I first encountered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Washington, D.C. at the National Geographic museum. There, to showcase the renovation work that had recently been done to the church, NatGeo had a virtual exhibit that allowed you to step “inside” the church and view it, as well as learn about the fascinating details of the church’s history and administration.
If you’re not familiar, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is located in Jerusalem, and is thought by many to contain the site of Christ’s tomb and resurrection. The governance of the site is shared by several Christian denominations, most prominently the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic. These and other denominations participate in a careful agreement of shared governance called the Status Quo, and despite the occasional conflict, the agreement has largely been honored for many, many years. Touchingly, and in accordance with the spirit of this agreement in which no one denominations “owns” the church, its keys and its opening have been entrusted to the same Muslim family for many generations.
Holy Fire is a documentary about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and about the Easter ritual – the Holy Fire – that occurs within. During this ritual, a fire from within the tomb is used to light the candles of the clergy, and then the Christian pilgrims, who have come to the tomb to celebrate the resurrection of Christ. Some claim that the holy fire itself is of miraculous origin; others dispute the claim. Regardless, the focus of the documentary is on the church itself, what the pilgrimage means to believers who come and – maybe most importantly – the presence and the culture of Christianity as it is expressed in Israel.
Only twenty-seven minutes, the documentary nonetheless packs a punch. It explains the nature of the Status Quo, the concord between denominations through which the administration of the church runs, and it does not shy away from discussing some of the conflict, confusion, and chaos that comes of this unusual arrangement. If you’ve ever been curious about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the ritual is new to you, it’s worth watching for the information alone. But where the documentary really shines is in its desire to re-introduce to Western believers the many other Christian brothers and sisters who call on the name of Christ and worship Him.
The masses who gather to celebrate Easter at the church of the Holy Sepulchre appear alien to Western believers who celebrate the holiday in neat, decorous churches watching cantatas and singing hymns. The celebration is chaotic, full of dancing and instruments and chants and ululations. Believers ride on each other’s shoulders, shout, wave swords and crosses and crucifixes. I was struck by the sight of throngs of believers waiting for the holy fire, waiting for the symbolic moment to celebrate the resurrection of Christ, and listening to a chorus that was both familiar and unfamiliar to me at once:
Al Maseeh Qam! (Christ is risen!)
Haqqan Qam! (He is risen indeed!)
The documentary also touches on some painful truths. Believers attending the pilgrimage in Israel wonder aloud if the West has forgotten that they are believers, too. Palestinian Christians, barred from Jerusalem by the wall, must apply for special permission to visit the Holy Sepulchre and, if permission is granted, face particular scrutiny by the authorities during their visit. One woman acknowledges that her son, kicked and beaten up during a chaotic scrum for exactly such a reason, has left the faith.
And yet: the scenes portrayed are touching, intense, and deeply moving. Watching throngs of believers standing shoulder-to-shoulder in alleys, within the church, waiting for the light that symbolizes Christ’s resurrection – and witnessing the resulting flame and exuberance, made me smile. The documentary is a powerful reminder of the power of Christ, of His presence, of the community of believers everywhere who love and worship Him.
It was also, for me, a stinging and necessary rebuke. It is easy to forget, when you are an American believer in our modern era, attending a church in which a good many people look and think and act like you, that Jesus was – as Philip Yancey memorably put it – “a Palestinian Jew” and embedded with the culture and the context of his people. It is easy to forget that while contemporary worship, church forums with coffee machines, soaring cathedrals with elaborate displays comprise much of the American experience of worship, that is not all that worship is, can be, or should be. It is easy to forget, though I often acknowledge it, that Christ belongs to all people and all cultures who call upon Him as Savior and Lord.
For that alone, I recommend Holy Fire. It is a fascinating glimpse into a ritual and a Christian culture that the West doesn’t know much about, and – more than that – an acknowledgement of the depth and breadth of God’s body in the world, and the believers who celebrate Him in Jerusalem every Easter.
The documentary is available on Amazon to rent for $.99. You can read an interview with the creators here.