Holy Saturday: First Fruits of the Eighth Day

Holy Saturday and dawn has barely broken as pilgrims begin to gather in front of Saint Saviour Monastery. Everyone is getting ready to observe the Easter Vigil at the Holy Sepulchre… Strangely, it is observed in the early morning at the Holy Sepulchre, according to the rules that govern the sharing of the holy places with other Christian churches. The basilica is almost empty; neither tourists nor pilgrims disturb the Franciscan service. The liturgy is seen in all its splendor.

Led by the Latin Patriarch, H. B. Fouad Twal, it is permeated with a deep serenity, thanks to the unusual quiet in the basilica. The chants of the friars sound in one place then another, first during the procession from the Stone of Anointing, then during the Mass. There are fewer people than at the other Easter services. Perhaps the early morning hour discouraged pilgrims who are already tired by the pace of the first days of the Easter feast days. Maybe some hesitated because of the conditions to access the basilica in years when Easter is celebrated on the same day by all the Churches and some 30,000 pilgrims tried to enter the basilica for the Orthodox Holy Fire ceremony a few hours early.

Those who are here attentively follow the readings and prayers. The calm atmosphere is even more welcome after two intense days in a city under assault by Jewish and Christian pilgrims. From the early hours of the day, the Orthodox are already in the Holy Sepulchre awaiting the celebration of the New Fire in the afternoon. Many pray; some doze. Behind Christ’s tomb there is a strange sight: aproned Greek Orthodox women are busy molding, mixing, flattening. Behind them a sort of kitchen opens directly into the basilica, where wax is heated and then mixed with a kind of paste. Since the night before, they have been making little wax disks that will be used to seal the tomb of Christ.

During this time, candles lit on the Franciscan side, the sign of peace is exchanged and the water is blessed. In spite of the exhaustion, faces smile gently, reassured. The ceremony ends with a procession and the organ plays Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, resounding throughout the basilica. Then the friars return to the monastery and the Orthodox pilgrims press against the barriers, waiting to enter the Anastasis, the Resurrection, for the culmination of the Easter festivities in Jerusalem.

While the Franciscan liturgy concludes and as the police block all the streets, the young Christian Arabs of the Old City of Jerusalem meet again at around ten o’clock in the morning in the streets around Saint Saviour Monastery.

Sent a day into the future by the Custody’s Internet site, I join them without really knowing what awaited me. I find myself caught up in a river of young men wearing red t-shirts printed with the face of Christ as they dance and lift one another up on their shoulders singing, or rather shouting in Arabic, “People change, but we stay the same, we Arabs of the Christian Quarter” while beating the table, a local drum.

It’s a chaotic mix of people pushing, joyful, happy, eager for what is yet to take place. Toward noon, after having painstakingly forged a way through the crowds for the quarter’s scouts, all these people try to enter the Holy Sepulchre. A face-to-face encounter with the Israeli police who are regulating entry to the holy place ensues.

The atmosphere becomes emotional and there is no sympathy on either side for the other. Nevertheless, the young Arabs manage to enter the forecourt and then the inside the chock full building, again singing in Arabic for the crowd. Later the guys prefer to meet on the roof of the Greek patriarchate rather than staying inside to wait for the holy fire; it’s more “relaxed”, they say. It’s true that a little quiet time among friends is not at all unwelcome after so much emotion.

The deep tolling of the impressive bells of the Anastasis begins to invade the narrow streets of the city. The “miracle” has occurred: the Fire, sign of the resurrection, looses the Easter joy. Greetings are exchanged, people embrace, and the scouts begin to parade again, this time carrying the new fire from home to home in the Christian Quarter. The windows rattle with the song, “Christ is risen from the dead; through death, he has conquered death; to those who are in the grave he has given life!”

This resurrection will be celebrated again by the Franciscans during a nighttime service in the basilica and again on Sunday morning with the patriarch. There was Holy Week, and there were vigils; tomorrow is the eighth day.

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