B ishop Auxentios of Photiki. The Paschal Fire in Jerusalem: A Study of the Rite of the Holy Fire in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Berkeley, California, 1999.
For the Eastern Christian, the miracle of the Resurrection goes beyond the splendor of the Paschal liturgical cycle and the inspiring imagery of the hymnographic corpus of Great [Holy] Week and the Paschaltide. The festal greeting "Christos Aneste!" -"Christ is Risen!"- takes the Faithful back to the cave of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where, Orthodox and other Eastern Christians believe, the eternal Pascha manifests itself in the phenomenon of the Holy Fire. This manifestation of light or "fire" from the tomb of Christ, commemorating His triumph over death, takes place yearly during the Paschal vigil on Great [Holy] Saturday. As the oldest "custodians" of the Holy Fire and the chief celebrants in the service which surrounds its manifestation, Greek Orthodox Christians, especially, count this event as one of the greatest miracles of Christianity. The Latin Churches have variously reacted to it. Among the few reformed Christians who know of it, the manifestation is usually considered religious legerdemain, the piety surrounding it preposterous.
If modern reactions to the Holy Fire are varied, this variation attaches to a complex history of the phenomenon - one not always easy to decipher. The controversy surrounding the issue and the fiery polemics of those who have written about it over the centuries have not yet yielded to a comprehensive or objective survey of the data. (1) Indeed, an historiographical treatment of materials about the Holy Fire yields the kind of crude categorization that one would associate with a fairly new piece of historical evidence, not something as old as this phenomenon. Our goals in this brief overview of the yearly miracle in the cave of the Holy Sepulchre, then, are necessarily limited in scope. Nonetheless, we will attempt to look at the historical data, touching, therein, briefly on matters of historiographical significance, and to address ourselves to the theological implications that arise from these efforts -efforts meant as prolegomena to a possible future study of more exhaustive dimensions.
The Site. Though it has several times appeared outside the confines of the cave of the Holy Sepulchre itself, as we shall see subsequently, the Holy Fire has always been associated with this shrine. The cave is actually now an ornate edicule (koubouklion, in Greek), some twenty by twenty-five feet, that covers the carved stone on which tradition holds that Christ's body was laid. The transformation of the original cave was part of a building project initiated by St. Constantine the Emperor in the fourth century. The edicule erected at that time, along with the other magnificent Churches surrounding the Holy Sepulchre, was demolished by the tragic order of the Caliph al-Hakim in 1009. Rebuilt by the Emperor Monomachos in 1048, and periodically restored in the ensuing centuries, the present edicule has long presented historians with a difficult question: that of its fidelity to the original structure built by St. Constantine. Such fidelity has more often than not been called into question. John Wilkinson's impressive and full survey of the extant historical data, however, leads him to what now seems to be a widely accepted and well established view among contemporary scholars. He concludes that, "closer study of the documents and representations only serves to accentuate that the edicule of modern times is in a far closer continuity with the earliest Cave than has usually been imagined." (2)
One can fairly safely presume, therefore, that the manifestation of the Holy Fire occurs in a place long associated with Christ's Resurrection and in a chamber dating at least to the fourth century.
Historical Sources and Historiographical Comments. The bulk of the historical testimony regarding the Holy Fire is found in two sources: first, references to the Holy Fire in the typica [typika], or liturgical documents recording the order (and, usually, significant rubrics) for services on various days of the liturgical year; and second, the accounts of the phenomenon recorded by visitors and pilgrims to the Holy Land, many of whom travelled to the Christian sacred places to attend services during the Paschal season. Some auxiliary sources, though not extensive, also provide data about the Holy Fire: the lives of Saints and historical chronicles. (3)
We will divide the available testimony into two periods: the somewhat moot and ambiguous material from pre-ninth-century sources and accounts from the ninth and following centuries. These latter materials offer clear descriptions and vivid accounts of the phenomenon of the Holy Fire and the rites attached to it - descriptions and accounts that very much correspond to the phenomenon and rites as they can be observed in Jerusalem today. We will therefore treat of these materials first, so as to provide the reader with a more concrete backdrop against which to evaluate the more difficult earlier data.
The Post-Ninth-Century Witness. Historians seem to agree that the first clear reference (4) to the miracle of the Holy Fire is a ninth-century itinerary by the Western monk Bernard, who witnessed the phenomenon in 870:
Amongst the Churches inside the city there are four of special importance, and their walls adjoin each other. One is on the east, and inside it are Mount Calvary and the place where the Lord's Cross was found; this one is called the "Basilica of Constantine." There is another one on the south and a third on the west; this one [on the west] has the Lord's Sepulchre in the middle of it. Round the sephulchre are nine columns, and the walls between them are made of excellent stone. Four of the nine columns are in front of the actual tomb, and these (with the walls behind them) surround the stone, placed by the tomb, which the angel rolled back, and on which he sat after the Lord had risen. It is unnecessary to write a great deal about this sepulchre because Bede says quite enough about it in his history [of the English Church]. But it is worth saying what happens on Holy Saturday, the Vigil of Easter. In the morning the office begins in this Church. Then, when it is over they go in singing Kyrie eleison till an angel comes and kindles light in the lamps which hang above the sephulcre. The patriarch passes some of this light to the bishops and the rest of the people, and each one has light where he is standing. (5)
Though this account is shorter than those which follow, the few details which it contains are significant. Bernard reports that the Holy Fire descends on the day of the Paschal vigil, Great Saturday, after the completion of the morning office. Further, he observes that the fire is miraculously kindled (by an angel) in the vigil lamps of the sepulchre, during what appears to be a special penitential or supplicatory service specifically focused on the reception of the light. The Holy Fire is then distributed to the other clergy and to the faithful by the Patriarch.
Another brief account of the fire can be found in a letter from Arethas, Metropolitan of Caesarea, in Cappadocia, to the Emir of Damascus. This document dates to the beginning of the tenth century:
...Every year until now on the day of His holy Resurrection His holy and precious tomb works miracles.... [All lights in Jerusalem having been extinguished, and] ...with the door [of the Holy Sepulchre] being sealed ...and the Christians standing outside it in the nave of the Anastasis [the rotunda Church that housed the edicule] crying Kyrie eleison, there being a sudden flash the lamp alights, and again all the inhabitants [of] Jersualem take from this light and light [their] flame.(6)
It is important to note that the author of this account emphasizes that the manifestation of the Holy Fire has a continuous history, taking place "every year." The sealing of the tomb and the brilliant flash that accompanies the kindling of the light are also details that we should note with care.
In the year 947, a cleric of the imperial court of Constantine VII Porphyrigenitu[o]s, a certain Niketas, sent a letter to the emperor recounting the attempt of an enraged amir to put an end to the rite of the Holy Fire. This letter provides rich data about the fire. The amir had demanded the outright termination of all future celebrations on Great Saturday, "since," as Niketas reports the amir's demand to the Patriarch of Jerusalem, "in performing your celebrated miracle with magic artices, you have filled all of Syria with the religion of the Christians and you have all but destroyed all of our customs; you have made of it a 'Romania.'" (7)
Thwarted in his first attempt to stop the celebration by the clever response of the Patriarch's supporters - that a cessation of Paschal celebration in Jerusalem would jeopardize the hefty revenues collected by the Islamic authorities -, the amir concocted another scheme to end the ritual. Niketas continues his report to the emperor:
[The amir] ...demanded of the Patriarch, under the threat of prohibiting the popular feast of the Resurrection of Christ, a payment of 7,000 gold pieces. This payment would not have been made except for an immediate disbursement by the secretaries of 2,000 gold pieces with a guarantee of the remaining 5,000. While the patriarch was being held in custody in the Pretorium, the God of miracles filled two of the lamps of the triple lamp suspended at the place where they said the body of Christ was taken down from the cross to be washed. When the news of the wonder came to the Pretorium, Christians and Muslims ran pell-mell to the church. But the Muslims came filled with bloody thoughts and murderous designs, armed and ready to slay every Christian carrying a lighted lamp. The Patriarch arrived, followed by the clergy, and having determined that the illumination of the sacred fire had not yet taken place, with the help of the Muslims had the Holy Sepulcher closed and began to pray with the Christians. Toward the sixth hour, fixing his gaze on the Holy Sepulcher, he saw the supernatural appearance of the light. He entered the Holy Sepulcher whose entrance was shown to him by an angel. At the moment when he took a taper to give of the divine fire to all of those in the church who had torches, scarcely had he come out of the tomb, when he saw the church suddenly filled with a divine light. The faithful were standing on the right and the left, some near the door, some by Calvary, others near the cruciform chain suspended from the ceiling and all around which they had hung their lamps, the chain, that is, which passes for representing the center of the world and which is there as a sign, so that all men might be astonished at the apparition of the divine fire. The Muslims themselves were filled with astonishment since up to that point the apparition of the light annually occurred only at one of the lamps inside the Holy Sepulcher, while on this day the entire church was filled with light. The amir, who was looking on from above on one of the tribunes, was witness to an even greater miracle. The largest of the lamps suspended in front of him let escape the oil and water which it contained and was suddenly filled with a divine fire even though it had no wick at all. (8)
The tomb sealed with Muslim collaboration, the Holy Fire apparently appeared around noon, according to this source, the Church having become filled with a divine light in anticipation of the Patriarch's distribution of the fire from within the tomb. We learn that "the apparition of this light annually occurred at only one of the lamps inside the Holy Sepulcher," as reported in other sources. And finally, Neketas asserts that the light manifested throughout the Church exhibited the same miraculous properties attributed to the light within the tomb, sustaining itself, before the amir, without benefit of oil or wicks.
