Like many Orthodox, I am fascinated by God’s annual gift to His Church of the Holy Fire, which He kindles faithfully in the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem every Holy Saturday. (That’s “the Church of the Holy Sepulchre” for you tourists.) I first heard of the Holy Fire from reading (of all things) H.V. Morton’s famous travelogue of his visits to the Holy Land, his In the Steps of the Master (first published 1934). It’s fair to say that this English churchman was not impressed. He wrote that he thought it “an extraordinary thing” that “a frenzied ceremony that might have occurred in a grove of Adonis should have taken place at the Tomb of Christ”, wherein “hundreds of simple, but apparently mad, Christians believed that God had sent fire from heaven”. Morton didn’t believe God did send fire from heaven. He wrote, “The crowds have been told time and again that the Holy Fire is a piece of symbolism, but nothing will shake their belief that on this day it descends from heaven into the Tomb of Christ.”
Morton is a wonderful writer, but one should be careful in drawing conclusions from him. (This is apparent from his biography, In Search of H.V. Morton by Michael Bartholomew.) Whether or not “the crowds were told time and again that the Holy Fire” was a mere “piece of symbolism”, we probably will never know. But what we can know is that the Holy Fire is not a mere piece of symbolism, because, unlike in Morton’s day, we now have cell-phone cameras and other gadgets which can film the event live and make the miracle available for viewing on line. (See, for example, http://www.monomakhos.com/2011/04/the-miracle-of-the-holy-fire-in-jerusalem/.)
This site also contains an interview with the Patriarch of Jerusalem who annually received the Holy Fire. Far from suggesting to the crowds that it was a mere “a piece of symbolism”, he related his own experience of receiving the miraculous Fire. In his own words, “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 gift of the Holy Fire goes back a long way. In the years 1106-1107, the Russian abbot Daniel, wrote of “Miracle of the Holy Light” in his itinerary. Even Morton acknowledges that “Bernard the monk mentioned it in his visit to Jerusalem in 870 A.D.” Why does God send the gift so faithfully?
As with any question beginning with the word “why”, we can only guess. But I think it had something to do with the circumstances of the church in those days. That is, the church in Jerusalem was a church on the cross. As G.K. Chesterton writes (in his The New Jerusalem), “No man living in the West can form the faintest conception of what it must have been to live in the very heart of the East through the long and seemingly everlasting epoch of Moslem power. A man in Jerusalem was in the center of the Turkish Empire as a man in Rome was in the centre of the Roman Empire. The imperial power of Islam stretched away to the sunrise and the sunset; westward to the mountains of Spain and eastward towards the wall of China. It must have seemed as if the whole earth belonged to Mahomet to those who in this rocky city renewed their hopeless witness to Christ.” A hopeless witness indeed. But to know the risen Christ is to know the Hope of the hopeless, and to know that hope always ends joy, that the Cross ends in Resurrection, and that the night ends with the coming dawn. That, I think, is why God gave the gift of the light to those making their “hopeless witness to Christ” through those long years of darkness.
The lasting significance of the Holy Fire is not in the candles that are kindled from it, but in the light that is kindled in our hearts. God gives the gift of the Holy Fire as the gift of hope, to give us the strength to carry on another year. Morton may have found the Christians who received the Holy Fire mad. I would retort that they must have been mad to continue their hopeless witness to Christ our God in the dark heart of the Islamic Empire, lighting candles and saying prayers to the Crucified One whom they could not openly and with impunity confess under the sun. The gift was what kept the mad people sane, the enslaved people faithful. Chesterton wrote that we Christians had “nothing to set up under the overhanging, overwhelming arches of such a temple of time and eternity, but this brief candle burnt out so quickly before God’s shrine”. He was right. The single, guttering, flickering candle of our years is indeed all we have. And in Jerusalem, every Holy Saturday, they know this candle is lit by the risen Christ Himself.