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Holy Fire in Jerusalem

by Thomas A. Idinopulos

Dr. Idinopulos is professor of religion at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. This article appeared in the Christian Century April 7, 1982, p. 407. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


This past year I observed an Easter ritual in Jerusalem that will be repeated soon, unchanged, exactly as it has been performed each year for centuries -- the Miracle of Holy Fire. It is celebrated at midday on Easter Eve in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, on the site that church tradition holds to be Christ’s burial place. The event consists of the sending down of fire by God, the bursting forth of flame at the sacred tomb and the lighting of the candle held in the hand of the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem. Upon receiving the miraculous flame, symbol of Christ’s resurrection, he passes it to his followers who are throughout the church.

No one was more joyous at the sight of the Holy Fire than the old Cypriot women who gathered by the hundreds around the tomb and filled the courtyard leading to the entrance of the church. They were short, square-bodied women, with round faces. All were dressed in widow’s black, village women come on pilgrimage to the Places sanctified by Christ’s birth, life and death.

An hour before the ceremony began, one of the Muslims who guard the church entered the tomb to extinguish the 43 silver lamps hanging over the crypt. (Greeks, Armenians and Catholics each possess 13 lamps; the Copts have 4.) When the guard came out, the door was shut behind him and sealed with wax.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a disappointment to those who enter it for the first time. The place where Christ was buried ought to look no less grand than St. Peter’s in Rome. What few know is that this building owes less to the final scene of Christ’s agony than to the tormented history of Christian Jerusalem.

In the early fourth century, Empress Helena journeyed to Palestine and, guided by the Holy Spirit, discovered the sites of the true cross and the tomb of Christ. Afterwards her son Constantine began construction of what turned out to be a splendid Byzantine basilica, a powerful symbol of the adoption of Christian faith by the Roman Imperium. In order that the church could be built, a pagan temple dedicated to Aphrodite was first destroyed. Legend states that the pagans (who continued in number and strength long after Constantine embraced Christianity) had deliberately built their temple over Christ’s tomb to cover any trace of the false god. The Byzantine church, then named in Greek Anastasis (“Resurrection”), was dedicated in 335.

The original Constantinian building was severely damaged in the Persian invasion of 614 and completely destroyed in 1009 by the mad Egyptian Caliph al-Hakim, who, it is said, was angered by the fraudulent Holy Fire ceremony of the Christians. In 1048 the great rotunda that frames the tomb was rebuilt, and 100 years later the Crusaders added their own Romanesque-Gothic church to what the Byzantines had left them, renaming the place “Holy Sepulchre.”

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre stands today as a rude confusion of black and gray stone; a damp, airless sanctuary into which little light enters. On the floor of the Catholic chapel near the tomb, the navel of the world is located -- the point from which God’s justice and love radiate throughout the creation. The church also happens to be the focus of rivalry, where for centuries Greeks, Armenians, Syrians, Catholics, Copts and Ethiopians have battled each other for control of every pillar, altar and lamp.

Normally, whatever the weather outside, one shivers in the church; on this eve of Easter, the press of bodies made faces sweat. Earlier that morning priests had walked about the rotunda incensing away demonic spirits. Patches of sweet-smelling gray smoke still hung in the air, producing a mild feeling of suffocation. One could well imagine something bad happening here. In the past, fainting, fist fights and trampled bodies were common. In 1834, during the Turkish period, local Muslim police on Easter Sunday collected bodies stacked five feet high at the church entrance, near the spot where the Virgin stood during the crucifixion. The apprehension of danger deepened the mystery of the place for me, whetting my appetite for the strange event about to unfold.

Outside in the courtyard it was a hot, cloudless day. On such days the Jerusalem sun is to be feared. The hot, dry chamsin, starting from the Arabian desert, had blown across the Judean waste, baking the stones of the city. The air was filled with yellow dust. The ever-resourceful Cypriot women in the courtyard were sitting on canvas stools, fanning themselves with special “Easter Holy Land” fans and swigging occasionally from plastic Evian bottles. The few old men around took shelter in the shade beside the massive stone foundations of the church. Above them on the rooftops of the surrounding buildings, teen-age Israeli soldiers dangled their legs, staring down vacantly.

