After the 40-day Fast, Holy Week and the Glorious Resurrection, we look forward to celebrating the Paschal season of our Lord’s Triumph over death. No longer bound by sin, all mankind has the promise of Life Eternal. It is now up to each of us to grow in Faith. And looking to the wonderful legacy give us by the Holy Church, we turn to celebrating the ‘Fifty Days of Sundays’, that is the time from now to Pentecost. It was at the Council of Nicaea, the Church formally determined that Pascha should always be observed on a Sunday, that determination necessarily affected the final day of Pentecost. Thus, beginning and ending on a Sunday, the whole fifty days of Pentecost began to take on some of characteristics associated with Sunday, the day of the Lord’s Resurrection.
This adjustment involved two disciplines in particular: the fast days and the posture of prayer. First, because the entire fifty days of the Paschal season was a celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection, Christians began to observe that interval as a non-fasting period. That is to say, from the fourth century on, Christians started to omit the traditional observance of Wednesdays and Fridays as fast days; all fifty days were fast-free. St. Ambrose, in his commentary on the Gospel of Luke, explained:
“During these fifty days the Church knows no fasting, just as on Sunday, because all these days are like Sundays.”
Second, Christians of the late fourth century began to stand to pray, all through the fifty days of the Paschal season, exactly as on Sundays. St. Basil had made the point earlier, in his treatise On the Holy Spirit:
“We pray standing on the first day of the week, but not all of us know the reason. On the day of the Resurrection we remind ourselves of the grace given to us by standing at prayer, not only because we are risen with Christ and are bound to seek those things which are above, but also because that day seems to us to be, in some way, an icon of the age which we look for.”
The video below chronicles the struggle of a film crew to gain entrance to the Holy Sepulcher, and records the miracle and scenes from the Paschal (Passover) Resurrection Service at the Holy Sepulcher.
What is the Miracle of the Holy Fire? When and where does it occur?
The ceremony, which awes the souls of Christians, takes place in the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem. The Holy Fire is the most renowned miracle in the world of Orthodox Christianity. It 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. No other miracle is known to occur so regularly and so steadily over time. It happens in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the holiest place on earth, where Christ was crucified, entombed, and where He finally rose from the dead.
In order to be as close to the Sepulchre as possible, pilgrims camp next to it. The Sepulchre is located in the small chapel called Holy Ciborium, which is inside the Church of the Resurrection. Typically they wait from the afternoon of Holy Friday in anticipation of the miracle on Holy Saturday.
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 silence. A tense silence, charged from 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 a custom to enter the tomb, and to check for any hidden source of fire, which would make a fraud of the miracle.
How the Miracle Occurs
From the narration of Patriarch Diodor:
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. 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.
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 shining brightly in the darkness, a roar of jubilee resounds in the Church.
The Holy Light is not only distributed by the Archbishop, but operates also by itself. It is emitted from the Holy Sepulchre with a hue completely different from that of natural light.
It sparkles, it flashes like lightning, it flies like a dove around the tabernacle of the Holy Sepulchre, and lights up the unlit lamps of olive oil hanging in front of it. It whirls from one side of the church to the other. It enters some of the chapels inside the church, as for instance the chapel of the Calvery (at a higher level than the Holy Sepulchre) and lights up the little lamps.
It lights up also the candles of certain pilgrims. In fact there are some very pious pilgrims who, every time they attended this ceremony, noticed that their candles lit up on their own accord!his divine light also presents some peculiarities: As soon as it appears it has a bluish hue and does not burn.
At the first moments of its appearance, if it touches the face, or the mouth, or the hands, it does not burn. This is proof of its divine and supernatural origin. We must also take into consideration that the Holy Light appears only by the invocation of an Orthodox Archbishop.
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 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, and for everyone having attended the ceremony, there is always a “before and after” the miracle of the Holy Fire in Jerusalem.
How Old is the Wonder?
The first written account of the Holy Fire (Holy Light) dates from the fourth century, but authors write about events that occurred in the first century. So St. 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.”
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, at which point the miracle occurs. Light proceeds from the core of the stone – a blue, indefinable light which after some time kindles unlit oil lamps as well as the Patriarch’s 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 A.D. 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.
Every time heterodox have tried to obtain the Holy Fire they have failed. Three such attempts are known. Two occurred in the twelfth century when priests of the Roman church tried to force out the Orthodox church but by their own confession these ended with God’s punishment.
But the most miraculous event occured in the year 1579, the year when God clearly testified to whom alone may be given His miracle.
Once the Armenians paid the Turks, who then occupied the Holy Land, in order to obtain permission for their Patriarch to enter the Holy Sepulchre, the Orthodox Patriarch was standing sorrowfully with his flock at the exit of the church, near the left column, when the Holy Light split this column vertically and flashed 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. This event took place in 1579 under Sultan Mourad IV, when the Patriarch of Jerusalem was Sophrony IV.
The split column still exists. It dates from the twelfth century. The Orthodox pilgrims embrace it at the “place of the split” as they enter the church.
Turkish warriors stood on the wall of a building close to the gate and lightning-struck column . When he saw this striking miracle he cried that Christ is truly God and leaped down from a height of about ten meters. But he was not killed-the stones under him became as soft as wax and his footprint was left upon them. The Turks tried to scrape away these prints but they could not destroy them; so they remain as witnesses.
He was burned by the Turks near the Church. His remains, gathered by the Greeks, lay in the monastery of Panagia until the 19th century flowing myrhh.
Muslims, who deny the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ, tried to put obstacles in the way of the miracle. Well known Muslim historian Al Biruni wrote: “… a (Muslim) governor brought a copper wire instead of a wick (for the self lighting oil lamps), in order that it wouldn’t ignite and the whole thing would fail to occur. But as the fire descended, the copper burned.”
This was not the only attempt. The report written by the English chronicler, Gautier Vinisauf, describes what happened in the year 1192.
In 1187, the Saracens under the direction of Sultan Salah ad-Din took Jerusalem. In that year, the Sultan desired to be present at the celebration, even though he was not a Christian. Gautier Vinisauf tells us what happened: “On his arrival, the celestial fire descended suddenly, and the assistants were deeply moved…the Saracens… said that the fire which they had seen to come down was produced by fraudulent means.
Salah ad-Din, wishing to expose the imposter, caused the lamp, which the fire from Heaven had lighted, to be extinguished, but the lamp relit immediately. He caused it to be extinguished a second time and a third time, but it relit as of itself. Thereupon, the Sultan, confounded, cried out in prophetic transport: “Yes, soon shall I die, or I shall lose Jerusalem.”
A Miracle Unknown in the West
One can ask the question of why the miracle of the Holy Fire is almost unknown in Western Europe?
In Protestant areas it may, to a certain extent, be explained by the fact that there is no real tradition of miracles; people don’t really know in which box to place the miracles, and they rarely feature in newspapers. But in the Catholic tradition there is vast interest in miracles. Thus, why is it not more well known?
For this only one explanation suffices: Church politics. Only the Orthodox Churches attend the ceremony which is centered on the miracle. It only occurs on the Orthodox date of Easter and without the presence of any Catholic authorities.
Is the Miracle Authentic?
As with any other miracle there are people who believe it is a 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 confirmed that they had checked the tomb and found no light inside it.
The best 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.
Holy Light (Holy Fire) in Jerusalem: Proofs and Testimonies. This video is a documentary featuring an interview with a priest and pilgrim testimonies. (In Greek with English subtitles.)
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 receive 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 commotion. A big candle, held in the hand of the Russian nun, takes fire in front of all the 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.
We welcome all to come and celebrate the work of Salvation that culminates in the Resurrection of Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. In the Orthodox Church the last week of Christ’s life is officially called Passion Week. In popular terminology, it is called Holy Week. Each day is designated in the service books as “Great and Holy”, with special services every day of the week for the faithful as they “go up with the Lord to Jerusalem” (Matins of Great and Holy Monday). His institution of the Last Supper, His Passion in the Garden, the Betrayal, Scourging, the end of His Earthly Life on the Cross, His Burial and the Lamentations become the focus of our worship, prayer and contemplation during the Divine Services offered in anticipation of the Rising of Christ. All turns to joy, as we begin the Midnight Office in the dark, then candle light procession follows as we visit His Empty Tomb and a world illuminated by the Uncreated Light of His Life-giving Resurrection – the Holy and Glorious PASCHA of our Lord!!
