Miracle of Holy Fire site mapBegining of the sectionVictoria Clark, Sparks from the Holy Fire // The Tablet, May 7, 2003

An author and journalist who was present for the lighting of the Holy Fire in Jerusalem describes her experience of this climax of Orthodox Easter. Whether or not it is a miracle, it is certainly a wonder

May 3, 2003 (The Tablet) -- EASTERN Orthodox Easter in Jerusalem would not be the same if God and the Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem failed to keep their annual appointment at the Holy Fire ceremony in the city’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Braving the intifada or Palestian uprising, thousands of Orthodox pilgrims from the former Soviet Union and the Balkans converged on the old city last Saturday to join the few thousand remaining native Arab Orthodox for the high holy climax of the Orthodox year. But the perils of the intifada paled into insignificance beside an old city swarming with 2,000 armed Israeli police. Barriers blocked all approaches to the church and attendance was severely restricted because of security fears.

What could be the reason? Would the Israelis cancel the ceremony? Had Palestinian suicide bombers turned their wrath on the Christians? Had dangerous Palestinian militants infiltrated the crowds of pilgrims? No. An unresolved dispute between the Greek and Armenian Orthodox clergy who preside over the ceremony, and the production of what most faithful Orthodox fervently believe to be a miraculously kindled flame, was to blame for the extraordinary measures.

The dispute is a year old. Last year’s Holy Fire ceremony was marred by a scandalous scuffle inside the shrine containing what remains of Christ’s tomb. The Greek Patriarch, Irineos, who was performing the ritual for the first time, and an Armenian archimandrite who had three years’ practice behind him, violently disagreed over the correct procedure. Ancient privilege and precedent were at stake. Unseen by the expectant faithful, behind the aedicule’s closed doors, the furious patriarch blew out the Armenian’s candle, lit with holy fire, forcing the Armenian to resort to a cigarette lighter to gain his point. The Greek lost a shoe in the scuffle and his rival sustained light injuries when two more Greek clergy and Israeli police burst into the shrine to join the fray.

The management of the twelfth-century Crusader church is uneasily shared by six Christian communities – Greeks, Armenians, Ethiopians, Syrian Orthodox, Egyptian Copts and Catholic Franciscans. Disputes over matters ranging from the positioning of a candlestick, to the length and volume of services, to routine repairs of the building and window cleaning are nothing new. On Palm Sunday last year the Greeks and Egyptian Copts almost came to blows over the positioning of a doormat. As recently as last July a clash between Ethiopian and Coptic monks ended with 13 Ethiopians needing hospital treatment. But one has to look as far back as the end of the seventeenth century for a substantial dispute over the conduct of the 1,000-year-old Holy Fire ceremony, and that was resolved by an Orthodox court before it reached the tomb of Christ.

Christian fighting Christian over the grave of the Saviour who had enjoined his followers not to offer violence but to turn the other cheek struck many as all the more shocking when viewed in the context of Arab-Israeli warring.

This year’s ceremony was saved thanks to three weeks of intensive Israeli-mediated negotiations and a compromise reached in the small hours of Saturday morning. The details remain a secret, but it seems to have required concessions from both parties and to have provided only a temporary solution.

Restricted attendance, a bitter disappointment for many pilgrims who spent the entire previous night camped out in the church, was all that marred the smooth running of what must be one of the Christian world’s most exciting and moving spectacles. Safely produced, the Holy Fire was handed out of the aedicule to the patient crowd. Touching candle after candle, it spread at great speed until the gloomy church was ablaze with dancing light, the air suffocating with heat. Especially loud cheering, whooping, whistling and bell-tolling seemed to signal gigantic relief that the peace had been kept as much as joy that God had continued to grant the Orthodox this special mark of his favour.

Jerusalem’s Catholic Franciscan community does not participate in the ceremony, but Fr Athanasius Macora was as nervous as any of the Orthodox on the morning of the event. "There’s almost as much security as we had for the papal visit in 1999", he noted, adding: "The Orthodox have completely lost control over their show. Israeli police are everywhere."

After Pope Gregory IX denounced the Holy Fire as a fraud and barred Franciscans from having anything to do with it, the Franciscans’ Holy Land chronicles became peppered with scathing accounts of the ceremony. A fifteenth-century Franciscan, Fra Francesco Suriano, detailed the unruly emotionalism he witnessed before observing: "The said fire, however, does not descend in truth (and in the opinion of us friars), although all the nations save us friars feign this falsehood to be true."

A seventeenth-century account exposes the simple trick behind the miracle: an Ethiopian Orthodox priest entered the chamber of Christ’s tomb with a lit lantern cleverly concealed under his robe.

Western Christian belief in the miracle seems to have waned in proportion to the hardening of the schism dividing Eastern from Western Christendom during the twelfth century. The credit for the first record of the ceremony goes to a ninth- century Western Christian monk called Bernard who claimed that "an angel comes and kindles light in the lamps which hang above the sepulchre. The patriarch passes some of this light to the bishops and the rest of the people, and thus each one has light where he is standing."

At Clermont in 1095 Pope Urban II – according to one version of his speech – inspired would-be First Crusaders with a vision of Jerusalem as a place where, on Easter Eve, the lights in the tomb of Christ were lit by "divine command". He asked: "Whose heart is so stony, brethren, that is not touched by so great a miracle?"

Scepticism about the Holy Fire seems to have spread when the Crusader clergy who supplanted the Orthodox in the church after 1099 found that the miracle did not work for them. Eyeing empty cSEND INFORMATION that could only be filled by pilgrim revenues, King Baldwin I reinstated the Orthodox clergy – at least for the Holy Fire event. Daniel, a pilgrim Russian bishop, described the monarch with tears "streaming wonderfully from his eyes" at the Holy Fire ceremony of 1102.

From the early nineteenth century on there were signs that the more enlightened among Jerusalem Orthodox clergy were seeking to have the miracle recast as purely symbolic. But it seems there was too much to lose – both financially and morally. Even the great Holy Fire disaster of 1834 – the death by stampede and suffocation of some 200 pilgrims – failed to bring about reform.

These days a direct question is sometimes met with a sheepish denial of the miracle’s authenticity. "We have not had the courage to say the truth – I don’t know why", said one Greek bishop in Jerusalem last year. Another justified the custom in opposition to Western Christianity: "Our Orthodoxy accepts a lot of things, like the Holy Light for example, without any official approval…The Western mind looks at only one side of things, the logical side."

But the Jerusalem patriarchate’s official website describes the miracle as something like multiple photographic flashes. And the Orthodox faithful continue to believe – strongly enough to come to Jerusalem in their thousands at a time when few other Christians dare set foot here.

Cited: Sue Talley. The Fire of the Resurrection // In Communion, N8, 1997

Miracle of Holy Fire site mapBegining of the sectionVictoria Clark, Sparks from the Holy Fire // The Tablet, May 7, 2003