As we approach the great solemn days of Holy Week, we bring to mind how our Lord Jesus Christ was betrayed and seized, tortured and crucified, died and was buried, and arose from the dead. The services of Holy Week, beginning with Lazarus Saturday, show us in symbols, readings and chants the account of our Saviour’s love and sacrifice ‘unto death, even the death of the cross’ for our sake (Phil. 2:8).
On Palm Sunday we shall stand with branches in our hands and listen to the ‘Hosannas,’ like the multitudes in Jerusalem, welcoming ‘Him Who cometh in the Name of the Lord,’ and, like the children, waving palms and shouting for joy. In the Gospels of the first three days of Passion Week we shall hear Christ’s final teachings to his disciples and the people; His stern rebukes to the proud, self-righteous Pharisees and scribes; His prophecy of His resurrection and second coming. In the house of Simon the Leper, where Jesus was having a meal, we shall see the sinful woman enter to anoint His head and feet in love and repentance, and we shall contrast her to Judas, the disciple whose greed incited him to betray his Master for a paltry sum of money. Then we shall follow Jesus to the ‘upper chamber’ where He and his disciples partook of his Mystical Supper, that is, the first celebration of the Eucharist of his Most Holy Body and Blood, and then to the Garden of Gethsemane. There our Lord and God Jesus Christ prayed in agony.
Concerning our Saviour’s prayer before his Passion, Saint John Chrysostom says:
By saying, ‘If it be possible, let it pass from me,’ He showed His humanity; but by saying, ‘Nevertheless not as I will, but as Thou wilt,’ He showed His virtue and self-command, teaching us even when nature pulls us back to follow God. (Homily 83 on the Gospel of Matthew)
Together with Christ’s grieving Mother and John, the disciple He loved best, and with the other women, we shall stand watch by His Cross. We shall follow as His body is carried to the grave in the garden, and there leave his Body to rest till the Resurrection’s glorious morning.
This is why through all Passion Week’s mournful services there runs the strain of bright hope of forgiveness, of triumph over sin and death, and of our Saviour’s victory over Satan, Hades, and mortal corruption.
On this Saturday we remember how our Lord Jesus Christ raised His friend Lazarus from the dead. He knew Lazarus was grievously ill, but He waited till he died before He answered Martha and Mary’s call for Him. Jesus knew that His own death on the Cross was near. He knew how terrified and bewildered His disciples would be, how they might doubt that He was indeed the Christ. Only after four days did He bring Lazarus back to life, so that His disciples would see that He had power over life and death and was indeed ‘the Resurrection and
the Life.’ It was this miracle that prepared Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem and gave us the certain assurance of the physical resurrection of all the dead.
ENTRY INTO JERUSALEM
This day celebrates Christ’s triumphal entry into the holy city of Jerusalem. When the people heard of His coming, great crowds rushed to the city gates to meet Him. They spread their cloaks on the road and strewed palm leaves in His path. Children waved green boughs and all sang, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’ At Palm Sunday Matins, after the
Gospel lection about the entry into Jerusalem, the priest blesses palm leaves or other appropriate branches, which the people hold during the canon. Palm Sunday is one of the twelve great feasts of the Church.
The week of our Saviour’s Passion begins with Holy and Great Monday. The first three days of Holy Week recall Christ’s last teachings with His disciples. These teachings inspire the readings and hymns. The services consist of Great Compline, Matins, Hours, and the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts with Vespers. Gospels are read at Matins and Liturgy. In addition, the whole Psalter is read in the services of the first three days of Holy Week; also, the four Gospels are read. The Psalms remind us how the coming and sufferings of Christ were awaited and foretold in the Old Testament. The Gospels tell of His life in the world; His teaching and miracles prove that He was indeed the Son of God, who of His own free will suffered for our sake though He was without guilt.
At Matins after the great litany we do not hear the usual joyous verses, ‘God is the Lord, and hath appeared unto us.’ Instead, a compunctionate ‘Alleluia’ is chanted. And to inspire us to watch and pray in these solemn days, this troparion is chanted:
Behold, the Bridegroom cometh in the middle of the night, and blessed is that servant whom He shall find watching; and again unworthy is he whom He shall find heedless. Beware, therefore, O my soul, lest thou be overcome with sleep, lest thou be given up to death, and be shut out from the Kingdom. But rouse thyself and cry: Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou, O God, through the Mother of God, have mercy on us.
