Saturday, April 07, 2007

The miracle of the holy fire

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The Holy Fire of the Easter Vigil starts by itself every year in the empty tomb of the risen Christ and pilgrims bathe their hands and faces in its flame. It is a ritual shared throughout the world with the (unmiraculous) lighting of the New Fire at the Great Vigil of Easter. But in Jerusalem, things are a little different. It is a true miracle? It certainly is fascinating, and though it is known throughout the Eastern Church, it is almost unknown in the Christian West.

"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. . . .

[The Patriarch reports] "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." . . .

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 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.

Want to know more? Here is the rest of that excellent brief article on the phenomenon by Niels Christian Hvidt. You can find the Wikipedia article on the Holy Fire here. Also, here is page with a fascinating video of the event in which "a flaming ball of the Holy Light runs through and over peoples heads and lights up a faithful man’s candle." Also, check out the testimony of Jerusalem Patriarch Diodorus I here on the right sidebar of the Living Miracles website.

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