A Moslem source, al-Biruni, writing in the early eleventh century and drawing on a tenth-century source, SEND INFORMATION further testimony about attempted interventions of the Islamic in the ritual and to their frustration at the supernatural characteristics of the Holy Fire. He also contends that the particular time of the descent of the Holy Fire - which was unpredictable - presaged, according to popular lore, events during the following year. His testimony, coming as it does from an unsympathetic if not hostile witness, affords definite corroboration of Neketas' claim, in the foregoing passage, that the annual miracle in the tomb enjoyed widespread popularity even within the Moslem community. More importantly, it represents an objective report of the phenomenon from a non-Christian source with little or no reason to believe in such a phenomenon. The passage is from al-Biruni's work on the festivals of the various religious populations in the Islamic world.
A story is told in connection with the Saturday of the Resurrection that astonishes the investigator of the physical sciences and whose basis is impossible to uncover. If it were not for the agreement on the phenomenon of persons with differing views who report that it is based on eyewitness testimony and has been perpetuated by excellent scholars and other people in their books, one would give it no credence. I have learned of it in books and heard of it from al-Faraj ibn Salih of Baghdad.... A report is made on the subject which is sent to the capital of the caliphs as soon as the fire has descended. They say that if the fire comes down quickly and at a time close to midday, that presages a fertile year and that, on the contrary, the occurrence is delayed until the evening or afterwards, that that presages a year of famine. The one who told me of this said that some of the [Muslim] authorities had the wick of the lamp replaced by a copper wire to the end that it would not take light and the ceremony thus be disrupted. But when the fire descended and it was lit nonetheless. (9)
We should draw attention, here, to the fact that it was also in the early eleventh century that al-Hakim destroyed the entire complex of Golgotha. At least for the Syrian historian Ibn al-Qalanisi, who in the mid-twelfth century wrote the most detailed account of al-Hakim's actions, the destruction was indeed the direct result of the caliph's reaction to reports of the manifestation of the Holy Fire in Jerusalem. (10) The extreme violence of al Hakim's campaign attests to the fact that his intentions were not merely political, and it well may be that the widespread popularity of and belief in the annual miracle of the Holy Fire provoked in him a fit of religious intolerance and destructive fury. Certainly the sources which we have cited evidence popular interest in the phenomenon during his time.
The next significant witness to the Holy Fire is the Russian abbot Daniel, who visited the Holy Land from 1106-1107. He describes the descent of the Holy Fire as it was celebrated during the first decade of the Crusader hegemony over the Holy Land. The secular authority in charge is now a Latin monarch, King Baldwin.
The following is a description of the Holy Light which descends upon the Holy Sepulcher.... Many pilgrims relate incorrectly the details about the Holy Light. Some say that the Holy Spirit descends upon the Holy Sepulcher in the form of a dove; others that it is lightning from heaven that kindles the lamps above the Sepulcher of the Lord. This is all untrue for neither dove nor lightning is to be seen at that moment; but the divine grace comes down unseen from heaven and lights the lamps in the Sepulcher of our Lord. I will only describe it in perfect truth as I have seen it.
On Holy Friday, after Vespers, they clean the Holy Sepulcher and wash all the lamps there and fill them with pure oil, unmixed with water, and having put wicks in them, they do not light them. Seals are put on the tomb at two in the morning and at the same time all the lamps and candles are extinguished in all the churches of Jerusalem....
I went joyfully to buy a large glass lamp, and ...I brought it to the Holy Sepulcher toward evening.... The guardian opened the door for me, told me to take off my shoes, and with bare feet, alone with my lamp, which I was carrying, he let me enter the Holy Sepulcher and bade me put the lamp down on the Tomb of the Lord. I did so. ...The lamp of the Greeks was placed toward the head and that of St. Sabas and the other monasteries near the breast, since this was the annual custom. By the Grace of God, all three of these lamps were subsequently lit, while none of the lamps of the Franks, which were suspended above the tomb, was lit.
After I had put my lamp on the Holy Tomb and venerated this holy place with kisses of compunction and the tears of piety, I left the Holy Tomb with great excitement and retired to my cell. The next day, at the sixth hour of Holy Saturday, everyone assembles at the Church of the Resurrection, people from everywhere, ...in numbers that are difficult to estimate. The crowd filled the space around the church, [and] ...only the priests were inside, and everyone, clergy and laity, awaited the arrival of the prince and his court.
When they arrived, the doors were opened and the crowd rushed in, jostling and elbowing each other in terrible fashion and filled the entire church and its galleries. ...A large number were left outside. ...People were everywhere, and all they could cry was 'Lord, have mercy on us,' and the cry was so powerful that the whole building shook with it. The faithful wept torrents of tears. ...Even Prince Baldwin had a contrite and humble countenance. Torrents of tears rolled from his eyes, and his courtiers, who surrounded him, stood in great recollection near the main altar before the Tomb.
Earlier, about the seventh hour of Saturday, Prince Baldwin had left his residence.... I went with him. ...We reached the western door of the Church of the Resurrection, but the crowd was massed so tightly that we could not enter. Then Baldwin ordered his soldiers to disperse the crowd and open a passage. So they did and made a path to the Tomb, and that is how we got through the crowd.
We reached the eastern entrance of the Holy Sepulcher of the Lord, and the prince, following after took his place. ...The prince ordered ...me to go ...above the doors of the Holy Sepulcher, opposite the great altar, so that I could see past the doors of the Tomb, three of them, all sealed with the royal seal. As for the Latin clergy, they remained at the great altar.
At the eighth hour, the orthodox clergy, which was above the Holy Sepulcher, together with all the other clerics, monks, and hermits, began to chant vespers; on their side, the Latin clergy muttered along in their peculiar fashion. While this chanting was in progress, I stood in my place and kept my gaze on the doors of the Tomb. When the chanting reached the lections for Holy Saturday, the bishop [the Latin patriarch], followed by the deacon, left the great altar during the initial lesson and approached the doors, looked through the grillwork into the interior, and when he did not see the light, returned to his place. He returned at the sixth lesson and still saw nothing. Then everyone began to cry out 'Kyrie, eleison,' which means "Lord, have mercy." At the end of the ninth hour, when they began to sing the passage 'Cantabo Domino,' a small cloud coming from the east suddenly came to rest over the open dome of the church and a light rain fell upon the Holy Sepulcher, and upon us who were above the Tomb. It was then that the Holy Light suddenly illumined the Holy Sepulcher, stunningly bright and splendid. The bishop, followed by four deacons, then opened the doors of the Holy Sepulcher and went with the candle he had taken from Prince Baldwin, the first to be lit from this Holy Fire. ...It was from the prince's candle that we lit ours, which were then used to pass the fire to the rest of the people in the church.
This Holy Fire is not like an ordinary flame but burns in a quite extraordinary way and with an indescribable brightness and with a red color the likes of cinnamon. Thus all the people then stood with lit candles in their hands and repeated loudly and with excitement, 'Lord, have mercy on us.' ...Someone who has not shared in the excitement of that day cannot possibly believe that all that I saw is true. Only the truly wise and believing who being of full faith to the truth of this narrative will hear with delight the details of the event. Even the lukewarm will be somewhat moved, but to the evil man and the doubter, the truth always seems distorted.
But let us return to where I digressed. Scarcely had the light shone out in the Holy Sephulcher than the chanting ceased and the whole crowd, crying 'Kyrie, eleison' and cupping the candles in their hand against the draft ran out of the church in great excitement. Everyone went back to his own place and with his candle lit the lamps of the churches and completed vespers there, while only the clergy stayed behind and finished vespers in the great church of the Holy Sepulcher.... (11)
There are many noteworthy points in this passage. First, Abbot Daniel reports accounts of the miracle of Great Saturday, suggesting different actual experiences of the event (the descent of a dove, a flash of light, an angel, a hand like fire, etc.). (12) The abbot gives no specific significance to the small cloud and light rain which he saw just before the appearance of the Holy Fire, but it is an interesting and unusual addition to the phenomena reported in other accounts. A spirit of contrition is again clearly present in the rite, manifested not only in the chanting, but in the heartfelt expressions of piety among the believers. And while the Holy Fire does manage to come before the end of the vesperal readings, the behavior of the clergy evidences their familiarity with its irregularity. (13) Finally, the abbot takes note of the "quite extraordinary way" that the fire burns, as well as its unusual brightness and color.