After the canon, which speaks of Christ’s coming Passion, another special hymn an Exapostilarion — is chanted. It is like a cry of our soul as if it saw from afar Christ’s radiant mansions and felt how unworthy it was to enter them:
Thy bridal chamber, O my Saviour, do I behold all adorned, and a garment I have not that I may enter therein. Illumine the garment of my soul, O Giver of Light, and save me.
On Holy and Great Monday the Church tells us the parable of the barren fig tree. It is the symbol of those who think only of outward goodness which does not come from the heart. The Gospel also tells about Christ’s prophecies about the fall of Jerusalem, wars and tribulations, and the end of the world.
On Holy and Great Tuesday we listen to our Saviour’s replies to the wily questions of the Pharisees and scribes, who tried to trap Him; we hear His stern rebukes of their envy and deceit. The parables of the Ten Virgins and of the Talents remind us how we should always keep watch over our conscience and use in God’s service any gift or talent we have received from Him. The Gospel then tells Christ’s prophecy of His second coming and the Last Judgment. It ends with the awful warning: ‘Ye know that after two days is the feast of the Passover, and the Son of Man is betrayed to be crucified.’
On Great Wednesday the Church commemorates the act of contrition and love of the sinful woman who poured precious myrrh-oil on our Saviour’s head, and, though she did not know it, ‘prepared Him for burial.’ And in contrast we hear of the dark act of Judas, whose greed led him to betray his Master. All the readings and hymns of the day warn us to beware of greed and love of money, which even tempted a disciple of Christ. We too can betray Him, if we let greed and selfishness get hold of us, while every deed of humility and love at once
On Holy Wednesday night the Orthodox Church administers the sacrament of Holy Unction for the bodily and spiritual health of the participants. At this sacrament, the oil is consecrated by prayer and the clergy anoint the people.
GREAT AND HOLY THURSDAY
The Gospels of Holy and Great Thursday tell how our Saviour and His disciples came to Jerusalem to celebrate His last feast of the Passover, how He washed their feet. They tell the account of that Mystical Supper when our Lord ordained the Mystery of His Most Holy Body and Blood ‘for the remission of sins and life everlasting.’ They speak of Christ’s instruction to the Apostles, and how He told them that they would all forsake Him that night; they speak of Peter’s rash promise that he would always remain faithful; of Christ’s
vigil in the garden; of how He was seized and led away to the high priest’s court; of the scene in the courtyard; of Peter’s three-fold denial and his grief; of the highpriest’s mocking questions; and of how our Saviour Christ God, wearing the crown of thorns, beaten and insulted by the soldiers, was led before Pilate.
The readings and hymns of Matins dwell on Judas’ betrayal, on ‘the dark night’ which settled in his soul. We pray that we may keep ourselves from greed and deceit, and be made pure by partaking of the holy Mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood. The Troparion after the ‘Alleluia’ at Matins speaks of this:
When the glorious disciples were enlightened at the washing of the feet, then Judas the ungodly one was stricken and darkened with the love of silver. And unto the lawless judges did he deliver Thee, the righteous Judge. O thou lover of money, behold thou him that for the sake thereof did hang himself, flee from that insatiable soul that dared such things against the Master. O Thou Who art good unto all, Lord, glory be to Thee.
On this day the Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great is celebrated together with Vespers.
The whole narration of our Lord’s Passion is given at the Matins of Holy and Great Thursday. It is commonly called ‘the Service of the Twelve Gospels.’ A tall Crucifix usually stands in the middle of the church with many candles lighted round it. After the Six Psalms and the Great Litany, the choir chants, ‘Alleluia’ and the Troparion of Holy and Great Thursday. The priest and deacon come out of the sanctuary carrying the Book of Gospels. It is placed on a podium and the priest begins the reading. The whole story of the Passion is read from the four evangelists and is divided into twelve parts. It begins with the ‘Gospel of the Testament’ and the prayer at the Mystical Supper, in Saint John’s Gospel, and continues through the four Gospels to the burial of Christ by Joseph of Arimathea. After each reading the choir chants, ‘Glory to Thy forbearance, 0 Lord, glory to Thee.’ Between the readings special antiphons and hymns are chanted. They speak of Judas’ betrayal; of the cruelty of the Jews; of our Saviour’s infinite patience and meekness; of the awe of all creation when the Lord of all was nailed to the Cross between two thieves. The canon has only three odes. All recount the Passion and foretell the glory of the Resurrection. Matins ends shortly after the twelfth Gospel.
