The Miracle of the Holy Fire in Jerusalem
by Niels Christian Hvidt
"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
"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.
One can trace the miracle throughout the centuries in the many itineraries to
the Holy Land. The Russian abbot Daniel, in his itinerary, written in the
years 1106-07, in very detailed manners presents the "Miracle of the Holy Light"
and the ceremonies that frame it. He recalls how the Patriarch goes into the
Sepulchre-chapel (the Anastasis) with two closed candles. The Patriarch
kneels in front of the stone on which Christ was laid after his death and says
certain prayers, upon which the miracle occurs. Light proceeds from the core of
the stone a blue, indefinable light which after some time kindles closed oil
lamps as well as the two candles of the Patriarch. This light is "The Holy
Fire", and it spreads to all people present in the Church. The ceremony
surrounding "The Miracle of the Holy Fire" may be the oldest unbroken Christian
ceremony in the world. From the fourth century AD all the way up to our own
time, sources recall the awe-awakening potent. 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 frames throughout all these centuries. One can
ask, if it would happen also in the year 1998.
In order to find out, I travelled to Jerusalem to be present at the ceremony
in which the Miracle of the Holy Fire occurs, and I can testify that it did not
only happen in the ancient Church and throughout the Middle Ages but also on the
18th of April, 1998. The Greek-Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Diodorus I, is
the man who every year enters the tomb to receive the Holy Fire. He has been the
Patriarch of Jerusalem since 1982 and thereby is the key-witness to the miracle.
Prior to the ceremony of this year the Patriarch received us in private
audience, where I had the opportunity to speak with him about the miracle in
order to know exactly what happens in the tomb and what the miracle means for
him personally in his spiritual life. Furthermore I was through his intervention
admitted to the balconies in the dome of the Holy Sepulchre Church, from where I
had a fine view over the masses that had gathered around the tomb in
anticipation of the "Great Miracle of the Holy Fire".
But what exactly happens in the Holy Sepulchre Church on Easter Saturday? Why
does it have such an impact on the Orthodox Tradition? Why does it seem as if
nobody has heard anything about the miracle in the Protestant and Catholic
One of the Most Famous Ceremonies in the Orthodox Church
The miracle occurs every year on the Orthodox Easter Saturday. There are many
types of Orthodox Christians: Syrian, Armenian, Russian and Greek Orthodox as
well as Copts. In the Holy Sepulchre Church alone there are 7 different
Christian Denominations. The Orthodox Easter-date is fixed according to the
Julian Calendar, and not the usual Western European Gregorian calendar, which
means that their Easter normally falls on a different date than the Protestant
and Catholic Easter.
Since Constantine the Great built The Holy Sepulchre Church in the middle of
the fourth century it has been destroyed many times. The Crusaders constructed
the Church that we see today. Around Jesus tomb was erected a little chapel with
two rooms, one little room in front of the tomb and the tomb itself, which holds
no more than five people. This chapel is the centre of the miraculous events,
and being present at the celebration fully justifies the term "event" for on no
other day of the year is the Holy Sepulchre Church so packed than on Easter
Saturday. If one wishes to enter it, one has to reckon with six hours of cueing.
Each year hundreds of people are not able to enter due to the crowds. Pilgrims
come from all over the world, the majority from Greece but in recent years
increasing numbers from Russia and the former Eastern European Countries.
In order to be as close to the tomb as possible, pilgrims camp around the
tomb-chapel, waiting from Holy Friday afternoon in anticipation of the wonder on
Holy Saturday. The miracle happens at 2:00 PM, but already around 11:00 AM the
Church is a boiling pot.
From around 11:00 AM till 1:00 PM the Christian Arabs sing traditional songs
with loud voices. These songs date back to the Turkish occupation of Jerusalem
in the 13th Century, a period in which the Christians were not allowed to sing
their songs anywhere but in the Churches. "We are the Christians, this we have
been for centuries and this we shall be for ever and ever. Amen!" they sing at
the top of their voices accompanied by the sound of drums. The drum-players sit
on the shoulders of others who ferociously dance around the Sepulchre Chapel.
But at 1:00 PM the songs fade out and after there is silence, a tense and loaded
silence electrified by the anticipation of the great manifestation of the Power
of God that all are about to witness.
At 1:00 PM a delegation of the local authorities elbows through the crowds.
Even though these officials are not Christian, they are part of the ceremonies.
In the times of the Turkish occupation of Palestine they were Moslem Turks;
today they are Israelis. For centuries the presence of these officials has been
an integrated part of the ceremony. Their function is to represent the Romans in
the time of Jesus. The Gospels speak of Romans that went to seal the tomb of
Jesus, so his disciples would not steal his body and claim he had risen. In the
same way the Israeli authorities on this Easter Saturday come and seal the tomb
with wax. Before they seal the door it is customary that they enter the tomb to
check for any hidden source of fire, which could produce the miracle through
fraud. Just as the Romans were to guarantee that there was no manipulation after
the death of Jesus, likewise the Israeli Local Authorities are to guarantee that
there be no trickery in 1998.