Up to this point, we have looked at very much the same materials on the Holy Fire cited by F.E. Peters, author of a contemporary comprehensive history of Jerusalem from eye-witness sources. Though his interests in the phenomenon are admittedly not as specific as ours, it is significant that he adds to the foregoing accounts of the Holy Fire only the testimony of highly critical western observers from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries. This selective choice of materials suggests a bias more clearly apparent in Peter's introductory reference to the Holy Fire as, "...the remarkable annual miracle called 'the Descent of the Holy Fire,' an act that dazzled - and later appalled - Christian visitors to the Holy Sepulcher down to the twentieth century." (15) The footnote to this very sentence, in fact, reads: "For the demise [emphasis added] of this 'miracle,' see Chapter...." (16) Perhaps because of his biased attitude toward the Holy Fire, Peters ignores the rich accounts of Christian visitors to the Holy Sepulchre from the twelfth century onwards, who left records of their "dazzlement" at the spectacle. We turn, then, to these important materials, many of them found in an interesting article on the Holy Fire by an early twentieth-century Orthodox clergyman, Archimandrite Callistos. (17) They give a much broader base from which to evaluate Peters' unsympathetic modern sources, which we shall consider in turn.
In 1375 the Russian pilgrim Archimandrite Arsenius visited the Holy Places and recorded the following. The Moslems were then in control of Jerusalem, as they had been since 1244.
...According to custom, ...the Patriarch celebrates a litia near the Holy Sepulchre at noon on Great Saturday for the sake of the Holy Fire. The Patriarch came and with him Metropolitan Germanos from Egypt and Bishop Mark of Damascus... and Abbot Stephen from St. Sabbas (Monastery) with all the clergy. They went around the Tomb of the Lord twice and after the third circling there appeared above the Holy Sepulchre a small cloud of smoke. Then they opened the Tomb (the Kuviklion) and the Patriarch went in with the Armenian bishop, for the cave was filled with holy Light and all the lamps which had been extinguished and prepared since Holy Friday were lit. The Patriarch lit candles from the Holy Fire and from the Patriarch the entire church and a mighty cry arose from the entire church at the appearance of the Light. After a short time the candles which everyone keeps as a blessing were put out. Then the Patriarch began the Liturgy of Great Saturday.(18)
The small rain cloud earlier reported by Abbot Daniel is described as a cloud of smoke. The circumambulation is also noteworthy, since it appears in the more modern testimony and in the pre-ninth-century testimony. The service "for the sake of the Holy Fire" appears now to stand independent of the Vespers-Liturgy vigil service.
In the late fifteenth century a certain Paul Walther visited the Holy Places. While clearly a disbeliever in the "error" of the Holy Fire, he nonetheless recorded some important details. What follows is Meinardus' summary of Walther's account:
In 148l, it was the custom to have the doors of the Church of the Resurrection opened by Muslims, and three priests or bishops entered the Sepulchre of Christ. One was from the Greeks, the other from the Armenians and the third one from the Ethiopians, and they were shut up in the Sepulchre for the time during which one could recite the Placebo, approximately fifteen to twenty minutes. The next thing, which Walther noticed, was an Armenian bishop coming out of the Holy Sepulchre with a burning light, and after all lights were lit, the 'nations' made their procession three times around the Holy Sepulchre. (19)
This is the first time that we have seen celebrants (three, here) closed up inside the Holy Sepulchre to receive the Holy Fire, a practice that has survived in modern times. The procession reportedly followed the descent of the holy spirit, whereas it is more commonly portrayed as preceding the descent in other sources.
At the end of the sixteenth century a miraculous event occurred that would prove to be the impetus for a new element in the rite - a triumphant and noisy, albeit somewhat chaotic, commemorative procession by the local (Arabic) Orthodox Christians. Here is a description of the event by Archimandrite Callistos:
In 1580, during the time of the Patriarch of Jerusalem Sophronius, the following most glorious miracle occurred on Great Saturday. The Holy Fire came out of a split (stone) column, which is visible even now next to the doors of the church, for the following reason. The Armenians at that time were ill-disposed towards the Orthodox. They promised to give the governor of Jerusalem a sufficient sum of money so that he would interfere and prevent the Orthodox Patriarch from entering the Church of the Resurrection on Holy and Great Saturday. The governor, out of greed, obeyed and ordered that it be so. Thus only the Armenians, with great glee, entered the church hoping to receive the Holy Fire, while the Orthodox stood with the Patriarch outside in the courtyard and in their sorrow prayed to God with contrite hearts that He might manifest the mercy of His compassion. During their prayer the above-mentioned column split and the Holy Fire came out from it. Seeing this, the Patriarch quickly went up and with reverence lit the candles which were in his hand and distributed the fire to the Orthodox for their sanctification. When they saw the miracle the Mohammedan gate-keepers immediately opened the gates of the church. The Patriarch and the vast multitude with him entered the church singing: 'What God is as great as our God...' and the Liturgy was celebrated. As a consequence of this miracle, one of these gate-keepers of the church loudly confessed Christ to be the Son of God and believed in Him. But his (former) co-believers, when they heard this, waxed wroth and burned him in the sacred courtyard; in this manner he received a martyr's death. (20)
Thus, to this day the local Arab Orthodox Christians commemorate this miracle with a tumultuous procession, proclaiming the victory of their religion over those who would have stolen the Holy Fire from its rightful custodians. Here is a description of their uninhibited display by monk Parthenius, a Russian pilgrim to the Holy Land in 1845:
...There was a noise and the Arabs started shouting in their strange tongue; about fifty men joined hands and stood on one another's shoulders three-high and raised their hands to heaven and all began shouting. They began to run around the Sepulchre of Christ and then around the whole church.... I asked those of them that understood Russian, 'What are they saying?' They told me that they were praising the one Orthodox faith, but were reviling the other confessions as being false and soul-destroying.... If someone beat them, they would not worry, but would continue their task. When they ran around the Grave of Christ and the Church of the Resurrection they kept saying just one thing, and we found out that this is what they were saying: 'One is God, Jesus Christ! One is the faith of the Orthodox Christians!' (21)
Needless to say, one's perception of such a procession is strongly influenced by personal religious allegiances, so that the event is variously characterized in modern sources as everything from a pagan event to a quaint expression of piety.
Archimandrite Callistos cites another passage which, while brief, contains a fascinating description of the fire. The author is Archbishop Gabriel of Nazareth, who had gone to Russia to collect funds for his work in the Holy Land. The work from which the description is taken, A Guide to the Holy and God-visited Places in the Holy City, was published in Moscow in 1650 and became a popular source for pious reading among the Russian Faithful.
On Great Saturday the Turks come early and put out all the lamps in the church and, locking the doors of the Holy Sepulchre, they seal it and, sitting at the doors, keep guard. The faithful pray to the Lord with tears, calling for help from on high. At the ninth hour of the day the Patriarch vests with all the clergy, and they celebrate a litany three times around the Holy Sepulchre. At that moment the Turks open the doors of the Kuvuklion and the Patriarch goes in and receives the Fire from the Tomb like flames of dew and gives it out to the faithful. Then the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great is celebrated. (22)
The descriptive image, "flames of dew," brings together once again elements of fire and water (recall the cloud and rain in Abbot Daniel's foregoing account), and will be echoed in subsequent testimony.
Let us now return to Peters and his remaining post-ninth-century sources, which, as we have noted, fail to include the important corpus of data from which we have drawn our citations above. The first of Peters' sources is the English chaplain Henry Maundrell, who visited Jerusalem in l696 and who was, according to Peters, a prime example of the "new learning" exemplified by the recently founded (1660) Royal Society: "He [Maundrell] saw his own time as one in which men, 'having removed the rubbish of ages' and liberated themselves from 'the charms of vain apparitions,' could by investigation and experiment finally reach the truth, since now 'every man is unshaken at those tales at which his ancestors trembled: the course of things goes quickly along, in its own true channel of causes and effects.'" (23) Considering his orientation, his sometimes mocking remarks on the Holy Fire are hardly surprising.
They began their disorders by running round the Holy Sepulcher with all their might and swiftness, crying out as they went Huia! which signifies [in Arabic] 'This is he' or 'This is it,' an expression by which they assert the verity of the Christian religion. After they had by these vertiginous circulations and clamors turned their heads and inflamed their madness, they began to act the most antic tricks and postures, in a thousand shapes of distraction. Sometimes they dragged one another along the floor all round the sepulcher; sometimes they set one man upright on another's shoulders and in this posture marched round; sometimes they took men with their heels upward and hurried them about in such an indecent manner as to expose their nudities; sometimes they tumbled about the sepulcher after the manner of tumblers on the stage.
In this tumultuous frantic humor they continued from twelve to four of the clock. The reason for this delay was because of a suit that was in debate before the [Muslim] chief justice between the Greeks and the Armenians; the former endeavoring to exclude the latter from having any part in this miracle. Both parties having expended, as I was informed, 5,000 dollars between them in this foolish controversy, the judge at last gave sentence that they should enter the Holy Sepulcher together, as had been usual at former times. Sentence being thus given, at four of the clock both nations went on with their ceremony....Toward the end of the procession a pigeon came fluttering into the cupola over the sepulcher, at sight of which there was a greater shout and clamor than before. This bird, the Latins told us, was purposely let fly by the Greeks to deceive the people into an opinion that it was a visible descent of the Holy Ghost.
Next the Greek and Armenian Patriarchs were allowed into the tomb, where all the lamps had been extinguished, and the doors were sealed behind them by the Turks.
The two miracle mongers had not been alone a minute in the Holy Sepulcher when the glimmering of the Holy Fire was seen, or imagined to appear, through some chinks of the door. And certainly Bedlam itself never saw such an unruly transport as was produced in the mob at this sight. Immediately after out came the two priests with blazing torches in their hands, which they held up at the door of the sepulcher, while the people thronged about with inexpressible ardor, everyone striving to obtain a part of the first and purest flame. The Turks in the meantime with huge clubs laid them on without mercy. But all this could not repel them, the excess of their transport making them insensible of pain. Those that got the fire applied it immediately to their beards, faces and bosoms, pretending that it would not burn like an earthly flame. But I plainly saw none of them could endure this experiment long enough to make good that pretension. So many hands being employed, you may be sure it could not be long before innumerable tapers were lighted. The whole church, galleries and every place seemed instantly to be in a flame. And with this illumination the ceremony ended....
It must be owned that those two within the sepulcher performed their part with great quickness and dexterity; but the behavior of the rabble without very much discredited the miracle. The Latins take a great deal of pains to expose this ceremony as a most shameful imposture and a scandal to the Christian religion; perhaps out of envy that others should be masters of so gainful a business. But the Greeks and Armenians pin their faith upon it and make their pilgrimages chiefly upon this motive. And it is the deplorable unhappiness of their priests that having acted the cheat so long already, they are forced now to stand to it for fear of endangering the apostasy of their people. (24)
In this account, the Patriarchs are both once again enclosed in the Holy Sepulchre for the reception of the Holy Fire. We also read new claims with regard to the unearthly nature of the flame -that its application to the face, beard, chest, etc. has no ill effect. And in the comments about the release of a pigeon, the author provides us with a possible explanation of Abbot Daniel's assertion, in an earlier description, that many believed the Great Saturday miracle to involve the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove.
The polemical tone of Maundrell's report demands further treatment. Bearing in mind Maundrell's naive scientism and obvious religious bigotry, the objectivity attributed to him by Peters is at very least open to question. What is not open to question, however, is Peters' lack of fairness in presenting the account in support of supposedly well established evidence, "at least as far as the credulity of Western visitors was concerned," for the falsity of "the now notorious Descent of the Holy Fire." (25) As we have seen from several Russian accounts of the phenomenon, - strikingly absent from Peters' seemingly exhaustive coverage-, Maundrell's assessment is hardly that of other visitors to the Holy Sepulchre. In view of the tone of the greater bulk of available reports, the rite can hardly be called "notorious." Peters by no means provides evidence for such a characterization. Maundrell's world-view was that of a member of the elite class of those able to afford a journey to Jerusalem, and certainly does not necessarily represent that of the common Westerner in his time. Moreover, it was obviously a world-view that had much to gain by exposing (and much to lose by letting stand) the "vain apparitions" at which the ignorant "troubled." Peters is, in fact, justified in saying only that, for various reasons, the Holy Fire had fallen victim to Western polemics in some circles. As for the presumptuous and stuffy pretensions of the Royal Society and her representative in question, leave it to the reader to pass judgment on the worthiness of his polemic - a quick task, indeed.
With regard to Maundrell's snide allusion to Latin polemics against the Orthodox and the Holy Fire, Meinardus, working with pre-Vatican II material, summarizes the prevailing Roman position as follows:
It is generally held that following the Muslim occupation of Jerusalem in 1244, the Latin Church abstained from participating in the Ceremony. The conclusions at which the Catholic Church arrives are that the Holy Fire was a miracle indeed so long as the Catholic Church had control of the Ceremony, but since it fell into the hands of the schismatic Orthodox, it has been nothing but a barefaced trick and imposture. Thus, according to Catholic theory, the work of God degenerated into the sacrilegious work of imposters.(26)
In this ecumenical age, openly polemical views such as the foregoing are bugaboos, and few are willing to keep their company. The Latin position with regard to the Holy Fire, therefore, has been greatly amended. Yet the fact remains that such polemics existed in times past and they undoubtedly tarnish many of the pre-schism pre-Vatican II Latin commentaries on the phenomenon of the Holy Fire. This point must be kept in mind.
Let us look at a few more modern reports testifying to the increasingly negative Western assessment of the phenomenon of the Holy Fire. In 1784 the French skeptic and historian Constantine Volnez visited Jerusalem in the course of his research program in the Near East. His remarks on the great numbers of pilgrims from Orthodox lands (as opposed to the sharp decline in Western pilgrims) readily betray his religious skepticism, not to mention his total and astonishing ignorance of Eastern Church polity, theology, and spirituality.
Faithful to the spirit of the past, they continue to regard a journey to Jerusalem as an act of the greatest merit. They are even scandalized at the Frankish falling-off in this regard and they say that they have all become heretics or infidels. Their priests and monks, who find this fervor useful, never leave off encouraging it. The Greeks in particular stress that pilgrimage merits plenary indulgences, and not only for the past; they are also applicable for the future; and that it brings absolution not only from murder, incest, and pederasty but even from the violation of a fast or a holy day, which they regard as far more serious cases. (27)
Volnez's cursory remarks on the Holy Fire follow suit. "The Easterners still believe in this miracle, although the Franks have recognized that it is the priests, concealed in the sacristy, who bring it about by the most natural of means." (28) Like Maundrell, Volnez witnesses to the prejudice directed at Jerusalem and the "Easterners" by some Western sources. That he SEND INFORMATION no details of the "most natural of means" by which the phenomenon of the Holy Fire is accomplished is the most vivid of testimony to the substance lacking in this prejudicial spirit.
In 1806 another Western observer, Ulrich Seetzen, visited the Holy Places. His general comments about Jerusalem reveal the spirit of European theological speculation in his day -this speculation apparently propped up by a rather healthy commitment to the Protestant work ethic.
Judging from the number of ecclesiastical buildings, one would expect to encounter many truly pious people. What I found is exactly the opposite. All the Christian inhabitants have their children educated in the convents, but all they learn is the repetition of empty prayers where both soul and heart are neglected. Failing to go to church and breaking their fast is reckoned by them a great sin, yet to me they seemed to have no character and appeared mean, insincere, and liars, people one can never rely upon. The mindless charity of the monasteries makes them idle, and by taking the pilgrims as their example, they thoroughly indulge themselves in inactivity. This is why a wealthy man is so rarely found among the Christians. The Armenians, so it is said, are the most prosperous among them. (29)
Here are his remarks on the ceremony of the Holy Fire, which he also observed in the same year:
[The Armenians] were composed, while the Greeks behaved in a most indecent manner and were so noisy that my ears rang. The constantly growing crowd consisted of men of all ages. The younger ones pushed, shoved, and scuffled. Three or four fell upon another and carried him around the Sepulcher whether he wished it or not, while a mob followed after them screaming and shouting wildly. They had barely completed one round when they did it again with someone else. It was a carnival, and instead of a Christian celebration one seemed to be attending a Bacchanalian feast.
Young Muslims mingled with the frolicsome crowd and added to the tumult so that it became complete chaos. It seems that the Greeks are incapable of making a pilgrimage without such wild outbursts of joy. From the gallery I also noticed some women pilgrims.
