians always brought the Holy Fire to Zababdeh.
Everyone agreed that the arrival of the Holy Fire this year paled in
comparison to the celebrations of brighter days, but it was the biggest event
in years. The days are still dark here. The economy is destroyed. The roads
are closed. The army comes to town far too frequently. But for a brief
moment, the Christians in the northern West Bank were reconnected with the
miracle of resurrection.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
Editor's note: Information about and correspondence from Presbyterian mission
personnel around the world is available on the website
www.pcusa.org/missionconnections. - Jerry L. Van Marter
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