Holy Friday and Holy Fire at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

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Easter Ceremony of Fire at the Holy Sepulcher is the church’s biggest ceremony and the most sacred ritual for Orthodox Christians. Inside the church the floor space within the rotunda is dived up among the Greeks, Armenians and Syrian Orthodox Christians. For along time the Copts had to hang from scaffolding used to shore up the walls after a 1927 earthquake. The Catholics schedule their ceremony at a different time.

The celebration begins on Friday evening when pilgrims from all over the world amass around the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. By noon Saturday police are called in to control the crowd. By Saturday evening about 30,000 or 40,000 people line up outside the church and police have cordoned off the area and subdue pilgrims who scramble to get inside

Only about 15,000 screaming and shouting pilgrims are let inside. They are squeezed into the church so tightly there is little breathing room. Many of them hold burning candles. Police form a circle around Christ's tomb. One journalist saw a man who suffered a heart attack get passed above the crowd like a slam dancer at a punk rock concert.☺

A procession of Armenian, Coptic and Syrian Police thread around the tomb while Copts clap their hands rhythmically. "Just when it seemed impossible for the place to hold any more people," Alan Mairson wrote in National Geographic, “the Syrians came in a great wave, chanting and banging drums in a loud, primal rhythm. Throwing their fists into the air, they led their countrymen in a boisterous celebration of the Virgin Mary and the immanent arrival of the holy fire, a symbolic representation of the light of Christ."

Websites and Resources: PBS Frontline From Jesus to Christ pbs.org ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ; Candida Moss at the Daily Beast Daily Beast;Christian Answers christiananswers.net; Biblical History: Bible History Online bible-history.com ; Biblical Archaeology Society biblicalarchaeology.org

Orthodox Christian Easter Fire Ceremony at the Holy Sepulcher

Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that on the Saturday before Easter, a miraculous flame appears inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. According to Associated Press: The Greek patriarch enters the Holy Edicule, a chamber built on the traditional site of Jesus' tomb, and emerges with two lit candles. He passes the flame among thousands of people holding candles, gradually illuminating the walls of the darkened basilica. The flame is then transferred to Orthodox communities in other countries on special flights. The source of the Holy Fire has been a closely guarded secret for centuries, with an abundance of skeptics. [Source: Laurie Kellman and Audrey Horowitz, April 12, 2023]

The Greek Patriarch shows up, in a jewel-encrusted, football-shaped crown, and lights a torch that is used to light the candles of the worshipers in the church. He too walks around the tomb while banners of sacred scenes are waved about and the Copts reach out to touch them. Just before one o'clock a hush descends on the church. The Greek patriarch climbs into the tomb of Christ. Suddenly a flame appears, and with it comes pandemonium. Every one has a candle and they are reaching to have it lit as a priest weaves with a candle through the crowd.

"Men carrying lit candles raced from the tomb to each corner of the church," Mairson wrote. "lighting candles thrust forward by the faithful, who in turn passed the light to their neighbor. Within minutes gloom gave away to a golden glow, as a thousand candles flickered in the dark...It was beautiful, but the scene reminded me of a cross between a soccer match and a barroom brawl. As the church becomes a blaze of candles people shout in Greek "Christ is risen" and other answer back "He is truly risen."☺

Holy Friday at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1107

Pilgrims buying candles to be lit in the Holy Fire ceremony

The Russian pilgrim Daniel wrote: “The following is a description of the Holy Light, which descends1 upon the Holy Sepulchre, as the Lord vouchsafed to show it to me, his wicked and unworthy servant. For in very truth I have seen with my own sinful eves how that Holy Light descends upon the redeeming Tomb of our Lord Jesus Christ. Many pilgrims relate incorrectly the details about the descent of that Holy Light Some say that the Holy Ghost descends upon the Holy Sepulchre in the form of a dove; others that it is lightning from heaven which kindles the lamps above the Sepulchre of the Lord. This is all untrue, for neither dove nor lightning is to be seen at that moment; but the Divine grace comes down unseen from heaven, and lights the lamps of the Sepulchre of our Lord. I will only describe it in perfect truth as I have seen it. [Source: “The Pilgrimage of the Russian Abbot Daniel in the Holy Land” 1106-1107 A. D. By C. W. Wilson. London, 1888, Holy Fire]