HOLY AND GREAT FRIDAY
Great Friday is the most solemn day of Holy Week. In awe and trembling, we stand before the Cross on which our Saviour died and we see the image of Him dead, lying in our midst, on the Epitaphios (the Winding Sheet).
During the Service of Matins, which by anticipation is chanted on Thursday evening, we will hear some of the most awe-inspiring hymns of the ecclesiastical year. The following is but a one example:
Today there is hung upon the Tree, He that suspended the earth upon the waters. A crown of thorns is placed upon Him Who is the King of the Angels. With false purple is He wrapped about, He that wrappeth the Heavens with clouds. Buffetings did He receive, Who freed Adam in the Jordan. With nails was He affixed, He that is the Bridegroom of the Church. With a lance was He pierced, He that is the Son of the Virgin. We venerate Thy Passion, O Christ. Show also unto us Thy glorious Resurrection.
The solemn Vespers of Great Friday is celebrated in the afternoon at the time of our Lord Jesus’ death. Again all the readings remind us of the suffering Christ and His glory. After the entrance, lessons are read in which the Prophet Isaih speaks of ‘the Lamb led to the slaughter,’ and an Epistle of Saint Paul on the power and wisdom of the Cross; again a Gospel is read describing our Lord’s trial before Pilate, His Crucifixion and burial.
After the usual petitions, ‘Let us all say …,’ ‘Vouchsafe …,’ ‘Let us complete …,’ etc., the choir slowly chants the Aposticha, during which the procession exits from the Sanctuary, with the priest and deacon bearing the Shroud of Christ, their heads uncovered, proceeded by candles and censer. All kneel with head bowed low before the image of our dead Saviour. A bier stands in the middle of the church, with candles lit round it. On it the Shroud is laid reverently and censed all round by the priest.
Then, after the Lord’s Prayer, the dismissal hymns are chanted: ‘The noble Joseph …’ and ‘Unto the myrrh-bearing women …’ followed by the prayers of dismissal
Holy and Great Saturday is a reverent vigil at the tomb of the Son of God, slain for our sins. By anticipation, the Saturday Matins is held on Friday evening.
After the Six Psalms and the Great Litany, the Royal Doors are opened clergy come out with candles and censer. The choir sings ‘The Lord is God and hath appeared unto us,’ and then the appointed troparia:
In the meantime, the priest and deacon cense the Shroud, then stand in front of it. The priest and the choir then chant the ‘Lamentations’ with the verses of the 118th Psalm: ‘Blessed are the blameless in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord.’ Each verse of the Psalm is followed by a verse of the Lamentations. It is like a long poem depicting the Angels in Heaven and all creatures on earth overwhelmed by the death of their Creator, and their gratitude at being freed from death’s power by Christ.
After the Lamentations, the Resurrection hymns are sung. Then, following the customary litanies, the choir chants the canon, where the note of joy and triumph is heard more and more clearly. At the end of the Great Doxology of Matins, the priest raises the Shroud, which is then taken by four pall-bearers, the deacon walks in front, the people follow, all carrying candles, accompanied by the choir chanting, ‘Holy God, Holy and Strong, Holy and Immortal, have mercy on us.’ This represents the burial of Christ. Then, the prokeimenon is chanted, and the glorious prophecy of Ezekiel is read about the dry bones of Israel, out of which arose ‘an exceeding great host’ quickened to life by the breath of God. Then follows Saint Paul’s Epistle about Christ our Passover, and the Gospel about the sealing of Jesus’ tomb. Matins then ends as usual.
