TO ALL A JOYOUS PASCHA!
- CHRIST IS RISEN! TRULY HE IS RISEN!
I congratulate you and all Pilgrims in this World with the coming Bright
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
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.
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
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.
"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
"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
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
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."
?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.
* Published in "Berlingske Tidende" 15.09.98