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TO ALL A JOYOUS PASCHA!

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  • byakimov@csc.com.au
    CHRIST IS RISEN! TRULY HE IS RISEN! I congratulate you and all Pilgrims in this World with the coming Bright Feast of the Resurrection of the Lord. May our
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 23, 2003
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      CHRIST IS RISEN! TRULY HE IS RISEN!

      I congratulate you and all Pilgrims in this World with the coming Bright
      Feast
      of the Resurrection of the Lord. May our Resurrected Saviour
      give us all the True Faith, Peace of the Soul, patience and humility,
      family joys, good health, and spiritual unity in the House of the Lord!

      I ask for your prayers.

      unworthy protodeacon Basil from Canberra

      The Miracle of the Holy Fire in Jerusalem


      By Niels Christian Hvidt


      "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." Thus one reads in one of the many Easter
      itineraries to the Holy Land.


      "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?


      One of the Most Famous Ceremonies in the Orthodox Church


      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.


      Festival


      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.


      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 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 Leads to Faith


      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.


      Unknown in the West


      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.


      The Question of the Authenticity of the Miracle


      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.


      Miracles cannot be proved


      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."


      Sources:


      ?Meinardus, Otto. The Ceremony of the Holy Fire in the Middle Ages and
      to-day. Bulletin de la Société d'Archéologie Copte, 16, 1961-2. 242-253
      ?Klameth, Dr. Gustav. Das Karsamstagsfeuerwunder der heiligen Grabeskirche.
      Wien, 1913.


      * Published in "Berlingske Tidende" 15.09.98
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