On the morning of Good Friday, the Passion and death of the Lord is commemorated on Calvary, in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. As hundreds of pilgrims patiently wait outside for the doors to open, many find it hard to grasp that they are at the very place where Jesus died and rose again. An Italian man tells us “it’s difficult to say what you feel, because this is a place that tells the story of each one of us.” In the afternoon, the faithful, clergy and religious, led by the Franciscans, follow the traditional Way of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa, recalling Jesus’ final moments before offering up his life for the sake of humanity. As the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI has written in the second part of his most recent book Jesus of Nazareth, the blood of Christ that was then shed “does not cry out for vengeance and punishment, it brings reconciliation. It is not poured out against anyone, it is poured out for many, for all.”
The events of the week reach their culmination at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday, bringing to an end the forty penitential days of Lent with the exuberant celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection. In the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, called the Church of the Resurrection by Eastern Christians, the day is marked by the famous Holy Fire celebration. Many believe that this is the longest attested miracle in Christianity, having been documented since at least 1106 A.D. At this greatly anticipated moment, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch enters the tomb of Christ, after having been examined by Israeli authorities to make sure he does not have a lighter or means to light a fire. While the congregation chants prayers and hymns outside, the Patriarch, alone inside the tomb, utters some prayers until the holy flame spontaneously rises out of the stone where Jesus’ body lay and lights the 33 white candles that were tied together by the Patriarch. The miraculous fire, recalling both the power of the resurrection and the burning bush at Mount Sinai, ushers in the celebration of the resurrection that will continue not only on Easter Sunday, but also for the entire 8-day Easter octave. For the thousands of pilgrims who have come to the Holy City during this great season, and especially for the few who were able to enter the Church of the Resurrection at this unique moment, the celebration of Holy Week in Jerusalem will remain with them as a living memory and inspiration for their faith that they will take back home with them and cherish, no doubt, for the rest of their lives.