On Holy Saturday believers gather in great crowds in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. For on this day fire comes down from Heaven and puts fire on lamps in the Church.
"The Miracle of the Holy Fire" by Christians from the Orthodox Churches is known as "The greatest of all Christian miracles". It takes place every single year, on the same time, in the same manner, and on the same spot. No other miracle is known to occur so regularly and for such an extensive period of time; one can read about it in sources as old as from the eighth Century AD. The miracle happens in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, to millions of believers the holiest place on earth. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre itself is an enigmatic place. Theologians, historians and archaeologists consider the church to contain both Golgatha, the little hill on which Jesus Christ was crucified, as well as the "new tomb" close to Golgatha that received his dead body, as one reads in the Gospels. It is on this same spot that Christians believe he rose from the dead.
One can trace the miracle throughout the centuries in the many itineraries to the Holy Land. The Russian abbot Daniel, in his itinerary, written in the years 1106-07, in very detailed manners presents the "Miracle of the Holy Light" and the ceremonies that frame it. He recalls how the Patriarch goes into the Sepulchre-chapel (the Anastasis) with two closed candles. The Patriarch kneels in front of the stone on which Christ was laid after his death and says certain prayers, upon which the miracle occurs. Light proceeds from the core of the stone — a blue, indefinable light which after some time kindles closed oil lamps as well as the two candles of the Patriarch. This light is "The Holy Fire", and it spreads to all people present in the Church. The ceremony surrounding "The Miracle of the Holy Fire" may be the oldest unbroken Christian ceremony in the world. From the fourth century AD all the way up to our own time, sources recall the awe-awakening potent. From these sources it becomes clear that the miracle has been celebrated on the same spot, on the same feast day, and in the same liturgical frames throughout all these centuries. One can ask, if it would happen also in the year 1998.
In order to find out, I travelled to Jerusalem to be present at the ceremony in which the Miracle of the Holy Fire occurs, and I can testify that it did not only happen in the ancient Church and throughout the Middle Ages but also on the 18th of April, 1998. The Greek-Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Diodorus I, is the man who every year enters the tomb to receive the Holy Fire. He has been the Patriarch of Jerusalem since 1982 and thereby is the key-witness to the miracle. Prior to the ceremony of this year the Patriarch received us in private audience, where I had the opportunity to speak with him about the miracle in order to know exactly what happens in the tomb and what the miracle means for him personally in his spiritual life. Furthermore I was through his intervention admitted to the balconies in the dome of the Holy Sepulchre Church, from where I had a fine view over the masses that had gathered around the tomb in anticipation of the "Great Miracle of the Holy Fire".
But what exactly happens in the Holy Sepulchre Church on Easter Saturday? Why does it have such an impact on the Orthodox Tradition? Why does it seem as if nobody has heard anything about the miracle in the Protestant and Catholic countries?
The miracle occurs every year on the Orthodox Easter Saturday. There are many types of Orthodox Christians: Syrian, Armenian, Russian and Greek Orthodox as well as Copts. In the Holy Sepulchre Church alone there are 7 different Christian Denominations. The Orthodox Easter-date is fixed according to the Julian Calendar, and not the usual Western European Gregorian calendar, which means that their Easter normally falls on a different date than the Protestant and Catholic Easter.
Since Constantine the Great built The Holy Sepulchre Church in the middle of the fourth century it has been destroyed many times. The Crusaders constructed the Church that we see today. Around Jesus tomb was erected a little chapel with two rooms, one little room in front of the tomb and the tomb itself, which holds no more than five people. This chapel is the centre of the miraculous events, and being present at the celebration fully justifies the term "event" for on no other day of the year is the Holy Sepulchre Church so packed than on Easter Saturday. If one wishes to enter it, one has to reckon with six hours of cueing. Each year hundreds of people are not able to enter due to the crowds. Pilgrims come from all over the world, the majority from Greece but in recent years increasing numbers from Russia and the former Eastern European Countries.
In order to be as close to the tomb as possible, pilgrims camp around the tomb-chapel, waiting from Holy Friday afternoon in anticipation of the wonder on Holy Saturday. The miracle happens at 2:00 PM, but already around 11:00 AM the Church is a boiling pot.