The Liturgy of Holy and Great Saturday is that of Saint Basil the Great. It begins with Vespers. After the entrance, the evening hymn ‘O Gentle Light’ is chanted as usual. Then the Old Testament readings are recited. They tell of the most striking events and prophecies of the salvation of mankind by the death of the Son of God. The account of creation in Genesis is the first reading. The sixth reading is the story of Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea and Moses’ song of victory – over Pharaoh, with its refrain: ‘For gloriously is He glorified’. The last reading is about the Three Children in the fiery furnace of Babylon, and their song of praise with its repeated refrain: ‘O praise ye the Lord and supremely exalt Him unto the ages.’ In the ancient church the catechumens were baptized during the time of these readings. The Epistle which follows speaks of how, through the death of Christ, we too shall rise to a new life. After the Epistle, the choir chants, like a call to the sleeping Christ: ‘Arise, O Lord, Judge the earth, for Thou shalt have an inheritance among all the nations… The deacon carries out the Book of the Gospels, and reads the first message of the resurrection from Saint Matthew. Because the Vespers portion of the service belongs to the next day (Pascha) the burial hymns of Saturday are mingled with those of the resurrection, so that this service is already full of the coming Paschal joy.
After the Gospel the Liturgy proceeds as usual. Instead of the Cherubic Hymn, a special Great Entrance Hymn is chanted:
Let all mortal flesh keep silence and stand with fear and trembling, and take no thought for any earthly thing, for the King of kings and Lord of lords cometh to be slain and given as food for the faithful. Before Him go the choirs of the angels with all sovereignty and power: the manv-eyed Cherubim and six-winged Seraphim, covering their faces and crying out the hymn: Alleluia, Alleluia, .Alleluia.
After the Liturgy the faithful take their meal, observing the strict fast, to strengthen them to keep watch the rest of the day and evening. This is the only Saturday of the year on which a strict fast is kept. In the monasteries and convents, the refectory meal is taken in complete silence, out of reverence for the burial of Christ. The world awaits the proclamation of His Resurrection.
SYNAXARION OF THE GREAT FEAST OF THE RESURRECTION OF CHRIST
On the Great and Holy Sunday of Pascha, we celebrate the Life-giving Resurrection of our Lord, God, and Saviour Jesus Christ: Pascha, which, translated from the Hebrew, means Passover.
For this is the day on which God created the world from nothingness. On this day, He delivered the Israelites from Pharaoh’s hands and led them through the Red Sea. On this day, he descended from heaven and took His dwelling in the Virgin’s womb; now drawing forth mankind held in Hades, He raised them to heaven and brought them to the first-created honour of incorruption. …While the soldiers guarded the tomb, at midnight the earth quaked, for the angel of the Lord had descended and rolled the stone from the entrance of the tomb, and the soldiers [set to guard the tomb] were so frightened that they fled. The women came to the tomb very early in the morning on the day following the Sabbath — that is to say at midnight on Saturday. Therefore, late on the first day of the Resurrection, the Mother of God was there together with St Mary Magdalene, who was sitting near the tomb according to St Matthew. The Evangelists say that He first appeared to St Mary Magdalene [rather than His Mother]…so that there would be no doubts or suspicions concerning the truth of the Resurrection.
It was St Mary Magdalene who saw the angel upon the stone; then bowing down, she saw the other angels inside. The angels announced the Lord’s Resurrection to her and said, ‘He is risen! He is not here! Behold the place where they laid Him’ (Mark 16:6). Hearing this, the women turned to run and announce the Resurrection to the most fervent of the Apostles, that is, to St Peter and St John. But when they returned, they met Christ Himself, Who said to them, ‘Rejoice’ (Matthew 28:9).
Translated from Romanian; Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodion and Penetcostarion,
pp. 163-166 (Rives Junction, Mi.: HDM Press, 1999).
THE DATE OF PASCHA
There is among the Orthodox a very widespread belief that the Christian celebration of Easter must necessarily come after the Jewish Passover. This chronological order is considered imperative and bears a symbolic meaning, as it is believed to have been decreed by the First Ecumenical Council held at Nicea in 325. This belief is stated and reaffirmed in the 12th century by the Byzantine canonist Zonaras. Another famous canonist of the later Middle Ages, Matthew Blastaris, in summing up the opinions of his time on the Paschal question, included among the rules for determining the date of Easter that it must not coincide with the Jewish Passover. We find this also in the writing of the learned canonist of the present century, Nicodemus Milash.
Yet, not only is such a stipulation totally absent from the decision taken on the Paschal question at Nicea, but it is foreign and, in a sense, contrary to what was then decreed. How, then, has such an opinion taken shape through the centuries?
In the primitive Church, there was no need for computing the date of Easter independently of that of the synagogue, by which the Passover was determined. The controversy that brought, toward the end of the second century, the Churches of Asia Minor and the Church of Rome into opposition did not concern this point. The matter in dispute was quite different: the Asians celebrated Easter on the 14th of the month Nisan, whatever the day of the week, while the other Christians waited until the following Sunday. But both parties based their Easter date on the Jewish computation of the Passover. This computation was questioned, however, soon after the Jews changed their mode of calculating their Passover, no longer taking the vernal equinox into account.
The Bible did, indeed, specify the time the Passover should be celebrated, but it made no express reference to the vernal equinox. However, since the prescribed offering consisted of the first fruits of the harvest, a celebration prior to that time would have been inconceivable. But this empirical criterion, relative as it is to the climate conditions of that area, could hardly be preserved once the Jews lost their geographical proximity to Palestine as a result of the Roman crushing of the Bar-Bakhba revolt (approximately 135 AD). A period of uncertainty followed, and then towards the end of the second century, the rabbis established a new system which disregarded the vernal equinox. With the new system, at least once every three years the Passover fell before the equinox.
Then, many Christians wondered why they should celebrate the commemoration of the Passion and Resurrection on the basis of a computation which was no longer the one used at the time of our Lord. Thus, as early as the third century, the Christians began to devise their own calculations of the Easter date. A learned Alexandrian, Anatolius (later bishop of Laodicea in Syria), used for his Easter computation the nineteen-year cycle invented in 432 BC by the Athenian astronomer Meton. However, most Churches in the region of Antioch continued to follow the computation of the synagogue in spite of the fact that the latter no longer took the equinox into account. This on occasion caused considerable differences in the date of Easter between the Antiochian churches and others; in contrast, variations among the latter were neither frequent nor notable.
These differences promoted the question of the date of Easter before the First General Council at Nicea. This venerable assembly did take a decision on this issue. But though there have been references to a decree, there does not seem to have been issued a written text of it. Thus, the document to which reference is often made is in fact a compilation of a number of authentic data. According to this kind of evidence, we are able to reconstruct the decision of the first General Council on the question of Easter follows:
- Easter must necessarily be celebrated on the same Sunday by all churches.
- This Sunday must be the first after the full moon following the vernal equinox.
- The Churches that follow the Jewish calculation must abandon it and conform with the general usage.
However, there was some resistance to that decision which necessitated new injunctions: the First Canon of the Council of Antioch (around 330 AD), and the Seventh Apostolic Canon (second half of the fourth century). These canons condemned those who celebrated Easter ‘with the Jews.’ This did not mean, however, that the dissidents were celebrating Easter on the same day as the Jews; rather, that they were celebrating on a date calculated according to the synagogal computations.
There is clear evidence that it was not a chance coincidence to which the canons referred. Especially, since, on account of the ever-increasing time delay brought about by the inaccuracies of the Jewish calendar, any chance of coincidence between the Christian Easter and the Jewish Passover disappeared.
As a result, the real cause that had prompted the decision of the First Ecumenical Council came to be forgotten. The belief gradually grew that the phrase ‘with the Jews’ was to be understood literally, and that the Holy Fathers at Nicea had decreed that the Christian Easter must not, even accidentally, occur on the same day as the Passover; rather, it must be celebrated later. As a matter of fact, however, such an interpretation was not only inaccurate but contrary to the spirit of what was decreed at Nicea, considering that acceptance of this interpretation necessitates a chronological relationship between the Christian Easter and the Jewish Passover, the very undesirable connection the Great Council sought to abolish.
