The Holy Fire In An Empty Church
The miracle of the Holy Fire happened today at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem — though this year, the church itself, normally jammed with the Orthodox faithful, was empty of all but monks and clergy. I have cued the livestream below to just before the moment with the patriarch comes out with the fire:
What’s happening here? This Greek video (with English subtitles) explains the ritual. Here, from OrthodoxWiki, is a written explanation. It says:
The Holy Fire (Greek ‘Αγιος Φως, literally “Holy Light”) is a miracle that occurs every year at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on Holy Saturday, the day preceding Pascha. It is considered by many to be the longest-attested annual miracle in the Christian world, though the event has only been documented consecutively since 1106. In many Orthodox countries around the world the event is televised live.
The ceremony begins at noon when the Patriarch of Jerusalem or another Orthodox Archbishop recites a specific prayer. The faithful gathered will then chant “Lord, have mercy” (Kyrie eleison in Greek) until the Holy Fire descends on a lamp of olive oil held by the patriarch while he is alone in the tomb chamber of Jesus Christ. The patriarch will then emerge from the tomb chamber, recite some prayers, and light either 33 or 12 candles to distribute to the faithful.
The fire is also said to spontaneously light other lamps and candles around the church. Pilgrims say the Holy Fire will not burn hair, faces, etc., in the first 33 minutes after it is ignited. Before entering the Lord’s Tomb, the patriarch or presiding archbishop is inspected by Israeli authorities to prove that he does not carry the technical means to light the fire. This investigation used to be carried out by Turkish soldiers.
The Holy Fire is first mentioned in the documents dating from the 4th century. A detailed description of the miracle is contained in the travelogue of the Russian igumen Daniel, who was present at the ceremony in 1106. Daniel mentions a blue incandescence descending from the dome to the edicula where the patriarch awaits the Holy Fire. Some claim to have witnessed this incandescence in modern times.
During the many centuries of the miracle’s history, the Holy Fire is said to have descended on certain other occasions, usually when heterodox clergymen attempted to obtain it. According to the tradition, in 1099, for example, the failure of Crusaders to obtain the fire led to street riots in Jerusalem. It is also claimed that in 1579, the Armenian patriarch prayed day and night in order to obtain the Holy Fire, but the Fire miraculously struck a column near the entrance and lit a candle held by the Orthodox patriarch standing nearby. Upon entering the temple, many Orthodox Christians venerate this column, which bears marks and a large crack attributed to the bolt of lightning from the Holy Fire.
In this post by Father Lawrence Farley, a Jerusalem patriarch, Diodor, describes what it’s like to receive the Holy Fire:
“I find my way through the darkness towards the inner chamber in which I fall on my knees. Here I say certain prayers that have been handed down to us through the centuries and, having said them, I wait. Sometimes I may wait a few minutes, but normally the miracle happens immediately after I have said the prayers. From the core of the very stone on which Jesus lay an indefinable light pours forth. It usually has a blue tint, but the color may change and take many different hues. It cannot be described in human terms. The light rises out of the stone as mist may rise out of a lake — it almost looks as if the stone is covered by a moist cloud, but it is light. This light each year behaves differently. Sometimes it covers just the stone, while other times it gives light to the whole sepulchre, so that people who stand outside the tomb and look into it will see it filled with light. The light does not burn — I have never had my beard burnt in all the sixteen years I have been Patriarch in Jerusalem and have received the Holy Fire. The light is of a different consistency than normal fire that burns in an oil lamp. At a certain point the light rises and forms a column in which the fire is of a different nature, so that I am able to light my candles from it. When I thus have received the flame on my candles, I go out and give the fire first to the Armenian Patriarch and then to the Coptic. Hereafter I give the flame to all people present in the Church.”
I have cued up this clip from a Greek TV interview in which an Orthodox priest narrates a video he filmed during the ceremony in 1994. He says he went to Jerusalem as a psychiatrist and skeptic, determined to prove that the Holy Fire was false. He was converted there, and ended up becoming a priest. In the part he narrates here, he points to a strange blue cloud of light that flashes on the far left of the screen, and leaves a small ball of flame that quickly bounces through the crowd, lighting candles, then extinguishes itself on a column inside the church.
It’s quite an event. As that Greek priest explains earlier in the video, skeptics will say that the holy fire is kindled by matches or a lighter, but this miracle has been happening there at Christ’s tomb for many centuries, including long before it was possible to kindle flame instantly. Personally, my faith doesn’t stand or fall on whether or not this is a true miracle, but I believe it is what they say it is.
If you ever have the opportunity to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, by all means do. For Christians, it is the holiest place on earth. That boxed chapel — the edicule — was constructed over the cave where Jesus lay in the tomb, and returned to life. When I was there twenty years ago, I spoke to a Franciscan priest who lives in the church complex. How do we know that this really was where Jesus was crucified (there’s a chapel within the big church, where there is an altar over Golgotha), buried, and resurrected? I had always assumed it was a guess. He explained to me that the archaeological evidence is quite solid.
UPDATE: I should point out that there has been strong criticism of the alleged miracle; you can read a summary of the criticism at this link on Wikipedia. As I said, my faith doesn’t stand or fall on whether or not this is a true miracle. I would be appalled if this were demonstrated to be a deception, but again, my faith is not built on signs and wonders.