Following is a short summary of the meaning of the services, with a schedule so you can plan your week and hopefully attend as many as possible.
Schedule of Services & Their Meaning
March 31, 8:00 am – Matins, followed by 9:30 am – Divine Liturgy of Lazarus Saturday
On this day, the rising from the dead of St. Lazarus, the righteous friend of Christ, is celebrated. Lazarus Saturday is a Paschal celebration. It is the only time in the entire Church Year that the Resurrectional Service of Sunday is celebrated on another day. At the liturgy of Lazarus Saturday, the Church glorifies Christ as “the Resurrection and the Life” who, by raising Lazarus, has confirmed the universal resurrection of mankind even before his own suffering and death.
March 31, 6:00 pm – Saturday Evening Great Vespers of Palm Sunday April 1, 8:30 am – Matins, with Blessing of the Palms (9:45 am)
At the vigil of the feast of Palm Sunday the prophecies of the Old Testament about the Messiah-King are read together with the Gospel accounts of the entry of Christ into Jerusalem. At Matins branches are blessed which the people carry throughout the celebration as the sign of their own glorification of Jesus as Savior and King.
April 1, 10:00 am – Palm Sunday Divine Liturgy
Because of the resurrection of Lazarus from the dead, Christ was hailed by the masses as the long-expected Messiah-King of Israel. Thus, in fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament, He entered Jerusalem, the City of the King, riding on the colt of an ass (Zech 9.9; Jn 12.12). The crowds greeted Him with branches in their hands and called out to Him with shouts of praise: Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! The Son of David! The King of Israel! Because of this glorification by the people, the priests and scribes were finally driven “to destroy Him, to put Him to death” (Lk 19.47; Jn 11.53, 12.10).
April 1, 6:00 pm – Holy Sunday Evening Bridegroom Matins
“ . . men loved darkness rather than light” The services of Holy Week begin with three days devoted to the final discourses of Christ, speaking with clarity of the end of the age. Two themes, Darkness brings Judgment, are combined in the Troparia of these three days that begin with: “Behold, the Bride Groom cometh, in the middle of the night . . . “, proclaiming that the nighttime, or darkness of “the world”, is the time for Christians to keep vigil, to watch and pray.
April 2, 6:30 pm – Holy Monday Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts / Bridegroom Matins
The theme for Monday is that of the sterile fig tree which yields no fruit and is condemned.
April 3, 6:30 pm – Holy Tuesday Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts / Bridegroom Matins
On Tuesday the accent is on the vigilance of the wise virgins who, unlike their foolish sisters, were ready when the Lord came to them.
April 4, 6:30 pm – Holy Wednesday Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts / Bridegroom Matins
Wednesday the focus is on the fallen woman who repents. Great emphasis is made in the liturgical services to compare the woman, a sinful harlot who is saved, to Judas, a chosen apostle who is lost. The one gives her wealth to Christ and kisses his feet; the other betrays Christ for money with a kiss.
April 5, 2:00 pm – Holy Thursday Institution of the Eucharist, Vesperal Liturgy of St Basil
“Do this in remembrance of Me…….” The Last Supper was the Passover Supper which Christ celebrated with his twelve apostles. The main theme of the day is the meal itself at which Christ commanded that the Passover of the New Covenant be eaten in remembrance of himself, of his body broken and his blood shed for the remission of sins. In addition, Judas’ betrayal and Christ’s washing of his disciples’ feet is also central to the liturgical commemoration of the day.
April 5, 6:30 pm – Holy Thursday Evening Matins, The Holy and Redeeming Passion of our Lord with the Reading of the 12 Passion Gospels
“We worship Thy passion, O Christ……” Good Friday celebrates the holy, saving and awesome Passion of Christ at which the twelve Passion Gospels are read. To take away our sins, Christ willingly endured the spittings, scourgings, buffetings, scorn, mocking and the purple robe; the reed, sponge, vinegar, nails, spear and, above all, the Cross and Death. The confession from the cross of the penitent thief, crucified with Christ, is celebrated. This content of the service is dramatic and deeply moving for the devout Christian. Participation in the prayers and the historical sequence of the events, as related in the Gospels and hymns, provides a vivid foundation for the great events yet to come.
April 6, 9:00 am – Holy Friday Morning Royal Hours
“They cast lots upon my vesture…….” According to the Hebrew custom, the “Royal Hours”, four in number, are read at this time. These services consist of hymns, psalms, and readings from the Old and New Testaments, all related prophetically and ethically to the Person of Christ. The entire day is a strict day of fasting from all foods and drink, as we remember the events of his Crucifixion, Death and Burial.
April 6, 4:00 pm – Holy Friday Afternoon Taking down from the Cross
“Father forgive them for they know not what they do…….” During this service, the removal of the Body of Christ from the Cross is commemorated with a sense of mourning for the terrible events which took place. Once more, excerpts from the Old Testament are read together with hymns, and again the entire story is related, followed by the removal from the Cross and the wrapping of the Body of Christ with a white sheet as did Joseph of Arimathea. As the priest reads the Gospel, “and taking the body, Joseph wrapped it in a white cloth”, he removes the Body of Christ from the Cross, wraps It in a white cloth and takes It to the altar. Good Friday is the only day in the year on which the Divine Liturgy is not officiated.
April 6, 7:00 pm – Holy Friday Evening Matins, The Lamentations
“Do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves”. It consists of psalms, hymns and readings, dealing with the death of Christ, in contrast to His divinity, and in expectation of His Resurrection. The thoughtful, and well-written Odes compare the Compassion of God and the cruelty of man; the Might of God and the moral weakness of man. The Odes picture all Creation trembling when witnessing its Creator hung by His own creatures: “Creation was moved . . . with intense astonishment when it beheld Thee hung in Golgotha”. During this service the Body of Christ is carried in procession around the church. There is a simultaneous praise of both the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ with their purpose of the redemption of man. We no longer lament the sufferings of the Crucified One; we now lament chiefly for our own sins because we are far from God. So these services should have a rather personal meaning of repentance and of strong faith in God. Christians observe Good Friday with strict fasting, prayer, cleanliness, self-examination, confession and good works, in humility and, repentance so that the Grace of the Cross might descend upon them.
April 7, 11:15 pm – Holy Saturday Midnight Office
The faithful gather in the darkened church building, in anticipation of the midnight hour in when the celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ begins. Hearing the divine service of the Midnight Office of Holy Pascha, we stand in silence to prepare ourselves for the journey to the Tomb of Life, and the coming Light of His Resurrection.
April 8, 12:00 am – Great & Holy PASCHA: Matins, Divine Liturgy & Blessing of Pascha Baskets, followed by Pascha Feast
On Pascha Sunday (soon after Saturday, midnight) the life-giving Resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is celebrated. The priest takes light from the vigil light and gives it to the faithful, who are holding candles. The priest sings: “Come ye and receive light from the unwaning life, and. glorify Christ, who arose from the dead”, and all the people join him in singing this hymn again and again. From this moment, every Christian holds the Paschal candle as a symbol of his vivid, deep faith in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ as Savior. Then comes the breathless moment as the people wait for the priest to start the hymn of Resurrection, which they join him in singing, repeatedly: “Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by Death, and upon the tombs bestowing Life”! From this moment the entire service takes on a joyous Pascha atmosphere. The hymns of the Odes and Praises of Resurrection which follow are of superb meaning and expression. The people confess, “It is the Day of Resurrection, let us be glorious, let us embrace one another and speak to those that hate us; let us forgive all things and so let us cry, Christ has arisen from the dead”. The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is then celebrated.
April 8, 2:00 pm – Agape Vespers of Great & Holy PASCHA, followed by Paschal Feast
“Peace be unto you……..”. Pascha Sunday afternoon the faithful gather once more for prayer with lighted candles. All sing the hymn, “Christ is Risen from the Dead”. The people greet one another joyously, saying: “Christ is Risen”, the Pascha salutation which is answered, “Truly He is Risen”. They sing, “the dark shadows of the Law has passed away by the coming of grace”, and standing in exaltation they exclaim, “Who is so great a God as our God?”.
Thus begins Bright Week, free of fasting, with the Royal Doors open wide in celebration of the empty Tomb from now until Thomas Sunday.