Archbishop Peter of New York and New Jersey
The Orthodox Church Newspaper, April-May 1994
THE MIRACLE OF THE HOLY FIRE IN JERUSALEM
The descent of the Holy Fire which takes place every Easter in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is perhaps the most renowned miracle in the Orthodox world. Yet, despite being witnessed by countless pilgrims from virtually corner of the globe (including some people from our own diocese of Sourozh), the miracle is almost unknown outside the confines of Orthodoxy. So, it is all the more remarkable to find an article on the subject, (albeit in a somewhat stilted English translation) printed by a Western newspaper. The article is aimed at an agnostic Western readership, yet deals sympathetically with its subject-matter, and includes a fascinating interview with His Beatitude Diodorus, the late Patriarch of Jerusalem, (reposed 19th December 2000) the modern link to the tradition which stretches back more than 1600 years.
‘On Holy Saturday believers gather in great crowds in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. For on this day fire comes down from Heaven and puts fire on lamps in the Church.’ Thus one reads in one of the many Easter itineraries to the Holy Land.
‘The Miracle of the Holy Fire’ by Christians from the Orthodox Churches is known as ‘the greatest of all Christian miracles’. It takes place every single year, on the same time, in the same manner, and on the same spot. No other miracle is known to occur so regularly and for such an extensive period of time; one can read about it in sources as old as from the eighth century ad. The miracle happens in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the holiest place on earth, to millions of believers. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre itself is an enigmatic place. Theologians, historians and archaeologists consider the church to contain both Golgatha, the little hill on which Jesus Christ was crucified, as well as the ‘new tomb’ close to Golgatha that received his dead body, as one reads in the Gospels. It is on this same spot that Christians believe he rose from the dead.
One can trace the miracle throughout the centuries in the many itineraries to the Holy Land. The Russian abbot Daniel, in his itinerary written in the years 1106–07, presents the ‘Miracle of the Holy Light’ and the ceremonies that frame it in a very detailed manner. He recalls how the Patriarch goes into the Sepulchre-chapel (the Anastasis) with two candles. The Patriarch kneels in front of the stone on which Christ was laid after his death and says certain prayers, upon which the miracle occurs. Light proceeds from the core of the stone — a blue, indefinable light which after some time kindles closed oil lamps as well as the Patriarch’s the two candles. This light is ‘The Holy Fire’, and it spreads to all people present in the Church. The ceremony surrounding ‘The Miracle of the Holy Fire’ may be the oldest unbroken Christian ceremony in the world. From the fourth century ad all the way up to our own time, sources recall this awe-inspiring event. From these sources it becomes clear that the miracle has been celebrated on the same spot, on the same feast day, and in the same liturgical frame throughout all these centuries. One can ask, if it would happen also in the year 1998 [the date of the article — ed.]
In order to find out, I travelled to Jerusalem to be present at the ceremony in which the Miracle of the Holy Fire occurs, and I can testify that it did not only happen in the ancient Church and throughout the Middle Ages but also on the 18th of April, 1998. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Diodorus I, is the man who every year enters the tomb to receive the Holy Fire. He has been the Patriarch of Jerusalem since 1982 and thereby is the key-witness to the miracle. Prior to the ceremony of this year the Patriarch received us in private audience, where I had the opportunity to speak with him about the miracle in order to know exactly what happens in the tomb and what the miracle means for him personally in his spiritual life. Furthermore, through his intervention, I was admitted to the balconies in the dome of the Holy Sepulchre Church, from where I had a fine view over the masses that had gathered around the tomb in anticipation of the ‘Great Miracle of the Holy Fire’.
But what exactly happens in the Holy Sepulchre Church on Easter Saturday? Why does it have such an impact on the Orthodox Tradition? Why does it seem as if nobody has heard anything about the miracle in the Protestant and Catholic countries?
One of the most famous ceremonies in the Orthodox Church
The miracle occurs every year on the Orthodox Easter Saturday. There are many types of Orthodox Christians: Syrian, Armenian, Russian and Greek Orthodox as well as Copts. In the Holy Sepulchre Church alone there are seven different Christian denominations. The date of Orthodox Easter is fixed according to the Julian Calendar, and not the usual Western European Gregorian calendar, which means that their Easter normally falls on a different date than the Protestant and Catholic Easter.