“On Holy Friday, after Vespers, they clean the Holy Sepulchre and wash all the lamps that are there; they fill the lamps with pure oil without water and after having put in the wicks, leave them unlighted they affix the seals to the Tomb at the second hour of the night. At the same time they extinguish all the lamps and wax candles in every church in Jerusalem. Upon that same Friday, at the first hour of the day, I, the unworthy, entered the presence of Prince Baldwin, and bowed myself to the ground before him. Seeing me, as I bowed, he bade me, in a friendly manner, come to him, and said, ' What dost thou want, Russian abbot?' for he knew me and liked me, being a man of great kindness and humility and not given to pride. I said to him, 'My prince and my lord! for the love of God, and out of regard for the Russian princes, allow me to place my lamp on the Holy Sepulchre in the name of the whole Russian country.' Then with peculiar kindness and attention he gave me permission to place my lamp on the Sepulchre of the Lord, and sent one of his chief retainers with me to the custodian of the Resurrection, and to the keeper of the keys of the Holy Sepulchre. The custodian and the keeper of the keys directed me to bring my lamp filled with oil. I thanked them, and hastened, with much joy, to purchase a very large glass lamp; having filled it with pure oil, I carried it to the Holy Sepulchre towards evening, and was conducted to the afore-mentioned keeper, who was alone in the chapel of the Tomb. Opening the sacred portal for me, he ordered me to take off my shoes; and then, having admitted me barefooted to the Holy Sepulchre, with the lamp that I bore, he directed me to place it on the Tomb of the Lord. I placed it, with my sinful hands, on the spot occupied by the sacred feet of our Lord Jesus Christ; the lamp of the Greeks being where the head lay, and that of St. Sabbas and all the monasteries in the position of the breast; for it is the custom of the Greeks and of the Monastery of St. Sabbas to place their lamps there each year. By God's grace these three lamps1 kindled on that occasion, but not one of those belonging to the Franks, which hung above, received the light. After having placed my lamp on the Holy Sepulchre, and after having adored and kissed, with penitence and pious tears, the sacred place upon which the body of our Lord Jesus Christ lay; I left the Holy Tomb filled with joy, and retired to my cell.

Holy Saturday at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1107

Crowd on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre before the ceremony in 1905

The Russian pilgrim Daniel wrote: “On the morrow, Holy Saturday, at the sixth2 hour of the day, everyone assembles in front of the Church of the Holy Resurrection; foreigners and natives people from all countries, from Babylon, from Egypt,1 and from every part of the world, come together on that day in countless numbers; the crowd fills the open space round the church and round the place of the Crucifixion. The crush is terrible, and the turmoil so great that many persons are suffocated in the dense crowd of people who stand, unlighted tapers in hand, waiting for the opening of the church doors. The priests alone are inside the church, and priests and crowd alike wait for the arrival of the Prince and his suite; then, the doors being opened, the people rush in, pushing and jostling each other, and fill the church and the galleries, for the church alone could not contain such a multitude. A large portion of the crowd has to remain outside round Golgotha and the place of the skull, and as far as the spot where the crosses were set up; every place is filled with an innumerable multitude. All the people, within and without the church, cry ceaselessly, 'Kyrie Eleison' (Lord, have mercy upon us); and this cry is so loud that the whole building resounds and vibrates with it. The faithful shed torrents of tears; even he who has a heart of stone cannot refrain from weeping; each one, searching the innermost depths of his soul, thinks of his sins, and says secretly to himself, 'Will my sins prevent the descent of the Holy Light?' The faithful remain thus weeping with heavy heart; Prince Baldwin himself looks contrite and greatly humbled; torrents of tears stream from his eyes; and his suite stand pensively around him near the high altar, opposite the Tomb. [Source: “The Pilgrimage of the Russian Abbot Daniel in the Holy Land” 1106-1107 A. D. By C. W. Wilson. London, 1888, Holy Fire]

“Saturday, about the seventh hour, Prince Baldwin, with his suite, left his house, and, proceeding on foot2 towards the Sepulchre of our Lord, sent to the hospice of St. Sabbas for the abbot and monks of St. Sabbas; the abbot, followed by the monks, thereupon set out for the Holy Sepulchre, and I, unworthy, went with them. When we reached the Prince we all saluted him; he returned our salute and directed the abbot and me, the lowly one, to walk by his side, whilst the other abbots and the monks went in front, and the suite followed behind. We thus reached the western door1 of the Church of the Resurrection, but such a dense crowd obstructed the entrance that we could not get in. Prince Baldwin thereupon ordered his soldiers to disperse the crowd and open a way for us; this they did by clearing a lane to the Tomb, and we were able in this manner to pass through the crowd. We reached the eastern door of the Holy Sepulchre of the Lord, and the Prince, who came2 after us, took his post to the right, near the railing of the high altar, in front of the eastern door of the Tomb; at that spot there is a raised place for the Prince. The Prince ordered the Abbot of St. Sabbas to take up a position over3 (beyond?) the Tomb, with his monks and the orthodox priests; as for me, the lowly one, he directed me to place myself higher up, above (beyond?) the doors of the Holy Sepulchre, in front of the high altar, so that I could see through the doors of the Tomb; these doers, three in number, were sealed up with the royal seal. The Latin priests stood by the high altar.

Ceremony of the Descent of the Holy Light in 1101

Crowd trying to get in the door of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1905

Fulcher De Chartres wrote in A.D. 1101: “On Holy Saturday, each year, when the Holy Light descends mysteriously upon the Sepulchre of our Lord, and manifests the Divine power by kindling the lamps that hang there, it is customary for those in the church to pass the day in watching, and in humble prayer to God, that He in His mercy might send down the Light. The whole church is then filled with an innumerable crowd waiting for the Divine act of grace. [Source: Ceremony of the Descent of the Holy Light by Fulcher De Chartres, 1101 A.d., in 'Gesta Dei per Francos,' P. 407. “The Pilgrimage of the Russian Abbot Daniel in the Holy Land” 1106-1107 A. D. By C. W. Wilson. London, 1888, Holy Fire]

“About the third hour of the day the patriarch directed the clergy to commence the service for the day. The lessons were then read alternately,–by the Latins first in Latin, and afterwards by the Greeks, in Greek. The service was continued in this manner until about the ninth hour, when one of the Greeks, standing at an appointed place in the church, began, according to ancient custom, to cry 'Kyrie Eleison' at the top of his voice and all those present joined in the chant. Fulcher, who was much affected by the scene, looked everywhere, but in vain, for the appearance of the light. By the time the Greeks and all assisting at the ceremony had repeated the Kyrie Eleison three times, the service, which the clergy had never ceased performing, was almost at an end, and the devout crowd looked eagerly for the Holy Light, which usually appeared at the ninth hour. A little later the Kyrie Eleison having again been

“{107} chanted, and the Holy Light not yet appearing, a deep silence fell upon all whilst the clergy kept on reading the lessons and the service for the day. Then, the ninth hour of the day being well passed, the patriarch, having for the third time called out 'Kyrie Eleison' in a solemn tone, took the keys of the Holy Sepulchre, and, opening the door, went in; finding, however, that the light for which we had waited had not appeared, he prostrated himself in tears before the Holy Sepulchre, and besought the Almighty to hear the prayers of his people and send them the Holy Light as on previous occasions. 'We for our part recommenced chanting the Kyrie Eleison, and renewed our prayers to the Most High, hoping that the patriarch, when he emerged from the Holy Sepulchre, would bring us the light from God which he had found there. When, however, his fervent prayer and supplications were prolonged, and when with downcast face he at last came out of the Sepulchre with out having obtained the grace he sought, a painful feeling of despair took possession of everyone present.'

“Fulcher and one of the patriarch's chaplains ascended Calvary to see if the light were coming, but were unsuccessful; cries of 'Kyrie Eleison' again filled the air, and prayers were uttered with increasing fervour but without effect; and as evening approached the patriarch ordered everyone to leave the church, that it might remain empty during the night. At early dawn on Easter Day those who waited for the mercy of God crowded to the church, and the patriarch entered the Holy Sepulchre to see if the light had appeared; not finding it; he came cut much depressed, but everyone determined to continue in prayer and supplication. The Latin clergy, with the King and his suite, and most of the people, went in procession, barefooted, to the 'Temple of the Lord,' where God promised Solomon to listen to his prayers, and there they prayed the Almighty, to send the Holy Light. Whilst the Latins thus prayed in the 'Temple of the Lord,' the Greeks and Syrians who {108} remained in the church of the Holy Sepulchre went in procession round the tomb, offering up prayers to God, and in their despair cutting their faces, and tearing out their hair with loud lamentation.

View from above Jesus' tomb in 1941

“As the Latins were returning the patriarch was informed that the long expected light had appeared in one of the lamps in the Holy Sepulchre, and that those nearest could see its ruddy colour; on hearing this he at once quickened his steps, and opening the door of the Sepulchre with the key that he held in his hand, he at once saw the long desired light shining in the lamp. In his joy he humbly prostrated himself before the Holy Sepulchre and gave thanks to God; he then lighted a taper and came out to show everyone the Holy Light, upon which those who were present, with joy in their hearts and tears in their eyes, cried out 'Kyrie Eleison.' After Holy Mass, at which the King assisted, wearing, according to royal custom, the crown upon his head, Baldwin gave a grand banquet in the 'Temple of Solomon.' Whilst the banquet was in progress it was announced that the Holy Light had again appeared in two of the lamps suspended in the Holy Sepulchre, and the King with his guests returned to the church to see the new miracle.

Holy Fire at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1107

The Russian pilgrim Daniel wrote: “At the eighth hour the orthodox priests, who were over (beyond?) the Holy Sepulchre, with the clergy, monks, and hermits, commenced chanting the Vespers; and the Latins, by the high altar, began to mumble after their manner. Whilst all were thus singing I kept my place and attentively watched the doors of the Tomb. When they commenced reading the 'parœmia'1 for Holy Saturday during the reading of the first lesson, the bishop, followed by the deacon, left the high altar, and going to the doors of the Tomb, looked through the grille, but, seeing no light, returned. When they commenced reading the sixth lesson of the 'parœmia,' the same bishop returned to the door of the Holy Sepulchre, but saw no change. All the people, weeping, then cried out 'Kyrie Eleison ' which means, 'Lord, have mercy upon us!' At the end of the ninth hour, when they commenced chanting the Canticle of the passage (of the Red Sea), 'Cantabo Domino,'2 a small cloud, coming suddenly from the east, rested above the open dome of the church; fine rain fell on the Holy Sepulchre, and wet us and all those who were above (beyond?) the Tomb. It was at this moment that the Holy Light suddenly illuminated the Holy Sepulchre, shining with an awe-aspiring and splendid brightness. The bishop, who was followed by four deacons, then opened the doors of the Tomb, and entered with the taper of Prince Baldwin so as to light it first at the Holy Light; he afterwards returned it to the Prince, who resumed his place, holding, with great joy, the taper in his hands. We lighted our tapers from that of the Prince, and so passed on the flame to everyone in the church. [Source: “The Pilgrimage of the Russian Abbot Daniel in the Holy Land” 1106-1107 A. D. By C. W. Wilson. London, 1888, Holy Fire]

“This Holy Light is like no ordinary flame, for it burns in a marvellous way with indescribable brightness, and a ruddy colour like that of cinnabar. All the people remain standing with lighted tapers, and repeat in a loud voice with intense joy and eagerness: 'Lord, have mercy upon us!' Man can experience no joy like that which every Christian feels at the moment when he sees the Holy Light of God. He who has not taken part in the glory of that day will not believe the record of all that I have seen. It is only wise, believing men who will plate complete trust in the truth of this narrative, and who will hear with delight all the details concerning the holy places. He who is faithful in little will also be faithful in much; but to the wicked and incredulous the truth seems always a lie. God and the Holy Sepulchre of our Lord bear witness to my stories and to my humble person; so do my companions from Russia, Novgorod, and Kief: Iziaslav1 Ivanovitch,2 Gorodislav3 Mikhailovitch,4 the two Kashkitch, nd many others who were there the same day.

“But to return to my narrative. Directly the light shone in the Holy Sepulchre the chant ceased, and all, crying out ' Kyrie Eleison,' moved towards5 the church with great joy, bearing the lighted tapers in their hands, and protecting them from the wind.6 Everyone then goes home; and the people after lighting the lamps of the churches with their tapers, remain in them to terminate the Vespers; whilst the priests alone, and without assistance, finish the Vespers in the great Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Carrying the lighted tapers, we returned to our monastery with the abbot and the monks; we finished the Vespers there and then retired to our cells, praising God for having condescended to show us unworthy ones His Divine grace.