The Testimony of the Patriarch
When the tomb has been checked and sealed, the whole Church chants the
Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy). At 1:45 PM the Patriarch enters the scene.
In the wake of a large procession he encircles the Tomb three times, whereupon
he is stripped of his royal liturgical vestments, carrying only his white alba,
a sign of humility in front of the great potent of God, to which he is about to
be the key witness. All the oil lamps have been blown out the preceding night,
and now all remains of artificial light are extinguished, so that most of the
Church is enveloped in darkness. With two big candles the patriarch enters the
Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre first into the small room in front of the tomb
and from there into the tomb itself.
It is not possible to follow the events inside the tomb, so I asked the
patriarch of Jerusalem, Diodorus, about the center of the events.
"Your Beatitude, what happens when you enter the Holy Sepulchre?"
"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. Praying in the Holy
Sepulchre in itself is for me always a very holy moment in a very holy place. It
is from here that he rose again in glory, and it is from there that he spread
his light to the world. John the Evangelist writes in the first chapter of his
gospel that Jesus is the light of the World. Kneeling in front of the place
where he rose from the dead, we are brought within the immediate closeness of
his glorious resurrection. Catholics and Protestants call this Church "The
Church of the Holy Sepulchre". We call it "The Church of the Resurrection". The
Resurrection of Christ for us Orthodox is the center of our faith. In his
resurrection Christ has gained the final victory over death, not just his own
death but the death of all those who will stay close to him.
"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 every Easter Saturday. 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. 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."
The Symbolic Meaning of the Miracle
"How do you yourself experience the miracle and what does it mean to your
"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 Christs faithfulness towards us, which he displays by giving us the
holy flame every year in spite of our human frailties and failures. We
experience many wonders in our Churches, and miracles are nothing strange to us.
It happens often that icons cry, when Heaven wants to display its closeness to
us; also we have saints, to whom God gives many spiritual gifts. But none of
these miracles have such a penetrating and symbolic meaning for us as the
miracle of the Holy Fire. The miracle is almost like a sacrament. 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 Leads to Faith
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.
Unknown in the West
One can ask the question why the Miracle of the Holy Fire is hardly known in
Western Europe. In the Protestant areas it may to a certain extent be explained
by the fact that there is no real tradition for miracles; people dont really
know in which box to place the miracles, and they dont take up much space in
newspapers. But in the Catholic tradition there is vast interest for miracles.
Thus, why is it not more known? For this it only one explanation suffices:
Church politics. Only the Orthodox Churches attend the ceremony framing the
miracle. It only occurs on the orthodox Easter date and without the presence of
any Catholic authorities. By certain Orthodox this evidence proves the notion
that the Orthodox Church is the only legitimate Church of Christ in the world,
and this assertion obviously may cause certain apprehensions in Catholic
The Question of the Authenticity of the Miracle
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
the shifting 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. According
to our investigations, it has never been possible to film any of the candles or
oillamps igniting by themselves. However, I am in the possession of a video
filmed by a young engineer from Bethlehem, Souhel Nabdiel. Mr. Nabdiel has been
present at the ceremony of the Holy Fire since his early childhood. In 1996 he
was asked to film the ceremony from the balcony of the dome of the Church.
Present with him on the balcony were a nun and four other believers. The nun
stood at the right hand of Nabdiel. On the video one can see how he films down
on the crowds. At a certain point all lights are turned off it is time for the
Patriarch to enter the tomb and take the Holy Fire. While he is still inside the
tomb one suddenly hears a scream of surprise and wonder originating from the nun
standing next to Nabdiel. The camera begins to shake, as one hears the excited
voices of the other people present on the balcony. The camera now turns to the
right, whereby it is possible to contemplate the cause of the emotion. A big
candle, held in the hand of the Russian nun, takes fire in front of all people
present before the patriarch comes out of the tomb. With shaking hands
she holds the candle while over and over making the sign of the Cross in awe of
the potent she has witnessed. This video appears to be the closest one gets to
an actual filming of the miracle.
Miracles cannot be proved
The miracle is, as most miracles are, surrounded by unexplainable factors. As
Archbishop of Tiberias Alexios said when I met him in Jerusalem:
"The miracle has never been filmed and most probably never will be. Miracles
cannot be proved. Faith is required for a miracle to bear fruit in the life of a
person and without this act of faith there is no miracle in the strict sense.
The true miracle in the Christian tradition has only one purpose: to extend the
Grace of God in creation, and God cannot extend his Grace without the faith on
behalf of his creatures. Therefore there can be no miracle without faith."
Meinardus, Otto. The Ceremony of the Holy Fire in the Middle Ages and
to-day. Bulletin de la Société dArchologie Copte, 16, 1961-2. 242-253
Klameth, Dr. Gustav. Das Karsamstagsfeuerwunder der heiligen Grabeskirche.
From "Berlingske Tidende" 15.09.98. For more on the
Holy Fire see The Paschal Fire in Jerusalem: A Study of the Rite of the
Holy Fire in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by Bishop Auxentios of Photiki.
Foreword by Archbishop Chrysostomos. ISBN 0-9634692-0-7. LCCN 93-83497. Pp. 213.
You can order this from The
Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies.