The Holy Fire (Greek Ἃγιον Φῶς, "Holy Light") is described by Orthodox Christians as a miracle that occurs every year at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on Great Saturday, or Holy Saturday, the day preceding Orthodox Easter.
Description from within the Orthodox faith
Orthodox tradition holds that the Holy Fire is a miracle that happens annually on the day preceding Orthodox Easter, in which a blue light 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, which 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.
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 shining brightly in the darkness, a roar of jubilee resounds in the Church.
The Holy Fire is brought to certain Orthodox countries, such as in Armenia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Egypt, Georgia, Greece, Jordan, Lebanon, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Syria and Ukraine, and every year by special flights, being received with honors by state leaders at the respective airports.
The Russian hegumen Daniil (Daniel), who was present at the ceremony in 1106 AD, says that traditional beliefs "that the Holy Ghost descends upon the Holy Sepulchre in the form of a dove" and "that it is lightning from heaven which kindles the lamps above the Sepulchre of the Lord" are untrue, "but the Divine grace comes down unseen from heaven, and lights the lamps of the Sepulchre of our Lord."
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. 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 premise that God has produced fire where there logically speaking should have been none.
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).
The pilgrim Bernard the Monk mentions the holy fire in 870 AD.
On May 3, 1834, the Muslim governor Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt exited the packed church by commanding his guards to slice a way out, the Church was so packed that a stampede added to the deaths which totaled four hundred. This was reported by Robert Curzon.
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.
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.
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 184.108.40.206-24) 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.
- "Sparks from the Holy Fire". May 3, 2003. Retrieved 3 May 2013.
- "Description of the Miracle of Holy Fire that happens every year in Jerusalem". holyfire.org.
- Bishop Auxentios of Photiki (1999). The Paschal Fire in Jerusalem (Third ed.). Berkeley, CA: Saint John Chrysostom Press. ISBN 0-9634692-0-7.
- Niels Christian Hvidt (1998). "The Miracle of the Holy Fire in Jerusalem". Orthodox Christian Information Center.
- "Photos and videos of the Holy Fire miracle". holyfire.org.
- Light at the Holy Sepulchre, Great Miracle Given by God, Only to the Orthodox Church // The Christian Life. 1 January - 31 March 1999 (Vol. 42 / No. 1-3)
- The Holy Fire Arrives in Athens From Jerusalem By Areti Kotseli on April 14, 2012 In News. Greek Reporter. http://greece.greekreporter.com/2012/04/14/the-holy-fire-arrives-in-athens-directly-from-jerusalem/
- Daniīl (1895). Charles William Wilson, ed. The Pilgrimage of the Russian Abbot Daniel in the Holy Land. London: Palestine Pilgrims' text Society. pp. 74–78. Retrieved 20 June 2013.
- Meinardus, Otto. The Ceremony of the Holy Fire in the Middle Ages and to-day. Bulletin de la Société d'Archéologie Copte, 16, 1961-2. Page 242-253
- Peters, F.E. (1985). Jerusalem: The Holy City in the Eyes of Chroniclers, Visitors, Pilgrims and Prophets from the Days of Abraham to the Beginning of Modern Times. Princeton University Press. p. 262.
- Riley-Smith Crusades p. 24
- Tyerman God's War pp. 192–194
- Montefiore, Simon Sebag (2011). Jerusalem: The Biography. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House. pp. 328–329. ISBN 978-0-307-26651-4.
- Montefiore, Simon Sebag (2011). Jerusalem: The Biography. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House. p. 348. ISBN 978-0-307-26651-4.
- "Sparks from the Holy Fire". May 3, 2003. Retrieved 3 May 2013.
- Jerusalem: The Biography, page 305, Simon Sebag Montefiore, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2011. ISBN 978-0-297-85265-0
- Thomas Tegg (1829). London Encyclopaedia Volume 16, page 449, in the article on Palestine. N. Hailes.
- Edward Gibbon. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. VI. Chapter LVII. Everyman's Library. p. 34.
- The "Holy" Light of Jerusalem
- "ИСТОРИЯ БЛАГОДАТНОГО ОГНЯ (Russian language)".
- "ОБСУЖДЕНИЕ ФОТОСВИДЕТЕЛЬСТВ (Russian language)".
- "Uspensky Nicholas".
- "Епископ Порфирий".
- Holy Fire website
- Reuters report on the Holy Fire on Youtube
- The Holy Light in Jerusalem: Testimonies and Evidence by the Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries
- Miracle of the Holy Fire by Niels Christian Hvidt.
- Orthodox Christians Celebrate Holy Fire Ritual from National Public Radio
- Sparks from the Holy Fire, by Victoria Clark for The Tablet, May 3, 2003.
- Holy Fire book by Haris Skarlakidis.