the ceremony starting in 1941

“The morning of Holy Sunday, after having chanted the matins,8 exchanged kisses with the abbot and monks, and received absolution, we started about the first hour of the day for the Holy Sepulchre;–the abbot cross in hand, and all the monks singing the hymn, 'Immortal One, Thou hast deigned to go down into the Tomb.' Having entered the Holy Sepulchre, we covered the life-giving tomb of the Lord with kisses and scorching tears; we breathed with ecstasy the perfume which the presence of the Holy Ghost had left; and we gazed in admiration on the lamps which still burned with a bright and marvellous splendour The custodian and the keeper of the keys told us, and the abbot, that the three lamps [placed below on the Holy Sepulchre]1 had kindled.2 The five other lamps suspended above were also burning, but their light was different from that of the three first, and had not that marvellous brightness. We afterwards left the tomb by the west3 door, and, having proceeded to the high altar, kissed the orthodox4 and received absolution; we then, with the abbot and the monks, left the Temple of the Holy Resurrection, and returned to our monastery to rest until it was time for mass.

“The third day after the Resurrection of our Lord I went, after mass, to the keeper of the keys of the Holy Sepulchre, and said, 'I wish to take away my lamp.' He received me kindly, and made me enter the Tomb quite alone. I saw my lamp on the Holy Sepulchre still burning with the flame of that holy light; I prostrated myself before the sacred Tomb, and, with penitence, covered the sacred place where the pure body of our Lord Jesus Christ lay with kisses and tears. I afterwards measured the length, width, and height of the Tomb as it now is–a thing which no one can do before witnesses. I gave (the keeper of the keys) of the Tomb of the Lord as much as I could, and offered him, according to my means, a small, poor gift. The keeper of the keys, seeing my love for the Holy Sepulchre, pushed back the slab that covers the part of the sacred Tomb on which Christ's head lay, and broke off a morsel of the sacred rock; this he gave me as a blessed memorial, begging me at the same time not to say anything about it at Jerusalem. After again kissing the Tomb of the Lord, and greeting the keeper, I took up my lamp, filled with holy oil,1 and left the Holy Sepulchre full of joy, enriched by the Divine grace, and bearing in my hand a gift from the sacred place, and a token from the Holy Sepulchre of our Lord.2 I went on my way rejoicing as if I were the bearer of vast wealth, and returned to my cell full of great joy.

“God and the Holy Sepulchre are witnesses that in these holy places I did not forget the names of the Russian princes, princesses, and their children; of the bishops, abbots, and nobles; or of my spiritual children, and all Christians; I remembered every one, and prayed first for all the princes, and then for my own sins. Thanks be to the goodness of God, who permitted me, unworthy one, to inscribe the names of the Russian princes in the Laura of St. Sabbas, where they now pray, during the services, for them, their wives, and their children. Here are their names: Michel Sviatopolk, Vassili Vladimir,3 David Sviatoslavitsch,4 Michel Oleg Pancrace,5 Sviatoslavitsch,6 Gléb of Mensk; I have only preserved those names which I inscribed in the Holy Sepulchre, and in all the holy places, without counting all the other Russian princes and nobles.1 I celebrated fifty masses for the Russian princes,2 and all the Christians,3 and forty masses for the dead.4

“May the blessing of God, of the Holy Sepulchre, and of all the holy places be with those who read this narrative with faith and love; and may they obtain from God the same reward as those who have made the pilgrimage to those holy places. Happy are those who, having seen, believe! Thrice happy are those who have not seen, and yet have believed! By faith Abraham obtained the Promised Land; for, in truth, faith is equal to good works. In the name of God, my brethren and lords, do not blame my ignorance and simplicity; for the sake of the Holy Sepulchre of our Lord do not abuse this narrative. May he who reads it with love receive his reward from Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour; and may the peace of God be with you all to the end of the world. Amen.

Holy Fire at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Crowd inside the Church of the Holy Sepuchre in 2018