The Descent of the Holy Fire is a triumph for the Greeks, by which the Armenians, Copts, etc., should also be convinced. They pride themselves a great deal on this, and in order to humiliate their chief enemy, the Armenians, they tell the following story. Once, it seems, the Armenian clergy paid a large sum of money to the governor of the city in order to obtain permission to be the recipients of the Holy Fire. The Armenian bishop had already entered the Tomb and everyone was in a ferment of expectation. Then, after a long period of waiting, the Armenian clergy came out again, ashamed and afraid, and explained that they could not obtain the Holy Fire through their prayers. Then the Greek bishop entered the Tomb and in a few minutes the Holy Fire appeared. Angry with the audacity of the Armenians, the governor had them seized and forced them to eat something which politeness does not permit me to name. This is the reason for the abusive name of 'Sh-teaters' given to the Armenians by the Greek rabble. It is amazing what religious fanaticism can do to men! (30)
Indeed, this observer convinces us that only one thing could be more than amazing than religious fanaticism: religious intolerance! There is little noteworthy in his description of the rite, except for his thoroughly enjoyable descriptions of the clamorous celebrations commemorating the humiliation of the Armenians -at the time more than two centuries in the distant past! We do observe, however, that the Holy Fire descended and that a recipient was waiting in the tomb, a description wholly consistent with other sources from this period.
Peters, undaunted by intolerance matched only by his unobjective reviews, writes as follows about the passage above: "Seetzens's final comments were a moral judgement, a deep European sigh at the debasement of a religious ceremony which had passed from an act of piety into something that a Westerner could no longer commend nor even comprehend." (31)
He then proceeds to the following account of the tragedy of 1834, when panic broke out during the ritual and, in the ensuing stampede and the unleashing of Turkish bayonets, some three hundred pilgrims lost their lives. The account -an actual tragedy- is to Peters little more than another opportunity to deride the events surrounding the celebration of the Holy Fire. The narrator is the English traveller Robert Curzon.
The people were by this time become furious; they were worn out with standing in such a crowd all night, and as the time approached for the exhibition of the Holy Fire, they could not contain themselves for joy. Their excitement increased as the time for the miracle in which they all believed drew near. At about one o'clock a magnificent procession moved out of the Greek chapel. It conducted the patriarch three times around the tomb, after which he took off his outer robes of cloth and silver, and went into the sepulcher, the door of which was then closed. The agitation of the pilgrims was now extreme: they screamed aloud; and the dense mass of the people shook to and fro, like a field of corn in the wind.
There is a round hole in one part of the chapel over the sepulcher, out of which the Holy Fire is given, and up to this the man who had agreed to pay the highest sum for this honor was then conducted by a strong guard of soldiers. There was silence for a minute; and then a light appeared out the tomb and the happy pilgrim received the Holy Fire from the patriarch within. It consisted of a bundle of thin wax candles, lit, and enclosed in an iron frame, to prevent their being torn asunder and put out by the crowd; for a furious battle commenced immediately; everyone being so eager to obtain the holy light, that one man put out the candle of his neighbor in trying to light his own....
This was the whole of the ceremony; there was no sermon or prayers, except a little chanting during the processions, and nothing that could tend to remind you of the awful event which this feast was designed to commemorate.
Soon you saw the light increasing in all directions, everyone having lit his candle from the holy flame: the chapels, the galleries, and every corner where a candle could possibly be displayed immediately appeared to be in a blaze. The people in their frenzy put the bunches of lighted tapers to their faces, hands, and breasts to purify themselves from their sins. The patriarch was carried out of the sepulcher in triumph, on the shoulders of the people he had deceived, amid the cries and exclamations of joy which resounded from every nook of the immense pile of buildings. As he appeared in a fainting state, I supposed that he was ill; but I found that it is the uniform custom on these occasions to feign insensibility, that the pilgrim may imagine that he is overcome with the glory of the Almighty, from whose immediate presence they believe him to have returned.
A lengthy and gruesome description of the panic that broke loose and the consequent tragedy follows. We resume Curzon's report on Easter Sunday.
*** The day following the occurrences which have been related, I had a long interview with Ibrahim Pasha, and the conversation turned naturally to the blasphemous imputations of the Greek and Armenian patriarchs, who for the purposes of worldly gain, had deluded their ignorant followers with the performance of a trick in relighting the candles which had been extinguished on Good Friday with fire which they affirmed had been sent down from heaven in answer to their prayers. The pasha was quite aware of the evident absurdity which I brought to his notice....
It was debated what punishment was to be awarded to the Greek patriarch for the misfortunes which had been the consequence of his jugglery, and a number of the purses which he had received from the unlucky pilgrims passed into the cSEND INFORMATION of the pasha's treasury. I was sorry that the falsity of this imposture was not publicly exposed, as it was a good opportunity of so doing.
It seems wonderful that so barefaced a trick should continue to be practiced every year in these enlightened times.... If Ibrahim Pasha had been a Christian, probably this would have been the last Easter of the lighting of the Holy Fire; but from the fact of his religion being opposed to that of the monks, he could not follow the example of Louis XIV, who having put a stop to some clumsy imposition which was at that time bringing scandal on the Church, a paper was found nailed upon the door of the sacred edifice the days afterwards, on which the words were read:
Du part du roi, d?nse a Dieu
De faire miracle en ce lieu.
The interference of a Muhammadan in such a case as this would only have been held as another persecution of the Christians; and the miracle of the Holy Fire has continued to be exhibited every year with great applause, and luckily without the unfortunate results which accompanied it on this occasion. (32)
We find no new elements to the ritual reported here, but we do find confirmation of what was probably established centuries earlier: the ceremony is now completely independent of the Vespers-Liturgy vigil service (which now comes after the ceremony of the Holy Fire). There are also no new polemics, though one might find it ironic that the narrator, while confessing his pure Christian concerns, should find kindred spirits in Ibrahim Pasha (whose soldiers played a major role in the tragedy with what Curzon himself reports as their bludgeoning and bayoneting of the Christians believers) and Louis XIV, while reviling the Eastern Christian believers whom he observed. Peters has no difficulty with Curzon's report. It is, apparently, just one more testimony of the "demise" of the ceremony of the Holy Fire.
Peters cites one last account of the Holy Fire in a short passage placed in a footnote attached to an earlier account. It comes from Sir C.W. Wilson, who wrote of his experiences at the Holy Sepulchre in the 1860's: "Such is the Greek Easter -the greatest moral argument against the identity of the spot which it professes to honor- stripped, indeed, of some of its most revolting features, yet still, considering the place, the time, the intention of the professed miracle, probably the most offensive imposture to be found in the world." (33) We relate this passage more for its date than anything else; the sentiments, while strong, are familiar. With this report, Peters brings to a close his argument for regular testimony from the nineteenth century as to the total "demise" of the miracle of the Holy Fire. The miracle has become a sham; the corruption of the Eastern clergy now associated with it is clear; any elements of piety are gone; and the un-Christian character and behavior of Eastern Christians is established beyond doubt. According to Peters, this deterioration in the rite had been at least two centuries in the making.
Once more we would like to supplement Peters' selective use of texts. In precisely the century of what Peters calls its final "demise" at the hands of the un-Christian Orthodox guardians of the Holy Fire, the Russian monk Parthenius visited Jerusalem for the celebration of Great Week and Pascha. A highly respected monastic with wide ecclesiastical experience, he was a well placed Churchman whose many writing (34) enjoyed no small measure of popularity. Parthenius' lengthy account of this visit in 1846 (35), therefore, is a direct challenge to the polemical accounts provided by Peters from hostile witnesses. The reader will recognize, in the following passage, Parthenius' account of the Arab Orthodox Christians' triumphant procession commemorating the humiliation of the Armenians, related in an earlier section:
When dawn [of Great Saturday] came, they began to put out the fires and lamps and nowhere was a lamp left burning. The Turks opened Christ's Sepulchre and put out all the lamps. Then the Turkish authorities and the Pasha himself came: a host of armed soldiers stood around Christ's Sepulchre. In the church everything had changed; everyone had become melancholy and the Arabs had become hoarse and weak. The church was unusually crowded and stuffy. Above, all the balconies were crammed with people in four rows. All the iconostasia and the domes were full of people. All were holding thirty-three candles in both hands in remembrance of the years of Christ's life. There was nothing lit anywhere.
The Patriarch went up to the main iconostasis with the consul. Meletius, the Metropolitan of Trans-Jordan, sat in the altar with the rest of the bishops, all melancholy and hanging their heads. In the church the Moslems with their weapons of war were giving orders; the Arabs had already stopped running about, but stood lifting their hands to heaven and uttering compunctionate cries; the Christians were all weeping or continually sighing. And who at that time could withhold his tears, beholding such a multitude of people from all countries of the world weeping and wailing and asking mercy from the Lord God? It was joyous to see that now, although unwillingly, the rest of the Christians were showing some respect for the Orthodox Greek Faith and for the Orthodox themselves, and that they were looking upon the Orthodox as though upon the brightest of suns, because everyone was hoping to receive the grace of the Holy Fire from the Orthodox. The Armenian patriarch went to the altar with two bishops and the Coptic metropolitan, and they bowed to Metropolitan Meletius and the rest of the bishops and asked that when we receive the grace of the Holy Fire, that we grant it to them also. Metropolitan Meletius answered with humility and told them to pray to God. They went to their own places. Then the royal gates were taken off and were replaced with others with a special opening.
