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Associated Press
Orthodox Christian pilgrims hold candles at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, during the Holy Fire ceremony, in Jerusalem's Old City in 2010.

One of the oldest rituals in Christendom is enacted each year at the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem on the Saturday before Orthodox Easter.

Each year is unique, but generally events follow a basic pattern. In 2012 the ceremony will occur on April 14.

At about 11 a.m., the clergy of the four eastern Christian churches — Greek, Armenian, Coptic and Syriac — gather in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. All lights in the cathedral are extinguished.

Dressed in splendid priestly robes and carrying crosses, banners, relics, censers and liturgical books, the Greek Orthodox priests and monks circumambulate the tomb in a grand procession, chanting hymns and reciting passages from the gospels.

Thousands of eastern Christians gather for the ceremony, each holding bundles of 33 unlit candles, symbolizing the 33 years of Jesus Christ's life.

Hundreds of Israeli police and soldiers block all roads leading to the Holy Sepulcher, attempting to limit the numbers entering the cathedral to those with authorized tickets.

Shouts and arguments occur as irate worshipers demand to know why they're not being allowed to go to their church and pray. No answer is given.

Some, desperate to see the ceremony, are physically restrained and carried off by the police. Some ingenious pilgrims nonetheless find a way.

With the help of monks and priests some make their way through back doors of monasteries into the church. Others, finding the road blocked by police, enter a corner store by a door on one side of a roadblock, exiting by another door on the other side, quickly joining a procession of priests.

The cathedral is packed with worshipers, overflowing into the large courtyard outside the doors, where hundreds wait for hours in the hot noon sun.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem is divested of his patriarchal vestments, clothed only in a white robe and inspected for matches and other means of lighting fire.

The patriarch thereupon enters the sepulcher of Christ alone. This is the mystical moment, the faithful waiting in tense silence for the miracle: From the empty tomb with no source of fire, a divine flame miraculously appears. One pilgrim from Cyprus said that every year for 20 years she had come to witness the Easter ritual.

She was convinced the flame was miraculously ignited each year and had talked to people who had seen lamps and candles miraculously burst into flame in the cathedral.

Only once in history has the miracle failed, when the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem and expelled the Greek Orthodox priests from the Holy Sepulcher.

The Crusaders quickly restored the Orthodox privileges in the cathedral and the miracle resumed the next year.

A few moments after entering the tomb, the Holy Fire is passed by the patriarch through a hole in the wall of the tomb, where it is quickly transferred to massive torch-like candles which flash and spark like flares.

The patriarch emerges from the tomb, encircled with the flames of these blazing torches as he blesses the people.

The crowd jostles each other to light their candles from the shimmering flames; as each person's candle is kindled, he in turn passes the flame to the next.

Within moments the cathedral is aglow as a wave of fire and light surges like concentric rings from a stone dropped in water.

The bells of the cathedral reverberate joyously as the crowd shouts and claps in ecstasy. Some weep, while others brush their hands through the flames of candles, ritually washing their faces in the holy fire.

Flashes of intense heat from hundreds of candles accompany sprays of hot melted wax.

Then, in a moment, it's over. The crowd begins to disperse as many embrace and shake hands.

hPriests from all the eastern denominations carry candles and lamps to light the lamps in their churches throughout Jerusalem with the renewed Holy Fire. Many of the faithful take their candles home to light family Easter candles.

Symbolically, the descent of the Holy Fire commemorates the moment of the resurrection, when the power of God descended into the tomb of Christ, transforming death into life.

As each person shares the fire of his candle with another, the power of the light and resurrection of Christ is symbolically spread throughout the world as the Easter hope is renewed.

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