In a historic first, a bishop from the “Macedonian Orthodox Church” flew on a Bulgarian government aircraft to Jerusalem to fetch the “holy fire” sacred to Orthodox Christians for Easter 2019, with the bishop thanking Bulgaria for the brotherly love so displayed, media in Sofia said.
In Orthodox Christian belief, the ritual of Easter sees the “holy fire” emanating in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. From there, it is distributed to believers in the Orthodox Christian world.
In the case of Bulgaria, for the past 15 years, the flame has been fetched by a delegation who return to their home country by jet aircraft in time for the midnight ritual at churches across the country, where the majority profess Eastern Orthodox Christianity.
In 2018, the Bulgarian delegation was met at Sofia Airport, and handed the flame to a delegation from the “Macedonian Orthodox Church”. In 2019, matters went further, with a bishop from the “Macedonian Orthodox Church” going with the Bulgarians, and travelling on in the Bulgarian government aircraft to Skopje.
The symbolism is crucial. The move at the Orthodox Easter 2019 came amid officially more cordial relations between Sofia and Skopje, and against the background of the fraught issue of the “Macedonian Orthodox Church” – not recognised as autocephalous in the wider family of Orthodox Christian churches – as having asked the Bulgarian Orthodox Church to be its mother church.
The political dimension was that even as a senior Bulgarian official accompanied the North Macedonian bishop Yakov on the Bulgarian government aircraft on to Skopje, so too there was conveyed a message of Easter greetings from Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov to his North Macedonian counterpart, Zoran Zaev.
The symbolism – initiated, reportedly, at government rather than at the level of clergy – was that against the background of the “good neighbourliness” agreement between Bulgaria and the Republic of North Macedonia, so often caught up in recent years in vexed issues of disputed history, another step forward in shared culture and history was being taken. However, from the outside, the arcane ritual of the “holy fire” may seem just that, a religious ritual of fine and cloistered nuance, the implications of the gesture were somewhat wider, more than the single flame of a lanterned candle.