The Greek clergy love to stage this spectacle each year. It breaks the tedium of their lives, which consist largely of dusting and polishing the holy places. It also reminds them of a time when they -- the proud descendants of Byzantium -- ruled Jerusalem and the Holy Land.

Promptly at 1:00 P.M., two columns of Greek Orthodox priests, flanking their patriarch, marched 200 yards from the adjacent monastery to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; they were accompanied by Muslim cavasses in the red military dress of the Ottoman Empire. With their long metal canes striking loudly on the stone pavement, the guards announced the solemn procession and cleared a path through the narrow streets crowded with worshipers. Everyone moved rapidly lest a pilgrim numbed by the long night’s vigil, dehydrated by the day’s heat, succumb to ecstatic confusion and reach out to embrace one of the holy fathers. In the past it was a rare procession that reached the church without causing panic.

In three or four minutes the priests passed the great iron door of the church and proceeded to the rotunda where the rose-colored marble edicule that houses the tomb of Christ stands. Soft chanting began as the priests in their green and gold robes commenced the first of three (for the Holy Trinity) circumambulations about the edicule.

In about a quarter-hour the, ritual processions ended, along with the prayerful murmurings of the pilgrims. Every light was put out. The television cameramen were instructed to douse their arc lights; even the tiny red signal lights on the cameras were covered by hand. Darkness thickened the silence. It seemed hard to breathe.

The moment had come. The Greek patriarch stood before the edicule, a massive, bearded man. The gold crown on his head, studded with emeralds and rubies, sparkled in the darkness. Directly above him was the last station of the cross: Golgotha.

Slowly, carefully, priest-attendants removed the crown and stripped away the outer satin robes. Quietly an Armenian bishop slipped up behind the patriarch. The Armenian was a Monophysite, despised by the Greeks for holding the heretical view that Christ was essentially of one (divine) nature. When the patriarch noticed the Armenian, he scowled. Earlier in the day the patriarch had wanted to deny the Armenian the right to accompany him

into the tomb. Bishops from both sides argued heatedly with Israeli government officials, who consulted ancient traditions and upheld the right of the Armenians. Bishops representing the Coptic and Syrian Jacobite churches also have the right to go into the tomb to receive the Holy Fire, but only after the Greek and Armenian have exited. They were standing there at the entrance of the tomb, unsmiling, stolid -- the Copt swarthy, with a round black hat, and the Jacobite looking emaciated, tubercular.

A Franciscan, representing the multitude of Catholic communities in Jerusalem, was also present. He is not allowed to go into the tomb during the ceremony: a punishment, one supposes, for the cruelties practiced by the Crusaders against their Eastern brethren. The 12th century Armenian historian Matthew of Edessa tells us that in 1102 the Holy Fire refused to descend after the Franks had seized the holy places from the local priests and kicked the Greeks out of their monasteries. The newcomers got the point and restored the properties; the fire appeared, a day late.

The seal was broken, the door opened and the patriarch, followed by the Armenian, entered the edicule. After a few minutes of breathless silence a hand appeared from a hole on one side of the edicule holding a torch. The Holy Fire had descended. First a village priest reached forth with his own bundle of white candles (33 in a bundle, to symbolize the years of Christ’s life on earth) to receive the flame. After him an elder of the local Arab Orthodox community took the flame from the patriarch’s torch. In a few seconds another hand and torch stretched from a second hole on the opposite side of the edicule. It was the Armenian’s turn to start the sacred conflagration for his own community. Instantly the flame was passed to Copt and Jacobite, then to the Franciscan. The Arabs and the Cypriot women were busy lighting up the church. Singing began.

The Holy Fire spread rapidly to the entrance door. The bells of the church rang out triumphantly. A young Arab boy, bare-chested, was hoisted on the shoulders of his fellows, and conveyed the flame to worshipers in the courtyard. One candle lit another. Whole sections of the courtyard suddenly came ablaze. The fire rolled in waves across the courtyard. The intense heat, the open fire and the excitement of the crowd forced the soldiers to their feet. They were all standing, mouths open, looking about nervously, not knowing what to do. Everyone had a torch. A few were pressing the flame close to their faces, murmuring prayers, purifying themselves of sin.

In the midst of the crowd I saw a young man without a torch wearing a powder-blue knitted yarmulke. He was standing there, looking on intently. Did he know that one of the hymns formerly sung during the Holy Fire contrasted it with the Jews’ “feast of devils”? But the times have changed. The hymn is no longer sung, and the “sorrowful Jews” have become Israeli state authorities delighted to attend a ceremony they have spent the better part of a month organizing.