It is not possible to describe what was then happening in the church. It was as though all were waiting for the Second Coming of the King of Heaven. Fear and terror fell upon all, and the Turks became despondent. And in the church there was nothing to be heard except sighs and groans. And Metropolitan Meletius' face was wet with tears. Then the Turkish Pasha came with the other authorities, and they went into Christ's Sepulchre to make sure that nothing remained alight there. When they came out they sealed the Sepulchre, but previously they had placed a large lamp inside, filled to the very brim with oil. In it floated a large wick. They put the lamp in the middle of the Tomb of Christ. Now there were no Christians near the shrine, but only the Turkish authorities. And from the balconies they let down on ropes hundreds of wires with bunches of candles attached.
At eight o'clock according to Russian time (two in the afternoon), they began preparing for the procession with the Cross. The bishops, priests, and deacons, having dressed in all their sacred vestments, each took thirty-three unlit candles. Then from the altar, through the royal doors, were handed twelve banners, and whoever could took them. The soldiers cleared the way, and the chanters went behind the banners. From the altar through the royal doors came the deacons, priests, abbots, and archimandrites, two by two, then the bishops, and behind all of them, Metropolitan Meletius. They went to the Lord's Sepulchre, and went around it three times chanting, 'Thy Resurrection, O Christ Saviour, the angels hymn in heaven; vouchsafe also us on earth with pure hearts to glorify Thee.'
Having finished the procession, all the clergy went quickly into the altar with the banners. Metropolitan Meletius stayed alone at the entrance of the Sepulchre in the hands of the Turks. The Turks divested him, and the authorities searched him. Then they put the omophorion on him, opened the Sepulchre of Christ, and let him go inside. Oh, what fear and terror fell upon all them that were there at the time! All were silent and moaning and asking the Lord God that He not deprive them of the grace of His heavenly Fire. Some time passed, I do not know how long, for we were all beside ourselves from a kind of fear. But all of a sudden from near Christ's Sepulchre there shined a light. Soon light also appeared from the altar in the royal doors in the opening. And it flowed like two rivers of fire, one from the west, from Christ's Sepulchre, and another from the east, from the altar. Oh, what joy and exultation there was in the church then! Everyone became as though drunk or besides himself, and we did not know who was saying what, or who was running where! And a great noise rose in all of the church. All were running around, all were crying out in joy and thanksgiving -most of all the Arab women. The Turks themselves, the Moslems, fell on their knees and cried, 'Allah, Allah,' that is, 'O God, O God!' Oh, what a strange and most wonderful sight! The whole church was transformed into fire. Nothing could be seen in the church besides the heavenly Fire. Above and below, and round all the balconies the Holy Fire was being poured forth. And afterwards there was smoke about the whole church. And a good half of the people went out with the Fire and carried it about Jerusalem to their own homes and to all the monasteries.
In the Great Church Vespers began, and then the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great. The Metropolitan served with the priests, and he ordained a deacon. The people stood through the Liturgy with candles. When the Metropolitan of Trans-Jordan goes into the Sepulchre, he finds a large lamp standing on the Grave of Christ which has been lit by itself; sometimes it lights itself unexpectedly while he is there. However, he himself has never seen it light. In Jerusalem, I heard from many people with whom the Metropolitan himself had spoken about it openly: 'Sometimes I go in and it is already burning; then I take it out quickly. But sometimes I go in and the lamp is not yet burning; then I fall down to the ground from fear and begin with tears to beg mercy from God. When I get up the lamp is already burning and I light two bunches of candles and I carry them out and distribute them.' The Metropolitan carries the fire out into the vestibule and puts the bunches of the candles into iron holders and gives them out from the Sepulchre through openings made for that purpose, with the right hand to the Orthodox and the left hand to the Armenians and the rest. The Orthodox Arabs stand in a crowd near the opening. As soon as the Metropolitan shows the Holy Fire, one Arab, laying hold of it, runs straight to the altar and there through the royal doors it is distributed to the people; but one is hardly able to light his candles in the openings. Then the Metropolitan again returns to Christ's Sepulchre and lights another two bunches and goes out of the door of the Sepulchre. The strongest Arabs stand at the doors of the Sepulchre and await him. As soon as he goes out holding in his hands the thirty-three burning candles, the Arabs, taking him in their hands, carry him directly to the altar. All the people rush toward him. They all desire to touch his clothing. And with great difficulty, they are barely able to carry him into the altar. They sat him on a chair, and he sat through the whole Liturgy as though beside himself, with his head bowed; he did not look up and did not say a word; and no one disturbed him. As soon as they carried him out of the Sepulchre, the people rushed in to venerate it. And I was deemed worthy to do the same. The whole of Christ's Sepulchre was wet, as though dampened by rain; but I could not find out what it was from. In the middle of the Grave stood the large lamp which lit itself and a great flame was burning. (36)
Monk Parthenius' account contains essentially every element of the fully developed rite of the Holy Fire, even as the rite is performed in our day.. (37) These elements may be summarized as follows:
EXTINGUISHING OF LIGHTS
(With inspection and sealing of tomb)
(Procession three times around edicule)
FERVENT PRAYER BY PATRIARCH AND FAITHFUL
(Patriarch, partially stripped and searched, is now closed
in Holy Sepulchre with Armenian Priest) (39)
DISTRIBUTION OF HOLY FIRE BY PATRIARCH
FROM HOLY SEPULCHRE
(Armenian priest assisting, Holy Fire miraculously
received by one lamp on Grave)
All of the extant accounts we have can reasonably be fit into the upper-case categories in this outline. (40) Only the details in parentheses are disputed, questionable, or seem to be genuinely absent from some of our accounts. The one exception to the outline is, of course, the miracle of 1580, when the Holy Fire emerged from the pillar outside the Church of the Resurrection, confounding the Armenians -an event so exceptional as to render no threat to the integrity of the other portrayals of the miracle which we have recounted.
The remarkable thing about Monk Parthenius' account, though, is not its wealth of detail, but of Christian experience. We find no traces of the polemics or skeptical; rather, the account heartily testifies to a profound experience, embracing contrition, supplication, fear, awe, joy, and thanksgiving on the part, it would seem, of nearly all present at the enactment of the rite.. And the experience portrayed is consonant with the Paschal Mystery being commemorated. In this vein, that very evening, at the beginning of Paschal matins, Parthenius reflects:
We all stood around the Grave of our Saviour and were glorifying His glorious Resurrection from the dead. In truth, all things were now filled with light; then the canon of Pascha became for us real and clear. For that which we were chanting, we were seeing with our own eyes. (41)
No one familiar with the literature attached to the development of the liturgy in Jerusalem can fail to see, in Father Parthenius' words, the consistency of the description of his Paschal experience with that of the general experiences of pious Christians in Jerusalem through the centuries. Not knowing their source, one could easily attribute them to the fourth-century reports of St. Cyril of Jerusalem or the Western pilgrim Egeria. This point brings into focus the very critical observations of the Western visitors cited in Peters' coverage of the rite of the Holy Fire in the nineteenth century. One is led to assume that these visitors would have observed equally negative things, had they been transported back in time beside Abbot Daniel or Monk Bernard. Their perceptions were no doubt formed more by historiography than history, as Parthenius' words imply.
The Pre-Ninth-Century Witness. As we observed earlier, the pre-ninth century material is problematic. There are only four sources from this period that offer details of Great Week services and the Paschal vigil in the complex of the Holy Sepulchre. Moreover, none of these identifies the Holy Fire by name. Those, then, who would find some form of the rite in these first Christian centuries have but a handful of ambiguous allusions with which to work.
