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.
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 either from the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or from the slab believed to be the "Stone of Anointing" upon which Jesus' body was prepared for burial, 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. Pilgrims and clergy claim that the Holy Fire does not burn them.
The Holy Fire is brought to certain Orthodox countries, such as in Armenia, Georgia, Greece, Russia, Belarus, Cyprus, Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Macedonia, every year by special flights, being received with honors by state leaders at the respective airports.
The Holy Fire is first mentioned by the pilgrim Bernard the Monk, in 870 AD. A detailed description of this phenomenon is contained in the travelogue of the Russian hegumen Daniil (Daniel), who was present at the ceremony in 1106 AD. Daniel mentions a blue incandescence descending from the dome to the edicula where the patriarch awaits the Holy Fire.
During the many centuries of this phenomenon's history, the Holy Fire is said not to have descended only on certain occasions, usually when heterodox priests attempted to obtain it. According to the tradition, in 1099, for example, the failure of Crusaders to obtain the fire led to street riots in Jerusalem. It is also claimed that in 1579, the Armenian patriarch Hovhannes I of Constantinople prayed day and night in order to obtain the Holy Fire, but lightning miraculously struck a column near the entrance and lit a candle held by the Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem Sophronius IV standing nearby. Upon entering the temple, the Orthodox Christians would embrace this column, which bears marks and a large crack that they attribute to the lightning bolt.
In 1969–1970, the Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem Benedict introduced the Revised Julian calendar prompted by the Geneva-based World Council of Churches, which changed the calculation of the date of the event. That same year, the Holy Fire did not appear at the Holy Sepulchre. The original ecclesiastical chronology (the Eastern Orthodox Church calendar) with the original calculation of the date was immediately restored, and the Holy Fire recommenced appearing the following year and thereafter.
On May 3, 1834, the Church was so packed that a stampede caused four hundred deaths, with the governor Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt saved by his guards' swords slicing a way out, as reported by Robert Curzon.
As with all alleged miracles, many question the validity of the Holy Fire, noting, for instance, that cold-handed pilgrims generally withstand the fire for the same very brief periods of time as can be achieved with any fire.
Criticism dates at least to the days of Islamic rule of Jerusalem, but the pilgrims were never stopped, because of the significant revenue they brought to local governments even at the end of the first millennium. When the apparently uninitiated Crusaders took over the Orthodox clergy in charge of the fire, it failed to appear, increasing the skepticism among Western Christians. But feeling the lack of pilgrim revenues, Baldwin I of Jerusalem reinstated the Orthodox priests in charge, and the fire, as well as the stream of revenues, returned.
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 188.8.131.52-24) 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 at 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. Later, after his return to the Russian Empire, he was made a bishop in the diocese of Kiev.
See also 
- "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.
- 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.
- Article on the Holy Fire by religious reporter Nikos Papachristou (Greek language)
- Theoharis Kekis. "The Orthodox Church Calendar". Cyprus Action Network of America. p. 3.
- Hieromonk Cassian (1998). "A Scientific Examination of the Orthodox Church Calendar, Chapter 9: Liturgical Havoc Wreaked By the "New Julian" Calendar". holyfire.org.
- 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 url=http://www.thetablet.co.uk/article/3458 date=May 3, 2003".
- 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".
- Site dedicated to the Miracle of the Holy Fire
- Reuters video about Miracle of the Holy Fire (3 min) on Youtube
- Video presentation of the Miracle of the Holy Fire(multilingual)
- Holy Fire in Jerusalem 2007 (photogallery)
- The Holy Fire (Greek and English page)
- Easter and the Holy Fire
- Illustrated article by Niels Christian Hvidt
- Orthodox Christians Celebrate Holy Fire Ritual from National Public Radio
- An author and journalist who was present for the lighting of the Holy Fire in Jerusalem describes her experience
- I Saw the Holy Light, a book by Fr. Savva Achilleos relating a firsthand account of a skeptic who hid inside the Tomb and saw the miracle firsthand - how the Holy Fire emanated from the Tomb and miraculously ignited the Patriarch's candles