For more than 1,200 years the ritual of the Holy Fire has been performed in Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Great Saturday, or Holy Saturday, the day before Pascha (Orthodox Easter), with a flame "miraculously" appearing at the darkened tomb of Jesus to symbolise the Resurrection. The Holy Fire is regarded by Orthodox Christians as a miracle that takes place every year. It is a blue light that emanates within Jesus Christ's tomb (usually rising from the marble slab covering the stone bed believed to be that upon which Jesus' body was placed for burial) now in the Holy Sepulchre. It eventually forms a column containing a form of fire, from which candles are lit, which are then used to light the candles of the clergy and pilgrims in attendance. The fire is also said to spontaneously light other lamps and candles around the church. Pilgrims and clergy claim that the Holy Fire does not burn them. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Thousands of pilgrims as well as local Christians of all denominations gather in Jerusalem to participate in and witness the annual event. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch kneels in front of the stone inside the chapel. It is very dark but noisy outside the chapel. There is then loud mumbling from inside the chapel. When the Patriarch emerges with the two candles lit and brightly illuminated in the darkness, the crowd erupts with a roar of jubilation. The Holy Fire is taken to certain Orthodox countries, such as Greece, by special flights, being received by church and state leaders. +

Alan Philps wrote in The Telegraph: “In past centuries, the Holy Fire was carried from Jerusalem all through the Orthodox world - by steamer to Odessa on the Black Sea to light the icon lamps of Russia, on mules to Damascus in the steps of St Paul, and by camel caravan to the churches of the Coptic Christians of Egypt. The mystery of the Holy Fire has been a secret for centuries, even though Muslims have long denounced it as a trick and Roman Catholics and Protestants give the ceremony a wide berth.” [Source: Alan Philps, The Telegraph, April 16, 2001]

History of the Holy Fire at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Holy Fire at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1941

The historian Eusebius writes in his Vita Constantini, which dates from around 328, about an interesting occurrence in Jerusalem of Easter in the year 162. When the church wardens were about to fill the lamps to make them ready to celebrate the resurrection of Christ, they suddenly noticed that there was no more oil left to pour in the lamps. Upon this, Bishop Narcissus of Jerusalem ordered the candles to be filled with water. He then told the wardens to ignite them. In front of the eyes of all present every single lamp burned as if filled with pure oil. [9] Christian Orthodox tradition holds that this miracle, which predates the construction of the Holy Sepulchre in the fourth century, is related to the Miracle of the Holy Fire. They admit that the two differ, as the former was a one-time occurrence while the Miracle of the Holy Fire occurs every year. However, they have in common the premise that God has produced fire where there, logically speaking, should have been none. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Around 385 Egeria, a noble woman from Spain, traveled to Palestine. In the account of her journey, she speaks of a ceremony by the Holy Sepulchre of Christ, where a light comes forth (ejicitur) from the small chapel enclosing the tomb, by which the entire church is filled with an infinite light (lumen infinitum). Despite these previous instances, the Holy Fire is believed to have been first recorded by the Christian pilgrim, Bernard the Wise (Bernardus Monachus), in 876. +

Under Baldwin I, Latin clergy had taken over the Holy Sepulchre, and according to Christopher Tyerman, the Greek clergy were restored "after the fiasco of the failure of the regular Easter miracle of the Holy Fire under Latin auspices in 1101, the annual ritual on Easter eve when Holy Fire is supposed to descend from heaven to light the priests' candles in the edicule of the Holy Sepulchre. The newcomers evidently had not learnt the knack." +

The Miracle of the Holy Fire, by William Holman Hunt

Holy Fire Ceremony in 2001 and 2016

Describing the Holy Fire Ceremony, Alan Philips wrote in The Telegraph: “To a great cheer from the 3,000 faithful, the divine light appeared at 2.10 on Saturday afternoon, and was passed from candle to candle around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and through the narrow streets to Christian homes in the Old City. The ceremony, conducted by the Greek and Armenian Orthodox churches, begins with the extinguishing of all lights in the church. The door to the presumed site of the burial and Resurrection of Jesus is searched for light and sealed with wax. [Source: Alan Philps, The Telegraph, April 16, 2001]

Holy Fire at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 2018

“The priests parade around the tomb three times then go inside. After a tense wait, as the often rowdy congregation holds its breath, a flame suddenly appears. Candles are passed out of holes on either side of the tomb to torch-bearers from the Greek and Armenian churches, who race up the steps, competing to be the first to bring the fire to the top balcony. A cheer spreads through the darkened church when the fire is first seen. The flame is passed from hand to hand, with the faithful waving bundles of candles and spattering themselves with hot wax. The church comes alive in a blaze of light, smoke and incense. It is hard not to be taken up in the euphoria. [Source: Alan Philps, The Telegraph, April 16, 2001]

Describing the event in 2016, Associated Press reported: Thousands of Christians have gathered in Jerusalem for an ancient fire ceremony that celebrates Jesus’ resurrection... During the annual ceremony, top Eastern Orthodox clerics enter the Edicule, the small chamber marking the site of Jesus’ tomb. They then emerge to reveal candles said to be miraculously lit with “holy fire” as a message to the faithful from heaven. The details of the flame’s source are a closely guarded secret.” [Source: Associated Press, April 30, 2016]

Holy Fire Ceremony in 2023

On the Holy Fire ceremony in April 2023, Reuters reported: After hours of anticipation, the Jerusalem's Greek Orthodox Patriarch emerged from the sealed empty tomb of Jerusalem's Holy Sepulchre Church with a lighted candle, a mysterious act considered an annual holy miracle before Orthodox Easter Sunday. The light got quickly dispersed among Palestinian Christians and pilgrims from around the world gathered in the darkened church and outside it, spreading in the streets of the old city, illuminating its alleyways. The millennium-old celebration, symbolizing Jesus's resurrection, usually draws thousands of worshippers to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christians believe Jesus was buried. But Israeli police this year have significantly limited access to the event, citing safety concerns. [Source: Reuters Videos, April 16, 2023]

According to Associated Press: Israel, which imposed similar restrictions on the “Holy Fire” in 2022, says it wants to prevent another disaster after a crowd stampede in 2021 at a packed Jewish holy site left 45 people dead. Christian leaders say there’s no need to alter a ceremony that has been held for centuries. Church officials told reporters in Jerusalem on Wednesday that negotiations with the police over their "heavy-handed" restrictions had failed. “After many attempts made in good will, we are not able to coordinate with the Israeli authorities as they are enforcing unreasonable restrictions on access to the Holy Sepulcher,” the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem said, calling the limitations “heavy-handed.” “We will hold the ceremony as customary for two millennia and invite all who wish to worship with us to attend,” said Father Mattheos Siopis of the Greek Orthodox Church. “We leave the authorities to act as they will. The churches will freely worship and do so in peace.” [Source: Laurie Kellman and Audrey Horowitz, April 12, 2023]

Israeli police officials acknowledged that they are increasing security and blocking some routes into the dense Old City and that attendance is limited in the ancient church and courtyard. But in a conference call with reporters, officials said the attendance limits — 1,800 people inside the church which Greek Orthodox officials said was a fraction of previous years — were set by the church. Chief Superintendent Yoram Segal of the Jerusalem District Police told reporters during a conference call that the police's top priority is safety on a day when Muslims, Christians and Jews are celebrating their own holidays in the square-kilometer (square-half mile) Old City. “We are going to regulate the movement of crowds,” Segal said, adding that the holy fire ceremony will be available throughout the city on video screens and that meetings with the churches are ongoing.Since the rise this year of Israel’s most right-wing government in history, Christians say their 2,000-year-old community in the Holy Land has come under increasing attack.

Holy Fire at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, A Fraud?

According to Shihab al-Din al-Qarafi, the 13th century Ayyubid ruler Al-Muazzam Turanshah is mentioned as having discovered the fraudulence of the Holy Fire; however, he allowed the monks to continue their fraud in exchange for money.In 1238, Pope Gregory IX denounced the Holy Fire as a fraud and forbade Franciscans from participating in the Similarly, many Christians have remained unconvinced by the occurrence. 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. Thomas Tegg, a 19th-century Englishman, included a deflationary account of the event in The London Encyclopaedia, published in 1828, speculating that the event is purely natural and motivated by pecuniary interest.

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 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 on 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.

In 2001, Armenian torch-bearer, Soukias Tchilingirian told the The Telegraph, "It's not a miracle. The Greek priests bring in a lamp - one that has been kept burning for 1,500 years - to produce the Holy Fire. For pilgrims full of faith who come from abroad, it is a fire from Heaven, a true miracle. But not for us. Of course the source of the fire is ancient and symbolic. I heard this from my father and I think he knew the truth." Mr Tchilingirian is a chef living in London. During Easter he is an aristocrat of Jerusalem's Armenian community and enjoys the ancient privilege of racing the fire up to the Patriarch's throne. A senior member of the Armenian community was shocked by the suggestion that Greek priests smuggled in the flame. "I have never seen it as my business to ask the Patriarch from where the Holy Fire comes," he sniffed.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” users.ox.ac.uk ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, ccel.org , Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Live Science, Encyclopedia.com, Archaeology magazine, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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