Since Constantine the Great built the Holy Sepulchre Church in the middle of the fourth century it has been destroyed many times. The Crusaders constructed the Church that we see today. Around the tomb of Jesus, there was erected a little chapel with two rooms, one little room in front of the tomb and the tomb itself, which holds no more than five people. This chapel is the centre of the miraculous event. If one wishes to enter it, one has to reckon with six hours of queuing. Each year hundreds of people are not able to enter due to the crowds. Pilgrims come from all over the world, the majority from Greece but in recent years increasing numbers from Russia and the former Eastern European countries.
In order to be as close to the tomb as possible, pilgrims camp around the tomb, waiting from Holy Friday afternoon in anticipation of the wonder on Holy Saturday. From around 11:00 am till 1:00 pm the Christian Arabs sing traditional songs with loud voices. These songs date back to the Turkish occupation of Jerusalem in the 13th Century, a period in which the Christians were not allowed to sing their songs anywhere but in the Churches. ‘We are the Christians, this we have been for centuries and this we shall be for ever and ever. Amen!’ they sing at the top of their voices accompanied by the sound of drums. The drum-players sit on the shoulders of others who ferociously dance around the Sepulchre Chapel. But at 1:00 pm the songs fade out and after there is silence, a tense and loaded silence electrified by the anticipation of the great manifestation of the power of God that all are about to witness.
At 1:00 pm a delegation of the local authorities elbows through the crowds. Even though these officials are not Christian, they are part of the ceremonies. In the times of the Turkish occupation of Palestine they were Moslem Turks; today they are Israelis. For centuries the presence of these officials has been an integrated part of the ceremony. Their function is to represent the Romans in the time of Jesus. The Gospels speak of Romans that went to seal the tomb of Jesus, so his disciples would not steal his body and claim he had risen. In the same way the Israeli authorities on this Easter Saturday come and seal the tomb with wax. Before they seal the door it is customary that they enter the tomb to check for any hidden source of fire, which could produce the miracle through fraud.
The testimony of the patriarch
When the tomb has been checked and sealed, the whole Church chants the Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy). At 1:45 pm the Patriarch enters the scene. In the wake of a large procession he encircles the Tomb three times, whereupon he is stripped of his liturgical vestments, remaining only in his white alb, a sign of humility in front of the great portent of God, to which he is about to be the key witness. All the oil lamps have been blown out the preceding night, and now all remains of artificial light are extinguished, so that most of the Church is enveloped in darkness. The patriarch enters the Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre carrying two big candles — first into the small room in front of the tomb and from there into the tomb itself.
It is not possible to follow the events inside the tomb, so I asked the patriarch of Jerusalem, Diodorus, about the centre of the events.
‘Your Beatittude, what happens when you enter the Holy Sepulchre?’
‘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. Praying in the Holy Sepulchre in itself is for me always a very holy moment in a very holy place. It is from here that he rose again in glory, and it is from there that he spread his light to the world. John the Evangelist writes in the first chapter of his gospel that Jesus is the light of the World. Kneeling in front of the place where he rose from the dead, we are brought within the immediate closeness of his glorious resurrection. Catholics and Protestants call this Church ‘The Church of the Holy Sepulchre’. We call it ‘The Church of the Resurrection’. The Resurrection of Christ for us Orthodox is the centre of our faith. In his resurrection Christ has gained the final victory over death, not just his own death but the death of all those who will stay close to him.
I believe it to be no coincidence that the Holy Fire comes on exactly this spot. In Matthew 28:3, it says that when Christ rose from the dead, an angel came, dressed all in a fearful light. I believe that the striking light that enveloped the angel at the Lord’s resurrection is the same light that appears miraculously every Easter Saturday. Christ wants to remind us that his resurrection is a reality and not just a myth; he really came to the world in order to give the necessary sacrifice through his death and resurrection so that man could be re-united with his creator.
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 colour 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.’
‘How do you yourself experience the miracle and what does it mean to your spiritual life?’
