by Niels Christian Hvidt
The view from inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem as light spreads the Tomb of Christ on April 23, 2011. (Photo Credit: Abir Sultan / EPA via photoblog.msnbc.msn.com.)
“The Miracle of the Holy Fire” (in 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. The miracle happens in Jerusalem, the holiest place on earth for millions of believers. Theologians, historians and archaeologists consider this church to contain both Golgotha, the little hill on which Jesus was crucified, as well as the “new tomb” close to Golgotha that received his dead body, and the same spot from which he rose from the dead…
The ceremony surrounding the “Holy Fire” is one of the oldest unbroken Christian ceremonies in the world. From the Fourth Century to our own time, sources recall this awe-inspiring event. 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 way.
The miracle occurs every year on the Orthodox “Holy and Great Sabbath-Saturday”… Pilgrims camp around the tomb, waiting from Holy Friday afternoon in anticipation of the wonder on Holy Saturday… It is not possible to follow the events inside the tomb, so I asked the [late] patriarch [Diodorus of Jerusalem (†2000)], about [it]:
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. 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… 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…give the flame to all people present in the Church…
“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… 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 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.
Editor’s Note: Niels Christian Hvidt, born 1969, is Associate Professor at the Research Unit of Health, Man and Society at the Institute of Public Health at the University of Southern Denmark.