We heard some loon on the radio going on and on about something called the "Holy Fire" at the Church of the Resurrection (Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem) I had to google it to try and find more information on it. Absurd! What nonsense. Thank goodness not too many Catholic websites will acknowledge this phenomenon... could you comment? Is this a Greek Orthodox tradition? Beware of Greeks lighting fires. Isn’t that in the Bible somewhere?
Mr. &Mrs. Phil & Sophie Majors
Dear Mr. & Mrs. Majors,
For those less aware than you, let me explain the Holy Fire. Every Easter, that is Easter according to the Greek Orthodox calendar, the Greeks claim that fire spontaneously lights the candles held by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem as he prays alone in the tomb of Christ. That sort of thing seems a bit much to swallow. After all, we are living in scientific times and know that such displays of the supernatural are nonsense. (It is interesting that the comment “Nonsense!” (leiros) does appear once in the New Testament. It is the reaction of the disciples to the women’s tale of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday morning.) All moderately well educated moderns know that the Holy Fire must be a fraud. The interesting thing is that if it is a fraud, it goes back at least 1,625 years.
The Holy Fire is first mentioned in documents dating from the 4th century. One of them, Eusebius of Caesarea’s “History of the Church,” talks about something similar in 188 AD, when Narcissus was Bishop of Jerusalem. It seems that there was no oil for the lamps for the Easter Vigil and water miraculously burned in the oil lamps. This may or may not be a reference to the Holy Fire, but it certainly could not have happened in the tomb itself. The tomb had been buried by the Emperor Hadrian in 135 and remained buried under a temple to the goddess Venus until 325 when the vigil services probably resumed at the Holy Sepulchre which had never been forgotten by the Christians of Jerusalem.
The next mention comes from that era and is much clearer. Around 385, Egeria, a Celtic noble woman from Spain, traveled to the Holy Land. In the account of her journey, she speaks of a ceremony at the Holy Sepulchre of Christ, where a light comes forth from the small chapel enclosing the tomb, by which the entire church is filled with an infinite light. St. John Damascene mentions the phenomenon in 780.
Things become even more explicit in an itinerary written by a western monk named Bernhard after his journey to Jerusalem in the year 865. He describes an angel who came down after the singing of the "Kyrie Eleison" and ignited the lamps hanging over the burial slab of Christ, whereupon the Patriarch passed the flame to the bishops and to everyone else in the church. This description matches what happens to this day. Bernard writes: " It is worth saying what happens on Holy Saturday, in the church of the Holy Sepulchre at Easter. In the morning the divine office begins in this church. Then, when it is over they sing the Kyrie Eleison 'til an angel comes and kindles light in the lamps which hang above the Sepulchre. The patriarch passes some of this light to the bishops and the rest of the people, and each one has light where he is standing. "
On October 18, 1009, Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, (also known as Hakim the Crazy) ordered the complete destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Tomb of Christ as well as random arrests and executions of the Christians of Jerusalem. This is the event that started the Crusades. Al-Hakim "...was aggrieved by the scale of the Easter pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which was caused specially by the annual miracle of the Holy Fire within the Sepulchre.”
In 1096, Pope Urban begged Christians to save the Holy Land and restore the tomb of Christ. In his appeal to Christendom, Pope Urban spoke of the Holy Fire . “Of holy Jerusalem, ...This very city, in which, as you all know, Christ Himself suffered for us, because our sins demanded ...in that place ...He died for us; there He was buried. How precious would be the longed for, incomparable place of the Lord's burial, even if God failed there to perform the yearly miracle! For in the days of His Passion (Holy Week) all the lights in the Sepulchre and round about in the church, which have been extinguished, are relighted by divine command. Whose heart is so stony, brethren, that it is not touched by so great a miracle? Believe me, that man is ...senseless whose heart such divinely manifest grace does not move to faith!”
