“Delivery of the Holy Fire is based on a centuries-old tradition”
Why did the Foundation of St. Andrew the First-Called start the delivery of the Holy Fire to Russia?
The idea to bring the Holy Fire to Russia is not exactly new. Rather on the contrary, the idea is based on a centuries-old tradition. In XI century it was hegumen Varlaam who had a similar pilgrim’s journey; in the beginning of XII century hegumen Daniel did it and gave a detailed description of all the holy places of Palestine. For centuries Russian pilgrims used to visit the Holy Land and some of them brought the Holy Fire to their Motherland. Trips like that were dangerous and took a lot of time. Later walking journeys of pilgrims were replaced by pilgrim voyages and train trips.
After the October Revolution the presence of Russian monks and pilgrims on the Holy Land reduced significantly.
The tradition to bring the Holy Fire was restored only in the beginning of 1990s. But that was a matter of rare cases.
In 2003 the Foundation of St. Andrew the First-Called, with blessing from His Holiness Patriarch Alexis II, began the implementation of the programme called “Pray for Peace for Jerusalem”. At the same time the online broadcasting of the event was organized with support from NTV channel.
What is the purpose of the “Pray for Peace for Jerusalem” programme?
The prayer about peace in Jerusalem, which is the spiritual centre of three religions, is the main element of our peace-making programme. 15 years ago we deliberately chose the days of Holy Week to hold the prayer as it is the time when all Christians pay special attention to the Holy Land. On Holy Friday together with Patriarch of Jerusalem we are saying the dedicated prayer about peace in the holy town.
A representative delegation arrives from Russia, headed by Vladimir Yakunin, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Foundation of St. Andrew the First-Called. Eparch of the Moscow Patriarchate, who got the blessing from Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, is giving spiritual guidance for the delegation. The delegation meets the head of the ministry at the Trinity Church of the Russian ecclesiastical mission in Jerusalem. Then we go on a pilgrimage tour to visit places of Saviour’s mortal life which are sacred for all Christians. We try to get to the Church of the Resurrection and particularly to the Edicule, a small part of the chapel located on the place of Saviour’s sepulture.
On the same day we meet His Beatitude Patriarch of Jerusalem and All Palestine. Together with Eparch of the Russian Orthodox Church they are praying about peace in the Holy Land, about feud mitigation. On the same days of the Holy Week believers from different countries of the world say this prayer. In many churches of the Russian Orthodox Church on Holy Saturday, when millions of our compatriots come to get blessing for their Easter cakes, the prayer about peace in the Holy Land is being held.
Undoubtedly, the mission of bringing the Holy Fire to Russia is the honour for us; it defines the whole programme of the Foundation’s delegation on Holy Saturday. And the third significant element of the project is the broadcasting by NTV channel and “Radio of Russia”. To some extent it was thanks to them the tradition to deliver the Holy Fire to Russia has become really nation-wide.
How is the project “Pray for Peace for Jerusalem” being prepared?
It is the key project of the Foundation. The preparation process is carried out during the whole year.
As soon as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Foundation, Vladimir Yakunin, gets the blessing from Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, we start negotiations with the embassy of Israel in Moscow, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, representatives of security services of Israel. We inform them about our intention to visit the country during the Orthodox Easter as a representative delegation of the Foundation of Saint Andrew the First-Called and about the plans for TV broadcasting to be held from the Church of the Resurrection. A working group is organized. Negotiations with heads of the Jerusalem Patriarchate, the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Franciscan Monastery are being held, as well as talks with people who are responsible for security measures. We always have meetings with Patriarch of Jerusalem and All Palestine and with the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church. And everywhere we build rapport; thanks to the long-term collaboration we gained confidence from our partners which we appreciate. Thanks to a friendly and constructive position of representatives of the Jerusalem Patriarchate, the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Franciscan Order we have the opportunity to implement the programme “Pray for Peace for Jerusalem”.
As Easter days are about to come, when the quantity of pilgrims and tourists is growing rapidly, the situation changes greatly. We have to be in constant contact with the partners and to prepare the visit of the Foundation’s delegation and the TV broadcasting during the whole Holy Week.
Regarding which matters do you collaborate with the partners from Jerusalem?
