The world's Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrated Pascha (Easter) this weekend, a full month later than Western churches this year. This is one of those exotic dates on the calendar that usually draws a little bit of coverage in the mainstream press.
At the very least, journalists spend a few lines trying to explain the mysteries of the ancient Julian calendar and why all those people with candles were marching around in the middle of the night singing (in the haunting Byzantine chant tone 6) the following, in English or the language of a particular parish's ethnic roots:
Thy Resurrection, O Christ Our Savior, the Angels in Heaven sing.
Enable us on Earth to Glorify Thee in Purity of Heart.
In recent years, there has been a growing news-media awareness of the ancient "Holy Fire" rites in Jerusalem, which offers journalists an annual chance to wrestle with claims of the miraculous. My theory is that this news story has, in part, been gaining some traction because of smartphone videos being posted on YouTube each year.
So here is the top of a typical short Associated Press report this time around, with one line that jumped out at me. See if you can spot it.
JERUSALEM (AP) -- Thousands of Christians have gathered in Jerusalem for an ancient fire ceremony that celebrates Jesus’ resurrection.
In a ritual dating back at least 1,200 years, they crowded Saturday into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christian tradition holds that Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.
During the annual ceremony, top Eastern Orthodox clerics enter the Edicule, the small chamber marking the site of Jesus’ tomb. They then emerge to reveal candles said to be miraculously lit with “holy fire” as a message to the faithful from heaven. The details of the flame’s source are a closely guarded secret.
No, it wasn't the "said to be miraculously lit" language that struck me. The assumption, readers can only assume, is that church leaders explained the rite and the AP team then reported their claim that a miracle takes place in that holy sanctuary. The implied attribution is pretty clear, although it would be nice if a reporter took the time to quote someone by name.
But what are readers to make of this statement: "The details of the flame’s source are a closely guarded secret." Who is being quoted here, in effect stating that insiders actually know that this rite is a fraud?
The bottom line: This information is simply stated as fact and that is that. There isn't even a vague, "critics of the ancient churches claim that" wording.
Once again: The details of the flame's source "are" closely guarded -- which can only mean that church leaders are lying and have been lying for more than a millennium.
By the way, people who have managed to get inside the jam-packed Church of the Holy Sepulchre report that the truly interesting part of the rite is the way that the fire instantly spreads all over that enclosed courtyard -- in some cases with no contact between the candles at the tomb and the candles being held high by the worshipers. The candles appear to light spontaneously and the fire does not behave in a normal manner for the first few minutes. For starters, the flames are unusually large and they do not burn faces, hands and hair that they touch.
Reporters can, of course, just describe the basics of what they are seeing, as in this BBC report. Noting that some people doubt, while others believe, is par for the course.
By the way, I found it interesting that a later version of this year's Associated Press report about Pascha omitted the earier anonymous claim that the rite is a fraud.
ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- With “Holy Fire,” fireworks and solemn Masses, Orthodox Christians around the world celebrated Easter on Sunday, commemorating the day followers believe that Jesus was resurrected more than 2,000 years ago. ...
In Greece, the faithful attended Easter Mass holding candles lit with “Holy Fire” from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The “Holy Fire,” coming from the Edicule, the small chamber marking the site of Jesus’ tomb, is held by the faithful to miraculously light candles as a message to the faithful from heaven.
The fire was transferred to Greece by plane and, as custom dictates, welcomed at Athens airport with the honors due a visiting foreign head of state, before taken across the country by plane so it could reach the furthest parishes before midnight Sunday. The “Holy Fire” was also transported to Russia and other Orthodox nations.
For future reference, AP journalists, while Catholics use the term "Mass," the Orthodox rite (and the rite in many Eastern-rite Catholics) is called the "Divine Liturgy." Also, the Orthodox use the ancient term "Pascha" to describe this greatest of all Christian holy days -- not "Easter" (click here for more information). Thus, using the term "Easter Mass" is a double mistake.
Why not use the accurate terms, with a small note explaining these ancient traditions among the Christians of the East? I mean, isn't the point of these news stories to accurately cover these events?