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The Holy Fire Miracle

Why doesn't the 'Holy Fire' in Jerusalem burn skin, hair, and clothing?
Screen Shot 2022-05-15 at 9.24.00 PM

As many of you will recall, I was in Jerusalem for Orthodox Holy Week. My experience included being present in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the Holy Fire ceremony. According to Wikipedia:

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.

I went to the event skeptical. In the past, skeptics have shown that you can make fire that appears to be spontaneous by using white phosphorous. I believe that it might be a miracle, but, well, I was dubious. The thing that would make me believe, I decided, would be if I experienced the stories people tell about the holy fire not burning flesh or anything else for the first few minutes. (Wikipedia says 33 minutes, but I had never heard that number.) Here is one of the many videos you can see online demonstrating that:


Before the ceremony, you buy from any one of the many vendors in the Old City a bound sheaf of thin beeswax candles — always 33. I held mine, and waited for the fire to be passed to me. Then, when my candles were blazing (see above), I passed my hand through the flame, back and forth, several times. I felt nothing.

I’m not kidding: I felt nothing. I moved my hand slowly, too. Nothing. A Serbian pilgrim and friend of mine allowed his flames to lick his bare face. Nothing happened to him.

But then, some time later — I don’t know how many minutes, because I had lost track of time — it became impossible to put my hands to the fire. The quality of the flame hadn’t changed, but suddenly it was … normal. My Serb friend said the same thing happened to him.

Back in the US, my Orthodox friend Frederica Mathewes-Green proposed an experiment. Go to one of the Old City shops, she said, and buy a sheaf of unsold candles. When you’re back home, light them, and see if you can put your hand to the flame in the first minutes, like you can with the Holy Fire.

So I did buy a sheaf of beeswax candles from one of the shops in the Old City — some that hadn’t sold before the ceremony. I brought them back to the US. Just now, my son Matthew and I tried Frederica’s experiment out on his front porch. We lit the candles, and waited for them all to blaze up. Both of us tried to pass our hands through the flame, but it was too painful to do except very quickly. That is to say, it was nothing at all like the first few minutes of the Holy Fire, but exactly what the Holy Fire feels like after it has burned a while. Here’s Matt, unable to pass his hands through the flame, except fast.

I should point out that these beeswax candles, like all the ones for sale in Jerusalem, aren’t treated with anything. They’re ordinary candles. Or if they were treated with something special, then we should have been able to put our hands through the fire tonight, because that sheaf of candles was in the same batch that that particular shop was selling to pilgrims the day before. What’s more, the flame is passed around the church in the ceremony from candle to candle, after the Greek Patriarch brings it out of the edicule. It’s not like everybody dips their candles in the same brazier, or something like that, where you might suspect that the fire was treated by a special chemical.

Make of this what you will. There has been a lot of criticism of the supposed miracle, and explanations for to account for the miracle (e.g., candles soaked in white phosphorus). I assumed that the critics were probably right, especially after Patriarch Theophilos in 2018 ordered the word “miracle” removed from the Patriarchate’s website, in reference to the event. And certainly my faith doesn’t stand or fall on whether or not the Holy Fire is an authentic miracle.

But I gotta say, I can’t explain the phenomenon that I experienced in the church that day, and that so many others experienced. Here is an older Greek collection (subtitled) of pilgrim’s testimonies with the Holy Fire. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the Patriarch confects the Holy Fire by trickery inside the sepulcher. Why, then, wouldn’t the flame, after being passed around from candle to candle to the crowds gathered in the church, burn skin, hair, or clothes for some time, and then somehow behave like normal fire, and burn the things it did not burn? Is there a good explanation for this? If so, let’s hear it.