Every year on Holy Saturday a miracle takes place in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where Christ was crucified and entombed, and rose from the dead. The miracle of the Holy Fire has taken place at the same time, in the same manner, in the same place every single year for centuries. No other miracle is known to occur so regularly and so steadily over time.
Beginning the afternoon of Holy Friday (Orthodox date) pilgrims wait in anticipation for the miracle, camped as close to the Holy Sepulchre as possible. Beginning at around 11:00 in the morning the Christian Arabs chant traditional hymns in a loud voice. These chants date back to the Turkish occupation of Jerusalem in the 13th century, a period in which the Christians were not allowed to chant anywhere but in the churches. "We are the Christians, we have been Christians for centuries, and we shall be forever and ever. Amen!"- they chant at the top of their voices accompanied by the sound of drums. The drummers sit on the shoulders of others who dance vigorously around the Holy Ciborium. But at 1:00 pm the chants fade out, and then there is a tense silence, charged with the anticipation of the great demonstration of God's power for all to witness.
Shortly thereafter, a delegation from the local authorities elbows its way through the crowd. At the time of the Turkish occupation of Palestine they were Muslim Turks; today they are Israelis. Their function is to represent the Romans at the time of Jesus. The Gospels speak of the Romans that went to seal the tomb of Jesus, so that his disciples would not steal his body and claim he had risen. In the same way the Israeli authorities on this Holy Saturday come and seal the tomb with wax. Before they seal the door, they follow the custom of entering the tomb to check for any hidden source of fire which would make a fraud of the miracle.
The Patriarch of Jerusalem brings out the Holy Fire from the shrine encasing the Tomb of Christ
How the miracle occurs
The Orthodox Patriarch then enters the Holy Tomb alone. Listen to this account of Patriarch Diodorus, who was Patriarch from 1981 to 2000:
"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. I find my way through the darkness towards the inner chamber in which I fall on my knees. 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."
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 miracle is not confined to what actually happens inside the little tomb, where the Patriarch prays. For 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 unlit oil lamps catch light 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 close up by having the fire on the candle or seeing the blue light usually leaves Jerusalem changed.
How old is the wonder?
The first written account of the Holy Fire dates from the fourth century, but authors write about events that occurred in the first century. So Saints John Damascene and Gregory of Nissa narrate how the Apostle Peter saw the Holy Light in the Holy Sepulchre after Christ's resurrection. "One can trace the miracle throughout the centuries in the many itineraries of the Holy Land," writes the Russian abbot Daniel, in his itinerary written in the years 1106-07.
Only the Greek Patriarch
The awesome honor of invoking the miracle of the Holy Fire is reserved for the Orthodox Patriarch – literally reserved by divine fiat. Several times over the centuries clergy from other churches or Moslem conquerors tried to exclude the Patriarch from the Holy Sepulchre on Holy Saturday. When this was attempted in 1579, as the Orthodox Patriarch Sophrony IV stood sorrowfully with his flock at the exit of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre near the left column, a divine light split this column vertically and the Holy Fire flashed out near the Orthodox Patriarch. A Muslim Muezzin, called Tounom, who saw the miraculous event from an adjacent mosque, immediately abandoned the Muslim religion and became an Orthodox Christian. The split column can be seen to this day.
Seeing is believing
Numerous online videos of the Holy Fire are available on youtube. One of the best is this 30 minute documentary:
"For those who believe, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe, no explanation is possible."