From around 11:00 AM till 1:00 PM the Christian Arabs sing traditional songs with loud voices. These songs date back to the Turkish occupation of Jerusalem in the 13th Century, a period in which the Christians were not allowed to sing their songs anywhere but in the Churches. "We are the Christians, this we have been for centuries and this we shall be for ever and ever. Amen!" they sing at the top of their voices accompanied by the sound of drums. The drum-players sit on the shoulders of others who ferociously dance around the Sepulchre Chapel. But at 1:00 PM the songs fade out and after there is silence, a tense and loaded silence electrified by the anticipation of the great manifestation of the Power of God that all are about to witness.
At 1:00 PM a delegation of the local authorities elbows through the crowds. Even though these officials are not Christian, they are part of the ceremonies. In the times of the Turkish occupation of Palestine they were Moslem Turks; today they are Israelis. For centuries the presence of these officials has been an integrated part of the ceremony. Their function is to represent the Romans in the time of Jesus. The Gospels speak of Romans that went to seal the tomb of Jesus, so his disciples would not steal his body and claim he had risen. In the same way the Israeli authorities on this Easter Saturday come and seal the tomb with wax. Before they seal the door it is customary that they enter the tomb to check for any hidden source of fire, which could produce the miracle through fraud. Just as the Romans were to guarantee that there was no manipulation after the death of Jesus, likewise the Israeli Local Authorities are to guarantee that there be no trickery in 1998.
When the tomb has been checked and sealed, the whole Church chants the Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy). At 1:45 PM the Patriarch enters the scene. In the wake of a large procession he encircles the Tomb three times, whereupon he is stripped of his royal liturgical vestments, carrying only his white alba, a sign of humility in front of the great potent of God, to which he is about to be the key witness. All the oil lamps have been blown out the preceding night, and now all remains of artificial light are extinguished, so that most of the Church is enveloped in darkness. With two big candles the patriarch enters the Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre — first into the small room in front of the tomb and from there into the tomb itself.
It is not possible to follow the events inside the tomb, so I asked the patriarch of Jerusalem, Diodorus, about the center of the events.
"Your Beatitude, what happens when you enter the Holy Sepulchre?"
"I enter the tomb and kneel in holy fear in front of the place where Christ lay after his death and where he rose again from the dead. Praying in the Holy Sepulchre in itself is for me always a very holy moment in a very holy place. It is from here that he rose again in glory, and it is from there that he spread his light to the world. John the Evangelist writes in the first chapter of his gospel that Jesus is the light of the World. Kneeling in front of the place where he rose from the dead, we are brought within the immediate closeness of his glorious resurrection. Catholics and Protestants call this Church "The Church of the Holy Sepulchre". We call it "The Church of the Resurrection". The Resurrection of Christ for us Orthodox is the center of our faith. In his resurrection Christ has gained the final victory over death, not just his own death but the death of all those who will stay close to him.
"I believe it to be no coincidence that the Holy Fire comes on exactly this spot. In Matthew 28:3, it says that when Christ rose from the dead, an angel came, dressed all in a fearful light. I believe that the striking light that enveloped the angel at the Lord's resurrection is the same light that appears miraculously every Easter Saturday. Christ wants to remind us that his resurrection is a reality and not just a myth; he really came to the world in order to give the necessary sacrifice through his death and resurrection so that man could be re-united with his creator."
"What does the light look like?"
"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."
"How do you yourself experience the miracle and what does it mean to your spiritual life?"
"The miracle touches me just as deeply every single year. Every time it is another step towards conversion for me. For me personally it is of great comfort to consider Christ's faithfulness towards us, which he displays by giving us the holy flame every year in spite of our human frailties and failures. We experience many wonders in our Churches, and miracles are nothing strange to us. It happens often that icons cry, when Heaven wants to display its closeness to us; also we have saints, to whom God gives many spiritual gifts. But none of these miracles have such a penetrating and symbolic meaning for us as the miracle of the Holy Fire. The miracle is almost like a sacrament. It makes the resurrection of Christ present to us as if he had died only a few years ago."
While the patriarch is inside the chapel kneeling in front of the stone, there is darkness but far from silence outside. One hears a rather loud mumbling, and the atmosphere is very tense. When the Patriarch comes out with the two candles lit and shinning brightly in the darkness, a roar of jubilee resounds in the Church, comparable only to a goal at a soccer-match.
