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Orthodox Easter in Beirut

May 10, 2013
The priest transfers the "Holy fire" to church patrons.

The priest transfers the “Holy fire” to church patrons.

Orthodox Easter, which was celebrated last week and into the weekend, is one of the most important days of the year for Orthodox Christians. I didn’t attend any of the events leading up to Easter (Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday), where many interesting things happen. The washing of the feet, the funeral of Christ where people mark the death of Jesus (Jinez El Massih) and the traditional Sunday morning mass (Hijmeh).

Thanks to my friend Paul, I’ve learned the “hijmeh” means “to attack.” It’s a tradition where congregants pray outside their church, then rush in or “attack,” the church, which signifies triumph over evil. I wish I could’ve seen this, but I got lost in a cab Sunday morning. I guess there’s always next year.

I did manage to see the celebrations on Saturday evening though, as the tradition of bringing the “Holy fire” from Jerusalem, which is then flown to Orthodox communities throughout the world, commenced in Beirut. I waited by the Mar Mitr church in Ashrafieh for two hours, waiting for the fire to be brought from Sassine, another area of the city.

Below is a video of the priests coming and the crowd of people following, along with a van playing religious chants from multiple loudspeakers. You can hear the fireworks going off, both behind the crowd and by the church to my left – it was so loud, it felt like we were in the middle of a war zone. A church patron told me that they were setting off $4000 worth.

“It’s a very special church, this one. It’s really something special,” he said as he followed me (and the crush of people) into the area outside the church, urging me to take photos of the interior of “the most beautiful church” he had attended since he was a child.


Of course, while everyone was crowding in through the gates, someone set off a firework directly behind the crowd, sending black burnt debris into the air. Whoops.

Many people were emotional as they lit their candles from the two priests, crying and kissing their hands and cheeks. One woman repeatedly put her hand on the flame in the priest’s hand then ran it across her face, tears coursing down. I feared a bit for one of the priests, as he disappeared under the crush of arms frantically fighting to get to the flame in his hand. Sweat poured down his face as he coughed from the smoke from the flame and yelled for people to relax.

The strangest thing that I saw though was the area set up with cardboard cutout of Jesus Christ floating above a man passed out with a bottle of alcohol in his hand. I guess a reminder that He is always watching?

He's watching.

He’s watching.

All in all, it was a very interesting experience to see how a holiday is celebrated with ancient traditions that conversely I grew up celebrating with Easter baskets, eggs with coins in them and excruciatingly long masses wearing scratchy dresses.

Learning something new every day.

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