Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Miracle of the Holy Fire

Glory to God, the Lord has again granted us the Holy Fire!

Most Orthodox Christians have heard of the miracle of the Holy Fire, but many mistakenly assume that it takes place on the day of Pascha itself. In fact, it takes place at 2:00 pm on Holy Saturday. This Holy Fire descended again today, through the hands of Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem, as news reports have indicated. Here is how today's AP report begins:
Thousands of Orthodox faithful, carrying torches and bundles of candles signifying the 33 years of Jesus' life, packed into Christianity's holiest shrine on Saturday to celebrate Easter Week's holy fire ritual.

Christians traditionally believe Jesus was crucified and buried at the site in Jerusalem's Old City where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher now stands.

The holy fire ritual, celebrated the day before the Orthodox Easter, honors the belief that a holy fire appears spontaneously from Jesus' tomb as a message that he has not forgotten his followers.

About 10,000 worshippers attended the afternoon ceremony, some arriving before dawn to make sure they would be able to enter the cavernous, heavily secured church. Believers who arrived too late celebrated outside in the church's cobblestone courtyard, some of them beating on hand drums.

Inside the darkened church, worshippers clutching bundles of unlit tapers and torches waited expectantly as the Greek Orthodox Patriarch in the Holy Land, Theofilos III, descended with a group of Greek, Armenian and other Orthodox clergy into Jesus' traditional tomb. After the flame appeared there, Theofilos passed it from the tomb to believers inside the church's main hall, who cheered and wept, and rushed to light their own candles and torches.

Within seconds, the cavernous church was filled with a sudden burst of illumination and smoke. Many of the pilgrims held the light to their faces to bask in the holy glow.
A very good primer on the miracle of the Holy Fire is this article by Niels Christian Hvidt, which includes an account of an interview he conducted with the late Patriarch Diodoros of Jerusalem (+2000). (He is pictured emerging with the Holy Fire below). An excerpt:
The Testimony of the Patriarch
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.

Blue Light
"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."

The Symbolic Meaning of the Miracle
"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 Christs 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.

An entire website (the English of which you'll have to forgive) dedicated to the miracle of the Holy Light can be found here. Those with a serious interest should acquire an excellent book by Bishop Auxentios of Photiki: The Paschal Fire in Jerusalem: A Study of the Rite of the Holy Fire in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, an excerpt of which can be read here.

The Holy Fire is taken by plane to all corners of the earth following its descent. This photograph shows the Holy Fire arriving in Stavropol last year:

This year, Russians being Russians, the Holy Fire will even be taken to the North Pole – and why not? They've already celebrated the Divine Liturgy there! UPDATE: For a recent defense of the reality of the miracle of the Holy Fire, go here.

Glory to Thee Who hast shown forth the light!


Anonymous said...

There is a "video presentation" of the Holy Fire, here:

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