Egeria. The earliest testimony we have comes from fragments of a diary that most scholars attribute to a Spanish religious named Egeria. She witnessed and recorded the events of Great Week in Jerusalem in 384. (42) About the Paschal vigil itself she finds only one thing noteworthy:
There is no service, however, at the ninth hour on [Great] Saturday, for preparation is being made for the Easter vigil in the major church, the Martyrium. The Easter vigil is observed here exactly as we observe it at home. Only one thing is done more elaborately here. After the neophytes have been baptized and dressed as soon as they came forth from the baptismal font, they are led first of all to the Anastasis [the Rotunda Church enclosing the Holy Sepulchre] with the Bishop. The Bishop goes within the railings of the Anastasis [that is, within the edicule], a hymn is sung, and he prays for them. Then he returns with them to the major church, where all the people are holding the vigil as is customary. (43)
As Bertoniere points out in his study of the Easter vigil in the Eastern Church, Egeria's silence need not be so uninformative:
While Egeria does not speak explicitly of the Lucernarium on Holy Saturday, her remark that the Paschal Vigil was celebrated "quemadmodum ad nos" suggests that in Jerusalem, as in all the Western rites of which we have evidence, there were Lucernarium elements present at the beginning of the service. Even apart from her remark on this occasion, the importance of the Lucernarium and the special connection which it had in Jerusalem with the theme of the Resurrection (the taking of the light used in the service from the tomb) lead us to believe that it would hardly have been omitted on Holy Saturday evening. (44)
Let us see what Egeria herself says of the Lucernarium:
At the tenth hour, which is here called Licinicon, or, as we say, vespers, a great multitude assembled at the Anastasis. All the torches and candles are lighted, and this makes a tremendous light. The light, however, is not brought in from outside, but is taken from inside the grotto [the Holy Sepulchre], that is, from within the railings where night and day a lamp always burns. (45)
We will comment on this material after we have considered the next three sources.
The Armenian Lectionary. This lectionary, containing information on readings (Old Testament, New Testament -Apostle and Gospel), processional psalms and their refrains, verses sung for the "Alleluia," and occasional rubrics, reflects Jerusalem usage between the years 417-439. We will pass over the complexities of the manuscript tradition, (46) and simply note that there are three principal manuscripts, reflecting different stages in the development of the Lectionary. Bertoniere, whose analysis we will follow, labels them J, P, and Er. All three manuscripts indicate that the Paschal vigil service begins in the Anastasis and appoint the reading or chanting of Psalm 112 at the beginning of the service, presumably as a processional. P notes that "three candles are lit," after this, while J and Er assign the candle lighting to another point in the service. All three manuscripts then indicate that the believers should go to the Martyrion. J notes at this point that the bishop lights a candle, while Er simply indicates that "l'?que fait d'abord le lucernaire." (47)
The Georgian Lectionary. This lectionary SEND INFORMATION somewhat more detail than the Armenian lectionary. Its manuscript tradition is also complex, and there is no firm opinion on its dates. Bertoniere contends that it "represents a later stage of development in the Jerusalem liturgy," containing strata, perhaps, from the fifth century, but in its entirety dating only from the eighth century or later. (48) He identifies four principal manuscripts (P,S,L, and K), and outlines the Lucernarium material as follows [to various degrees the manuscripts have been adopted to local usage in Georgia and lack the stational information from Jerusalem, which information we have supplied in brackets]:
gathering in the church [of the Anastasis]
[lighting of a single candle in L]
3 processions [around the inside of the church and thus around the edicule]
with at least one psalm and kverexi et oratio
kiss of peace
blessing of candle
lighting of other candles
opening of doors [of the Martyrium]. (49)
The kverexi et oratio, notes Bertoniere, "seems to have been a prayer preceeded by some sort of diaconal petitions or at least by an invitation to prayer." (50)
Codex Jerusalem Patriarchate Hagios Stauros 43 [HS 43]. This manuscript contains a Typicon and complete texts of prayers and liturgical poetry used in Great and Bright Weeks at the Jerusalem Patriarchate. Copied and adapted from an earlier document by the scribe Basil in 1122, (51) the manuscript seems to be composed of two strata of material. Recapitulating A. Baumstark's historical analysis of the material, Bertoniere seems to agree with him that "the later stratum pertained to the period of the Latin Kingdom while the earlier one dated back to the time of Photius (?887) who is mentioned in the document." (52) If this dating is correct, it would be stretching our parameters for the pre-ninth-century witness to consider the Typicon here. However, there is some uncertainty about the dating of HS 43. In fact, Baumstark, in his initial investigation of the document, argues that its first stratum reflects early eighth-century usage. More importantly, the close parallels between HS 43 and the Georgian Lectionary facilitate a clearer understanding of the latter document and provide, if the later date for HS 43 is indeed accurate, an excellent nexus between the two chronological periods into which we have divided historical accounts of the Paschal service in Jerusalem. Of the Paschal vigil we read the following in this Typicon:
And when the Myrrh-bearers have finished filling and preparing the lamps, the Patriarch seals the Holy Sepulchre and takes the keys with him, and then all the lamps in the church are extinguished. The Patriarch goes with the clergy all in white vestments into the Church of the Holy Resurrection, without igniting the lamps and, without a censer, quietly begins Vespers behind the Holy Sepulchre.... Immediately after the end of the readings of the prophecies the Patriarch ascends the steps of the sacred altar and entrusts the censing to the metropolitan, the bishops and the presbyters, and they begin to cense -he himself, the hierarchs, and the priests with him, censing the church outside the Holy Sepulchre and going around it three times. The Sepulchre is then closed. Then they go out and, after censing the lower level, go up to Holy Golgotha also to cense it and the Holy Garden, and the Church of St. Constantine, and the Holy Prison until they come to the doors of (the Church of) the Holy Resurrection, to the so-called 'Door of the Myrrh-bearers.' Then the sub-deacons take the censers from the hierarchs and the priests and all of them go up the sacred steps. The patriarch begins to say slowly and without ceasing. 'Lord, have mercy.' When the Patriarch comes down the steps, the archdeacon and protodeacon support his arms on both sides; before them goes the sakkelarios, while the paramonarios and kastrincios follow after. Then the Patriarch falls with his face to the ground opposite the steps of the altar and tearfully prays for the ignorance of the people and extends his hand aloft. This he does three times, and those with him also do likewise. The people without interruption exclaim: 'Lord, have mercy.' When the Patriarch and those with him go into the Holy Sepulchre, they prostrate themselves three times and pray for themselves and for the people, and the Patriarch then takes a light from the Holy Fire and gives it to the archdeacon, and the archdeacon to the people; thereafter the Patriarch goes out and those with him, singing the verse 'Shine, shine, O new Jerusalem'...." (53)
In all of the foregoing descriptions of the Paschal services in pre-ninth-century Jerusalem, we see evidence which is not as clear or complete as that in later centuries. Thus while Egeria makes no general distinction between the Paschal vigil in Jerusalem and what she was accustomed to observing at home it is not unreasonable, as Bertoniere contends, to find special significance in her reference to the Lucernarium (a term by which she refers both to the vespers service and the candle-[lamp-]-lighting ceremony itself). As we earlier pointed out, she found the light of the Lucernarium as she saw it in Jerusalem worthy of particular note, in fact identifying the rite with the tomb itself: "The light, however, is not brought in from outside, but is taken from inside the grotto." (54) Though there is no mention of the miraculous nature of this light, Egeria's reference may well be to the fourth and most important element of the ritual of the Holy Fire as we have outlined it above from post-ninth-century sources -the distribution of the Holy Fire. Moreover, her allusions to the extinguishing of the lights and to psalms and antiphons, in the context of the Lucernarium, (55) bring us immediately to first and second elements of the ritual and suggest strongly that we are dealing with the rite of the Holy Fire as it is described more completely in our later sources. Only the prayer of fervent supplication, the third element of the ritual, is missing from Egeria's narrative of the Paschal services which she observed in Jerusalem.
