The Miracle of the Holy Fire, by William Holman Hunt
The Holy Fire (Greek Ἃγιον Φῶς, “Holy Light”) is described by Orthodox Christians as a miracle that occurs every year at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on Great Saturday, or Holy Saturday, the day preceding Orthodox Easter. It is considered by many to be the longest-attested annual miracle in the Christian world. It has been consecutively documented since 1106 A.D., with previous references being sporadic. The ceremony is broadcast live in Greece, Ukraine, Russia, Romania, Belarus, Bulgaria, Georgia, Cyprus, Lebanon and other Orthodox countries like Egypt. Furthermore, the Holy Fire is brought to certain Orthodox countries, such as in Russia, Belarus, Greece, Cyprus, Serbia, Montenegro, Georgia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Armenia, every year by special flights, being received with honors by state leaders at the respective airports.
On the appointed day at noon, the Greek Orthodox patriarch, followed by the Armenian archbishop, march in grand and solemn procession with their own clergies, while singing hymns. They march three times round the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Once the procession has ended, the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem or another Orthodox Archbishop recites a specific prayer, removes his robes and enters alone into the sepulchre. Before entering the Tomb of Christ, the patriarch is examined by Jewish Israeli authorities to prove that he does not carry technical means to light the fire. This investigation used to be carried out by Muslim Turkish Ottoman soldiers. The Armenian archbishops remain in the antechamber, where the angel was sitting when he appeared to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection of Jesus. The congregation subsequently chants Kyrie eleison (“Lord, have mercy” in Greek) until the Holy Fire spontaneously descends on 33 white candles tied together by the Patriarch while he is alone inside the tomb chamber of Jesus. The patriarch then reveals himself from the tomb chamber and recites some prayers, before he lights either 33 or 12 candles and distributes them to the congregation. The fire is considered by believers to be the flame of the Resurrection power, as well as the fire of the Burning Bush of Mount Sinai.
Pilgrims claim the Holy Fire does not burn their hair, faces, clothes or anything else during the first 33 minutes of its appearance. One web site offers videos claiming to show worshipers having prolonged contact with the flames without discomfort or damage to skin or hair.
Patriarch Diodoros of Jerusalem described the process of the coming down of the fire as follows:
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 16 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 Holy Fire is first mentioned by the pilgrim Bernard the Monk, in 870 AD. A detailed description of this phenomenon is contained in the travelogue of the Russian hegumen Daniil (Daniel), who was present at the ceremony in 1106 AD. Daniel mentions a blue incandescence descending from the dome to the edicula where the patriarch awaits the Holy Fire. Some claim to have witnessed this incandescence in modern times.
During the many centuries of this phenomenon’s history, the Holy Fire is said not to have descended only on certain occasions, usually when heterodox priests attempted to obtain it. According to the tradition, in 1099, for example, the failure of Crusaders to obtain the fire led to street riots in Jerusalem. It is also claimed that in 1579, the Armenian patriarch Hovhannes I of Constantinople prayed day and night in order to obtain the Holy Fire, but lightning miraculously struck a column near the entrance and lit a candle held by the Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem Sophronius IV standing nearby. Upon entering the temple, the Orthodox Christians would embrace this column, which bears marks and a large crack that they attribute to the lightning bolt.
In 1969–1970, the Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem Benedict introduced the Revised Julian calendar prompted by the Geneva-based World Council of Churches, which changed the calculation of the date of the event. That same year, the Holy Fire did not appear at the Holy Sepulchre. The original ecclesiastical chronology (the Eastern Orthodox Church calendar) with the original calculation of the date was immediately restored, and the Holy Fire recommenced appearing the following year and thereafter.
On May 3, 1834, the Church was so packed that a stampede caused four hundred deaths, with the governor Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt saved by his guards’ swords slicing a way out, as reported by Robert Curzon.
On April 26, 1856, James Finn watched Greek pilgrims battling Armenians with concealed sticks and stones. The pasha had to be carried out before his soldiers charged with fixed bayonets.
As with all alleged miracles, many question the validity of the Holy Fire, noting, for instance, that cold-handed pilgrims generally withstand the fire for the same very brief periods of time as can be achieved with any fire.
Criticism dates at least to the days of Islamic rule of Jerusalem, but the pilgrims were never stopped, because of the significant revenue they brought to local governments even at the end of the first millennium. When the apparently uninitiated Crusaders took over the Orthodox clergy in charge of the fire, it failed to appear, increasing the skepticism among Western Christians. But feeling the lack of pilgrim revenues, Baldwin I of Jerusalem reinstated the Orthodox priests in charge, and the fire, as well as the stream of revenues, returned.
In 1238, Pope Gregory IX denounced the Holy Fire as a fraud.
The Ottoman traveller, Evliya Celebi, claimed that a hidden zinc jar of naphtha was dripped down a chain by a hidden monk.
Edward Gibbon wrote scathingly about the alleged phenomenon in the concluding volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:
This pious fraud, first devised in the ninth century, was devoutly cherished by the Latin crusaders, and is annually repeated by the clergy of the Greek, Armenian, and Coptic sects, who impose on the credulous spectators for their own benefit and that of their tyrants.
Some Greeks have been critical of the Holy Fire, such as Adamantios Korais who condemned what he considered to be religious fraud in his treatise “On the Holy Light of Jerusalem.” He referred to the event as “machinations of fraudulent priests” and to the “unholy” light of Jerusalem as “a profiteers’ miracle”.
In 2005 in a live demonstration on Greek television, Michael Kalopoulos, author and historian of religion, dipped three candles in white phosphorus. The candles spontaneously ignited after approximately 20 minutes due to the self-ignition properties of white phosphorus when in contact with air. According to Kalopoulos’ website:
If phosphorus is dissolved in an appropriate organic solvent, self-ignition is delayed until the solvent has almost completely evaporated. Repeated experiments showed that the ignition can be delayed for half an hour or more, depending on the density of the solution and the solvent employed.
Kalopoulos also points out that chemical reactions of this nature were well known in ancient times, quoting Strabo, who states “In Babylon there are two kinds of naphtha springs, a white and a black. The white naphtha is the one that ignites with fire.” (Strabon Geographica 184.108.40.206-24) He further states that phosphorus was used by Chaldean magicians in the early fifth century BC, and by the ancient Greeks, in a way similar to its supposed use today by the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem.
Russian skeptic Igor Dobrokhotov has analysed the evidence for an alleged miracle at length at his website, including the ancient sources and contemporary photos and videos. He has also reproduced fire-bathing and has uncovered contradictions in the story of the “column split by lightning.”
Dobrokhotov and other critics, including Russian Orthodox researcher Nikolay Uspensky, Dr. Aleksandr Musin of Sorbonne, and some Old Believers quote excerpts from the diaries of Bishop Porphyrius (Uspensky) (1804-1885) which told that the clergy in Jerusalem knew that the Holy Fire was fraudulent.
Porphyrius was a Russian Orthodox archimandrite who was sent on the official Church-related research mission to Jerusalem and other places (Egypt, Mount Athos). While in Jerusalem, he founded the Russian Mission there. Later, after his return to the Russian Empire, he was made a bishop in the diocese of Kiev