In fact, the Holy Fire still falls in our time in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in much the same manner as early Christian and medieval sources report. If it is a fraud, that would mean that every Bishop of Jerusalem who has participated in this ceremony for almost 2,000 years has taken his cue from his predecessor and hoodwinked another generation of the gullible.
Let me describe the ceremony. The tomb is searched and sealed, formerly by the Muslim Turks, by the Israeli police presently. The patriarch is similarly searched. He enters the tomb and prays while the congregation chants “Lord have mercy.” A recent Greek patriarch, Diodorus who died in 2000 describes what happens. "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... 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. Then I give the flame to all present in the Church."
The Holy Light is not only distributed by the Patriarch, but spreads by itself. It is emitted from the Holy Sepulchre with a hue completely different from natural light. The blue flame appears in different places in the Church. Believers claim that sometimes this miraculous light spontaneously ignites candles, which they hold in their hands. It flashes like lightning, and sometimes flies around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and lights the oil lamps in front of the tomb. It flies from one end of the church to the other. Sometimes it lights the lamps in the upper chapel of Calvary. For about a half an hour after the Holy Fire appears, it is a cool flame that does not burn the face, or beards or the hands. People “wash” themselves with the cool flame. You can find video of the event on You Tube. There is one fascinating video in which a large ball of fire explodes from the tomb, darts through the crown and strikes a pillar which lights up and then the light is gone.
Here's a fascinating 30 minute documentary "Holy Light in Jerusalem: Proofs & Testimonies" with English subtitles (originally produced in Greece). Apparently non-believers are in on the fraud, too.
Some Greeks claim that the Holy Fire proves they are the True Church. However, the Fire is given to the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, not the Patriarch of Constantinople. Catholics believe that Greek Orthodox are "true Church." By our lights, they reject the ministry of the apostle Peter, but they are still "true Church." Sometimes some of them don't like us Latins very much and historically we have sometimes returned the favor, but God is generous with His miracles. They have the Holy Fire and Our Lady of Zeitoun. We have the Shroud and Our Lady of Fatima. My personal belief is that the Holy Fire was given to the first (Jewish ) Christians of the Holy Land and the history of this community involves the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem. They have custody of the tomb of Christ, though we Westerners have access to it. God loves them and us very much. I believe that the Holy Fire is not about who is right. God loves us all, East and West, North and South. However, the sad schism of the Church has limited the awareness of the miracle for perhaps 600 years. Perhaps an increasing awareness of this miracle will draw us into the miracle of deeper unity.
“Nonsense!”, you say? Well, hasn’t the Bible lots of nonsense? Remember the bush that burned but was not consumed? Remember Elijah’s chariot of fire? Remember the pillar of fire that led the people of Israel through the wilderness? Remember when the sun danced at Fatima and fire fell, changing the 20th century because of our blessed Mother’s love for Orthodox Russia? Remember the fire that fell on the disciples and the Blessed Mother at Pentecost? It didn’t burn them, but sent them to the ends of the earth. Remember the fire that burned the burial shroud of Jesus and left His image scorched on the linen? John and Peter saw and believed! Didn’t Jesus Himself say, “I have come to throw fire on the earth and how I wish that it was already lit.” (Luke 12:9)? Don’t you say every Sunday that “He is light from light, true God from true God?” The Bible is full of fire, from the angel’s sword in Eden to the fire that exploded in the holy and deathless tomb, the empty tomb on Saturday just a few weeks ago, when an old man, a bishop, an unworthy servant of God knelt to pray. Look at the video on YouTube. The passing of the fire, the clanging of the bells. Isn’t this exactly what we reenact on Holy Saturday in our Vigil service? Look at the video and then read the Exultet. It is the Holy Fire that we celebrate even in the West, His wonders are ever new, but the fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” There is an old song:
and when the waves of anger again the earth shall fill with fire, the ark shall ride the sea of fire and rest on Zion’s hill.
May it soon be so! Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!