‘The miracle touches me just as deeply every single year. Every time it is another step towards conversion for me. For me personally it is of great comfort to consider Christ’s faithfulness towards us, which he displays by giving us the holy flame every year in spite of our human frailties and failures. We experience many wonders in our Churches, and miracles are nothing strange to us. It happens often that icons cry, when Heaven wants to display its closeness to us; also we have saints, to whom God gives many spiritual gifts. But none of these miracles have such a penetrating and symbolic meaning for us as the miracle of the Holy Fire. The miracle is almost like a sacrament. It makes the resurrection of Christ present to us as if he had died only a few years ago.’
The miracle leads to faith
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 shinning brightly in the darkness, a roar of jubilee resounds in the Church, comparable only to a goal at a soccer-match.
The miracle is not confined to what actually happens inside the little tomb, where the Patriarch prays. What may be even more significant, is that 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 closed oil lamps take fire 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 a close distance by having the fire on the candle or seeing the blue light usually leaves Jerusalem changed, and for everyone having attended the ceremony, there is always a ‘before and after’ the miracle of the Holy Fire in Jerusalem.
Unknown in the West
One can ask the question why the miracle of the Holy Fire is hardly known in Western Europe. In the Protestant areas it may to a certain extent be explained by the fact that there is no real tradition for miracles; people don’t really know in which box to place the miracles, and they don’t take up much space in newspapers. But in the Catholic tradition there is vast interest for miracles. Thus, why is it not more known? For this it only one explanation suffices: Church politics. Only the Orthodox Churches attend the ceremony which is centred on the miracle. It only occurs on the orthodox Easter date and without the presence of any Catholic authorities.
The question of the authenticity of the miracle
As with any other miracle there are people who believe it is fraud and nothing but a masterpiece of Orthodox propaganda. They believe the Patriarch has a lighter inside of the tomb. These critics, however, are confronted with a number of problems. Matches and other means of ignition are recent inventions. Only a few hundred years ago lighting a fire was an undertaking that lasted much longer than the few minutes during which the Patriarch is inside the tomb. One then could perhaps say, he had an oil lamp burning inside, from which he kindled the candles, but the local authorities confirm to have checked the tomb and found no light inside it.
The biggest arguments against a fraud, however, are not the testimonies of the shifting patriarchs. The biggest challenges confronting the critics are the thousands of independent testimonies by pilgrims whose candles were lit spontaneously in front of their eyes without any possible explanation. According to our investigations, it has never been possible to film any of the candles or oil lamps igniting by themselves. However, I am in the possession of a video filmed by a young engineer from Bethlehem, Souhel Nabdiel. Mr. Nabdiel has been present at the ceremony of the Holy Fire since his early childhood. In 1996 he was asked to film the ceremony from the balcony of the dome of the Church. Present with him on the balcony were a nun and four other believers. The nun stood at the right hand of Nabdiel. On the video one can see how he films down on the crowds. At a certain point all lights are turned off — it is time for the Patriarch to enter the tomb and take the Holy Fire. While he is still inside the tomb one suddenly hears a scream of surprise and wonder originating from the nun standing next to Nabdiel. The camera begins to shake, as one hears the excited voices of the other people present on the balcony. The camera now turns to the right, whereby it is possible to contemplate the cause of the emotion. A big candle, held in the hand of the Russian nun, takes fire in front of all people present before the patriarch comes out of the tomb. She holds the candle with shaking hands while making the sign of the Cross over and over again in awe of the miracle she has witnessed. This video appears to be the closest one gets to an actual filming of the miracle.
Miracles cannot be proved
The miracle is, as most miracles are, surrounded by unexplainable factors. As Alexios, Archbishop of Tiberias said when I met him in Jerusalem:
‘The miracle has never been filmed and most probably never will be. Miracles cannot be proved. Faith is required for a miracle to bear fruit in the life of a person and without this act of faith there is no miracle in the strict sense. The true miracle in the Christian tradition has only one purpose: to extend the grace of God in creation, and God cannot extend his grace without the faith on behalf of his creatures. Therefore there can be no miracle without faith.’
Niels Christian Hvidt
‘Berlingske Tidende’, 15.09.98
This article appeared in the April 2001 issue of the Cathedral Newsletter of the Russian Diocese of Sourozh, and offers a helpful explanation of the services celebrated during the Holy Week of the Passion.
Permission to present this article on the Monachos.net website was kindly granted by the Sourozh.org editors.