In the past it was mostly about visa support. At present visas are not required. But it is getting harder and harder to get admission to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Only the Israeli police can provide a free access to the Church of the Resurrection as long as they have confirmation from the Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the Patriarchate of Armenia, in case you take places on the Greek or Armenian side.
In order to have a TV broadcasting it is of great importance to get permission from representatives of the Patriarchates of Jerusalem and Armenia, as well as from the head of the Franciscan Order to place cameras and lighting on the Church territory that belongs to them. During the broadcasting we always express our gratitude to our partners on behalf of the Russian viewers for a wonderful picture on their television screens the partners had helped us with.
What is the schedule of the Foundation’s delegation on Holy Saturday?
In the morning the delegation is gathered and placed in buses. Then they leave for the walls of the Old City in an orderly manner, moving to the gates the police tell us to go to. Not far from the gates the bus stops. The delegation is in the bus. Authorized people hand out special permits and wristbands. As for us, for several years in a row we hand out special kerchiefs to all participants of the delegation of the Foundation of St. Andrew the First-Called for them to identify each other easily when they are inside the Church of the Resurrection and, what’s more important, when they leave the Church.
After that, under the supervision of the authorized people, we gradually move closer and closer to the Church of the Resurrection via the Armenian quarter. Most part of the delegation come to Katholikon, the Greek church in the Church of the Resurrection of Christ. As for the heads of the delegation they are placed on the Greek and Armenian sides around the Edicule.
How much time does the delegation spend in the Church?
Four hours at least. At first it is very easy to keep standing. Water we bring with us is still rather cold and refreshing. However, after two hours, when representatives of the Arabic Christian youth, top officials of the Orthodox Arabic Community of the city, Christians with church banners are coming it is already quite difficult to stand on our feet; legs get numb, there is not enough oxygen, the water in plastic bottles seems hot.
But then, during the Patriarch’s walking around the Church, all the attention is paid to this action and people forget about current discomfort and pray. As soon as Patriarch has walked around the Edicule three times he is undressed and enters the Edicule. A representative of the Armenian Church follows Patriarch into the Angel Chapel. Then His Beatitude Patriarch of Jerusalem is praying. After that, as soon as Patriarch of Jerusalem and a representative of the Armenian Church hand the Holy Fire through small windows in the Edicule, Patriarch ceremonially leaves the Edicule. At the moment the Fire is being distributed across the Church – from candle to candle.
How is the Fire delivered to Moscow to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour?
Our key mission is to deliver the parts of the Holy Fire to Russia. For this purpose we take three lamps that are specifically certified and used in particular for transportation of the Olympic Fire on board the plane. That is, the fire in the lamps is not open and does not pose any threat for the plane’s safety.
The head of the delegation, Vladimir Yakunin, is the first person who obtains the Fire and who shares it with Eparch and other pilgrims. He has one lamp. But we have two other lamps reserved – in my hands and in the hands of Alexey Parshintsev, head of Department on interaction with religious organizations of the Foundation of St. Andrew the First-Called; they deliver the lamps to the buses at the Russian mission where the delegation is gathered. We get on the buses quite quickly and go to Ben-Gurion airport. Our task is to board the plane as soon as possible. Preliminary we agree all the aspects of the delegation’s movements with the security of the airport in order to avoid any delays.
Once we had to delay due to objective reasons – a plane that was about to take off had problems with landing wheels. As a result we were quite late. Everybody was worried, especially Vladimir Ivanovich. The plane was flying at the speed of 800 km per hour but we had to fly at 850 km/hour at least. The pilots asked for the lamp with the Fire. As soon as they got it the plane reached the necessary speed and landed on time.
When the delegation arrives at Moscow, Vladimir Yakunin, head of the delegation, hands the Fire to believers right at the building of the airport. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of people are waiting for us; they come from different places of our Motherland and light their lamps. The main group including Vladimir Ivanovich and Eparch, who got blessing from His Holiness Patriarch, are moving to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour for the ceremonial delivery of the parts of the Holy Fire to Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia. According to the tradition, the Holy Fire is handed to the heads of our country, who are present at the Easter service, and to thousands of believers who come to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on this day.