The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is one of my favourite places on earth. The church – where most Orthodox and Catholic churches believe the grave of Jesus is located – is visited by a great variety of pilgrims and tourists from every corner of the world. I have spent hours, days (if not weeks) wandering around observing people and their rituals. Extremely interesting for a religious studies scholar, but as a curious person interested in people’s behaviour this place is heaven. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is not only the centre of formal ecclesiastical rituals, but also a fertile breeding ground for personal ritual creativity.
This Saturday, 18th of April 2020, the church was again the scene of the Sacred Fire ceremony that heralds Orthodox Easter. Last year I spent much of my Saturday watching the livestream on my laptop, which portrayed the immense amount of exited people inside and around the church, and the joyful – slightly chaotic – spread of the fire.
But this year, due to the Corona pandemic, things were quite different. Jerusalem is in lockdown and the church has been closed to the public for weeks, although small-scale religious celebrations still took place on the square outside. For the revelation of the Holy Fire, the church was open to the clerics of the concerned denominations and again a live stream was organized. Hours before anything happened, I watched clergymen hanging around and technicians testing connections and camera angles. I even saw quite some selfie moments pass by. It felt just like the countless observation expeditions I undertook in previous years.
Because cameras have been set up in many more places in the church this year, outsiders have also been given new insights. This time, the Greek Patriarch had plenty of room to do his thing. The magical moment when the sacred fire spreads like wildfire throughout the church was not there this year. The various carriers of the holy fire are approached here and there by people who want to light their candles as close as possible to the source fire. That day the fire was also taken to at least 11 destinations outside Israel, special planes landed for this purpose from i.e.: Greece, Russia, Poland, Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine and Serbia.