The most beautiful thing happened in America this year.
As it does every year, on Pascha the Holy Fire burst out of Christ’s Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, to the jubilant cheers of thousands of pilgrims. The Holy Fire spread through the crowd and was carried home — down the street, across town, over borders… as far as Greece and Russia, and this year, as far as New York. With the support of the Russian St. Andrew First-Called Foundation, The Holy Fire arrived at JFK airport at 12:05pm on Pascha Sunday. There’s a great YouTube video showing the fire in Jerusalem, Russia and New York. The video ends with a promise: the Holy Fire is spreading across America.
Fr. Patrick O’Rourke, a young Greek Orthodox priest in New York state, had an idea: what if we really spread the Holy Fire across America? What if we could pass the flame across our nation, across our continent?
Fr. Patrick went to work — he signed into Facebook, and asked the internet: would you help spread the Holy Fire across America? Several people liked the idea and offered to help, so they began by creating a Facebook group called “Come Receive the Holy Fire!” Interested parties could identify themselves and mark their location on a huge Google Map — black for those hoping to receive the fire, orange those who have successfully received the fire, green for those with a plan in place to receive the fire. Users could find a location near them, and hatch a plan to receive the fire.
The group quickly exploded with conversation — how would you carry the fire? Is it legal to drive on an interstate with an open flame? What type of candle, lamp or lantern would best transport the flame? People offered to drive RVs across the nation, delivering the Holy Fire to interested parishes along the road. Stories began to appear — victorious narratives of long trips taken, as well as sad stories of those who drove for hours only to see their flame extinguished when they opened their car doors at home. People shared experiences and offered solutions. Soon, the group was a community.
What’s more, the group got to work. The Google Map began to light up orange across the Northeast, into the Midwest. The flame travelled South and continued West. A couple reported that they drove down to Montana and carried the flame North to Canada — they confirmed that it’s legal to carry a flame over the border, and that the agents they met were delighted and amazed to hear why they had an open flame in the car. Highway Patrol officers and border agents alike learned about the Holy Fire and about Orthodoxy, and the flame continued to spread across the nation.
From one little light in New York, the Holy Fire spread from sea to shining sea, and continues even now to fill in the empty spaces, still working its way through the Southwest. God willing, those hoping for the flame in Alaska and Cuba will find a way to receive it too.
Watching the flame move swiftly across the nation, I was struck by the state of Orthodoxy in America. As each person set up his little marker on the map, as people hopped into RVs and set off across the country, no one asked what their jurisdiction was. Lay ROCOR drivers handed the flame to priests at Antiochian churches and to lay people at Greek churches. We didn’t even notice jurisdiction or title; we were all just watching the flame.
It was exactly like the midnight service at Pascha. You stand in the dark with your candle, expectantly watching. The flame comes out from the altar, and slowly it is passed around by all of the expectant, joyful people who surround you. When someone offers the flame, you take it — you don’t ask for credentials or wonder if it would be nicer to receive the flame from a Russian or a Serb! You don’t ask if the person is a catechumen or native Orthodox. You light your candle. We simply pass the flame.
Here in America, there are many of us who wonder whether we’ll ever see a united American Orthodoxy. We are split among various patriarchs around the world — in Constantinople, in Moscow, in Damascus and in Belgrade. Our parishes may sit just a few blocks from each other, but we speak different languages and answer to different bishops. Orthodoxy is united in theology, but will we ever be united in America?
When a person becomes interested in Orthodoxy in America and goes online to learn more, they’re greeted with several canonical jurisdictions as well as several others that simply aren’t really Orthodox (though they look Orthodox and claim to be Orthodox). Who’s to say which is right? We on the inside, we already-Orthodox, mostly know who is canonical and who is not, that it’s ok to commune in an Antiochian or Serbian Church, but that you should steer clear of that self-proclaimed bishop who has only one parish under him and seems to use the words true and right too often. The difference in their websites is subtle, and you have to be in the club to know who is in the club. Those who wish to convert look at this array of ethnic jurisdictions and say, well that one is for Russians and this one is for Greeks, so I guess there isn’t a jurisdiction for me (unless they happen upon an OCA church, in which case we hope they’ll say — hey, I’m American and I’m invited!) We explain to them that we’re all in communion, all professing the same Creed and believing the same doctrine, but we must admit that it’s a little fishy that we divide ourselves so much.
After the Great Council last summer, world Orthodoxy seems like it may be less united than it was before the Council (or perhaps, those divisions that pre-existed the Council are just clearer now). Many Americans who dreamt of a single jurisdiction over this nation had their hopes dashed – or at least delayed – when the Council left us not closer, but somehow even farther away from that goal.
For those among us who were pained to see hope for administrative unity fall apart, take heart: there is a grassroots unity, a true brotherhood, at work among the Orthodox in America, and ultimately, this will pave the way for one jurisdiction. In the end, we’ll be glad that rather than receive change from the top down, with a bureaucratic restructuring of bishops first, we experienced the changes organically, becoming truly connected and united at the grassroots level, with administrative unity following naturally and appropriately.
When you love the people in the other Orthodox parishes around town, you’ll be glad to be joined to them under a single bishop. We can’t do much about the pacing of administrative unity in America, but we can get to know each other and create a grassroots unity today. May we follow the example of those who spread the Holy Fire, with their eyes on Christ and their hearts wide open, their excitement and love driving them across the miles to connect with one another, spreading the Light of Christ as they go.