The miracle is not confined to what actually happens inside the little tomb, where the Patriarch prays. What may be even more significant, is that the blue light is reported to appear and be active outside the tomb. Every year many believers claim that this miraculous light ignites candles, which they hold in their hands, of its own initiative. All in the church wait with candles in the hope that they may ignite spontaneously. Often closed oil lamps take fire by themselves before the eyes of the pilgrims. The blue flame is seen to move in different places in the Church. A number of signed testimonies by pilgrims, whose candles lit spontaneously, attest to the validity of these ignitions. The person who experiences the miracle from a close distance by having the fire on the candle or seeing the blue light usually leaves Jerusalem changed, and for everyone having attended the ceremony, there is always a "before and after" the Miracle of the Holy Fire in Jerusalem.
One can ask the question why the Miracle of the Holy Fire is hardly known in Western Europe. In the Protestant areas it may to a certain extent be explained by the fact that there is no real tradition for miracles; people don't really know in which box to place the miracles, and they don't take up much space in newspapers. But in the Catholic tradition there is vast interest for miracles. Thus, why is it not more known? For this it only one explanation suffices: Church politics. Only the Orthodox Churches attend the ceremony framing the miracle. It only occurs on the Orthodox Easter date and without the presence of any Catholic authorities. By certain Orthodox this evidence proves the notion that the Orthodox Church is the only legitimate Church of Christ in the world, and this assertion obviously may cause certain apprehensions in Catholic circles.
As with any other miracle there are people who believe it is fraud and nothing but a masterpiece of Orthodox propaganda. They believe the Patriarch has a lighter inside of the tomb. These critics, however, are confronted with a number of problems. Matches and other means of ignition are recent inventions. Only a few hundred years ago lighting a fire was an undertaking that lasted much longer than the few minutes during which the Patriarch is inside the tomb. One then could perhaps say, he had an oil lamp burning inside, from which he kindled the candles, but the local authorities confirm to have checked the tomb and found no light inside it.
The biggest arguments against a fraud, however, are not the testimonies of the shifting patriarchs. The biggest challenges confronting the critics are the thousands of independent testimonies by pilgrims whose candles were lit spontaneously in front of their eyes without any possible explanation. According to our investigations, it has never been possible to film any of the candles or oillamps igniting by themselves. However, I am in the possession of a video filmed by a young engineer from Bethlehem, Souhel Nabdiel. Mr. Nabdiel has been present at the ceremony of the Holy Fire since his early childhood. In 1996 he was asked to film the ceremony from the balcony of the dome of the Church. Present with him on the balcony were a nun and four other believers. The nun stood at the right hand of Nabdiel. On the video one can see how he films down on the crowds. At a certain point all lights are turned off — it is time for the Patriarch to enter the tomb and take the Holy Fire. While he is still inside the tomb one suddenly hears a scream of surprise and wonder originating from the nun standing next to Nabdiel. The camera begins to shake, as one hears the excited voices of the other people present on the balcony. The camera now turns to the right, whereby it is possible to contemplate the cause of the emotion. A big candle, held in the hand of the Russian nun, takes fire in front of all people present before the patriarch comes out of the tomb. With shaking hands she holds the candle while over and over making the sign of the Cross in awe of the potent she has witnessed. This video appears to be the closest one gets to an actual filming of the miracle.
The miracle is, as most miracles are, surrounded by unexplainable factors. As Archbishop of Tiberias Alexios said when I met him in Jerusalem:
"The miracle has never been filmed and most probably never will be. Miracles cannot be proved. Faith is required for a miracle to bear fruit in the life of a person and without this act of faith there is no miracle in the strict sense. The true miracle in the Christian tradition has only one purpose: to extend the Grace of God in creation, and God cannot extend his Grace without the faith on behalf of his creatures. Therefore there can be no miracle without faith."
Meinardus, Otto. The Ceremony of the Holy Fire in the Middle Ages and
today. Bulletin de la Société d'Archéologie Copte, 16, 1961-2.
Klameth, Dr. Gustav. Das Karsamstagsfeuerwunder der Heiligen Grabeskirche. Wien, 1913.
Read this article on the Orthodox Christian Information Center website. Reprinted with permission.