The crowd began to move slowly out of the courtyard. The peasant women shielded the flame from bursts of wind. Some took balls of white cotton and scorched them with Holy Fire to rub on arthritic limbs or the foreheads of newborn babies. One woman couldn’t get the burning cotton off her fingertips until a man shook it from her hands. She bent down and scooped the waxy mess into her purse. Others carried tiny lanterns to transfer the precious fire from its source to the village church in Cyprus. They imitate the Russian pilgrims of the past century, who made elaborate preparations to convey the Holy Fire to every corner of their country. On this day the patriarch’s Cadillac limousine was waiting to take the Holy Fire to Bethlehem, where Arab Christians awaited it in the Church of the Nativity.

The ritual of the Holy Fire lasted about an hour. As we made our way through the soul of the Old City to Jaffa Gate, my companion, a super-Sabra who studied mathematics and philosophy at Hebrew University, asked me the inevitable question.

“How do they do it?”
“How do they do what?” I replied.
“How do the Greeks make the fire?”
“The Greeks don’t make it; God does.”
She paused. “You mean the Greeks believe that
God sends the fire?”
“Right.”
“But who really produces the fire? How is it done?”
“I don’t know.”
Exasperated, she pressed me. Don’t give me that. You teach theology. You know how it’s done.”
Another long pause and then I replied, “The patriarch does it with a cigarette lighter.”
She glanced at me with a mildly derisive smile on her face, and said, “You think the people know this?”
“I doubt it. But if they did, it wouldn’t matter to them.”
“Really? Then the miracle is not the lire but their faith.”
“You got it.”

 

Not wanting to drop what is, after all, a legitimate question, later that night I read to Lea a passage from the 11th century Christian writer Abelfaragius. With mixed feelings, Abelfaragius quoted a Muslim detractor of the Easter Eve ritual:

 

. . . When the Christians assembled in their Temple at Jerusalem to celebrate Easter, the chaplains of the Church, making use of a pious fraud, greased the chain of iron that held the lamp over the Tomb with oil of balsam; and . . . when the Arab officer sealed up the door which led to the Tomb, they applied a match, and the fire descended immediately to the wick of the lamp and lighted it. Then the worshipers burst into tears and cried out Kyrie Eleison, supposing it was fire which fell from heaven upon the Tomb; and they were strengthened in their faith.

 

Alone I returned to the church the next day. I am drawn to the ghostly presence which fills a building after the crowd has left it, tempted to search for traces of meaning that remain. I was disappointed. The church was not empty. This church is never empty. There is always too much activity inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Too many tourists, too much talking, milling about. No place to sit down, to think. The ghost must have fled this church years ago.

The Cypriot women were still there. Had they gone another night without sleep? Several were kneeling at the Stone of Unction, a flat, brown slab of marble just inside the entrance of the church. Here Christ’s body was anointed with oil after it was taken down from the cross. For the week’s doings the casing upholding the stone had been filled with specially blessed water. The women were washing themselves with water. One was filling an empty Maccabee Beer bottle, scooping up holy water with her cupped hand and deftly pouring it into the bottle. She handed the half-filled bottle to her friend, who plugged it with cotton and dropped it into an airline bag.

Years ago in divinity school I learned that piety should not be confused with spirituality, inwardness, reflection -- the stuff of which theology is made. Piety is direct and sensuous: seeing fire, kissing stones, touching water. Pilgrimage is born of this piety. For the Cypriot women this was the last journey, the truly sacred journey. Only old people go on pilgrimage -- as a preparation for death. The Russian women who came to Jerusalem in the thousands around 1890 carried long white shrouds with them. They would wear them to bathe in the Jordan; the white shrouds looked to English traveler Stephen Graham “like the awakened dead on the final Resurrection Morning.” From the Jordan the Russians would walk to Jerusalem and, upon receiving the Holy Fire at Saturday noon, would extinguish it with caps that they planned to wear in their coffins.

The Cypriot women I saw were not carrying white shrouds. A few had cheap imitations bought from the merchants on Christian Quarter Road, swatches of cloth with printed Halloween scenes on them. But they were strengthened in faith.


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