Two of the remaining pre-ninth-century documents, the Armenian and Georgian Lectionaries, also contain no extensive references to the rite of the Holy Fire during the Paschal services in Jerusalem -something not entirely unusual, since economy of expression is the rule in such documents. Nonetheless, these documents present no evidence inconsistent with the assumption that the rites being described correspond to the ritual of the Holy Fire. In the Armenian Lectionary we find explicit references to the lighting of one or three candles, which, Bertoniere presumes, takes place in the tomb -even in J, (56) where the rubrics have already assigned the faithful to the Martyrium. This lectionary also testifies to the hymnody (Psalm 112) that constitutes the second element of the ceremony. In the Georgian Lectionary we find these same elements and, significantly enough, a rubric for the fervent prayer that makes up the third element of the ceremony: the kverexi et oratio. Three processions also now supplement the hymnody, as they do in many later witnesses and in the modern-day rite. These two lectionaries attest to the special nature of the Lucernarium in the Jerusalem Paschal rite and strongly suggest that what is being described is the ritual of the Holy Fire. Bertoniere supports this observation in his reflections on the Georgian Lectionary [GEORG] and the other documents to which we have made reference:
In this entire series of rites, there seems to be more involved than a simple Lucernarium in the Anastasis followed by a Vigil in the basilica. The elaboration of GEORG with its three processions, the lighting of the 'new candle,' presumably from the lamp in the taphos, and the procession to the basilica all seem to point to a symbolic celebration of the risen Christ coming forth from the tomb. It is even possible that the three processions (which precede the blessing of the 'new candle') are intended to signify the three days in the tomb, especially in L and S where there is no mention of the lighting of a candle before the processions. All of this is in line with the relationship between taphos and phos implied in the daily practice described by Egeria ... of taking the light from the lamps in the 'spelunca' for use in the Lucernarium. (57)
In HS 43, the final document which we have cited, we find two significant developments. The candle-lighting ritual is moved to a later point in the Paschal vigil, now following the readings. It thus assumes a certain independence and takes on the character of a separate and distinct ritual. As well, the light taken from the tomb is called, in this document, the "Holy Light [or Fire]": to agion phos. It is clear from this expression that the light from the tomb is something more than a simple or common flame. Citing Scriptural examples of not declining words to emphasize a certain sacredness in their usage (cf. Revelation 1:4, "Charis hymin kai eirene apo ho on..."), Bertoniere argues that the special nature of the "Holy Fire" in HS 43 is established by the fact that, when used in the document with the preposition "ek," to Phos is not rendered in the genitive, as one would expect. He discounts an error on the part of the scribe -justifiably so, we think, if only because such a grammatical error is so obvious and since the manuscript is not seriously flawed by a general weakness of this kind. Given the disputed date for HS 43, we cannot unequivocally say that it constitutes evidence of a pre-ninth-century reference to the holy light as the phenomenon is later understood. But taken together with evidence that can be confidently assigned to the ancient Christian centuries, it certainly points us to a position of maintaining that there is consistent evidence from the earliest Christian centuries of a phenomenon in the Paschal services at the Holy Sepulchre that corresponds to that of the Holy Fire. If nothing else, the document says what can be logically inferred from other documents.
The Phenomenon of the Holy Fire from a Theological Perspective. The historical data, when freed from the selective treatment dictated by historiographical approaches or world-views inimical to such a supernatural phenomenon, suggest that, perhaps as early as the fourth century, the tomb of Christ has been associated with the manifestation of a self-igniting light which is today called the Holy Fire. Unless we turn to the wildly polemical accounts of this manifestation cited by Peters -accounts clearly outside the consensus of observers across the centuries-, these data present us with a modern-day phenomenon as provocative and as fascinating as another artifact from the Resurrection which only recently emerged from the cloud of doubt cast on it by a polemical histioriography: the Holy Shroud (the so-called Shroud of Turin) -arguably a relic of the Christian East also. (59) And just as sindonologists must wrestle with the difficult question of the theological significance of what appears to be a miraculous "imprint" of Christ's crucified body on the Holy Shroud, so any who take the manifestation of the Holy Fire in the sepulchre in Jerusalem with any seriousness must account for its theological meaning.
It is not off-handedly that we have referred to the Holy Shroud in addressing the matter of the theological meaning of the Holy Fire. In explaining how what appears to be an image "burned" into the shroud by a high-intensity light or heat source (60) could possibly have been formed, some scientists have turned to the Biblical descriptions of the sepulchre after Christ's Resurrection:
And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it. His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow. (St. Matthew 28:2,3)
...When it was yet dark..., Peter therefore went forth, and that other disciple, and came to the sepulchre. ...And the other disciple did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulchre. And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in. Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie. And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself. (St. John 20:1, 3-7)
...Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James, and Salome ...came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun..., and entering into the sephulchre... they were affrighted. ...And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre: for they trembled and were amazed. (St. Mark 16:1-2,5,9)
The light shining forth from the Angel in the sepulchre, the light which allowed two of Christ's disciples to see in detail the inside of the sephulchre in the darkness of night, and something in the very sepulchre which evoked amazement from the women who had gone to anoint the body of Christ -this light, these scientists suggest, may be the very source of the image imprinted on the Holy Shroud. It may also be the light associated to this day with the Paschal miracle of the Holy Fire at the shrine of the Holy Sepulchre. (61)
In his second Paschal homily, St. Gregory of Nyssa portrays the "interior" of the tomb of Christ as "filled with light" after the Resurrection, a light which he contends was visible "both to the spirit and to the senses." Moreover, St. Gregory the Theologian identifies the light of the tomb with the "...heavenly light which illuminates the entire world with its beauty" (62). The idea of a visible light with supernatural attributes coming forth from the tomb of Christ and representing the light of heaven, therefore, is not a preposterous one. And if the Johannine image of Christ as the light of salvation -light of a spiritual kind- corresponds to a light which can be seen by the senses, then the eternal Pascha of the Resurrection of Christ might very well have an actual physical counterpart in the place where the Resurrection occurred: the manifestation of the Holy Fire. Theologically, the triumphant nature of the Resurrection as an event of historical and metaphysical preeminence is perfectly contained within this scenario.
One can perhaps overstate such parallels, but it is interesting to note that in the Holy Fire, both a physical and supernatural light (supernatural by virtue of its miraculous source and its reported characteristic of not burning an individual when applied to various parts of the body), presents us with an analog of the manifestation of uncreated light associated with theosis and the spiritual experiences of the hesychasts. Certainly one would not want to make a one-to-one equation of the holy light with the spiritual and physical manifestation known as uncreated light, but the latter phenomenon proves beyond doubt that the veneration of a physical phenomenon with supernatural properties, such as the Holy Fire, is not outside the theological tradition of the Eastern Church. Indeed, the Holy Fire takes on greater significance when placed in the context of manifestations involving an interplay between the physical and spiritual -an interplay that can be said to reach into the core of the Eastern Christian theological outlook.
(1) See the provocative and trenchant remarks of Protopresbyter G. Florovsky on the issue of such objective histories in his essay, "The Predicament of the Christian Historian," Christianity and Culture (Belmont, MA, 1974), pp. 31-65.
(2) Egeria's Travels to the Holy Land, tr. J. Wilkinson (Warminster, England, 1981), p. 252.
(3) A comprehensive study of related accounts is G. Klameth's Das Karsamstagsfeuerwunder der heiligen Grabeskirche (Vienna, 1913), esp. pp. 24-42.
(4) In his Jerusalem: The Holy City in the Eyes of Chroniclers, Visitors, Pilgrims, and Prophets from the Days of Abraham to the Beginning of Modern Times (Princeton, 1985), F.E. Peters notes that Moslem authors also bear witness to the rite as early as the ninth century (p. 262). J. Wilkinson also cites a clear, but undetailed reference to the Holy Fire in the eighth-century "Life of St. Theodore the Sabaite," in his Jerusalem Pilgrimages Before the Crusades (Warminster, England, 1977), p. 142.
(5) Wilkinson, Jerusalem Pilgrimages, pp. 142, 144.
(6) Quoted in G. Bertoniere, The Historical Development of the Easter Vigil and Related Services in the Greek Church (Rome, 1972), p. 41.
(7) Peters, Jerusalem, p. 261.
(8) Ibid., p. 262.
(9) Ibid., p. 262.
(10) Ibid., pp. 258-261.
(11) Ibid., pp. 264-267.
(12) Archimandrite Callistos presents the Priest Niketas' testimony from 947 in his article "The Holy Fire," Orthodox Life, XXXIV(2), p. 13.
(13) Just a few years earlier, in fact, the Holy Fire had failed to appear on Great Saturday. I quote from O. Minardus' paraphrase of the Latin text: Fulcher de Chartres (1101 A.D.) confirms that the Holy Fire usually appeared at the 9th hour, and that the Latins received it from the Greek Patriarch. In 1101, however, the Holy Fire did not descend as expected, and the Patriarch ordered everyone to leave the church. On the following day, on Easter Day, after much praying, the long-expected light did appear in one of the lamps in the Holy Sepulchre. And after the Celebration of the Holy Mass, at which the King assisted, wearing according to royal custom, the crown upon his head, Baldwin gave a banquet in the Temple of Solomon. And while the banquet was in progress, it was announced that the Holy Fire had again appeared in two of the lamps suspended in the Holy Sepulchre, and the king with his guests returned to the church to see the new miracle. ["The Ceremony of the Holy Fire in the Middle Ages and To-day," Bulletin de la Soci? d'Arch?ogie Copte, XVI(1961-62), p. 244.]
(14) See note 4.
(15) Peters, Jerusalem, p. 261.
(16) Ibid., p. 605, n. 12.
(17) See note 12.
(18) Callistos, "Holy Fire," p. 16.
(19) Meinardus, "Ceremony," p. 247.
(20) Callistos, "Holy Fire," p. 17. A lengthier description is found in Monk Parthenius, "Holy Week and Pascha in Jerusalem," Orthodox Life, XXXIV(2), pp. 28-29.
(21) Parthenius, "Holy Week," pp. 28, 31.
(22) Callistos, "Holy Fire," p. 18.
(23) Peters, Jerusalem, p. 516.
(24) Ibid., pp. 523-24.
(25) Ibid., p. 523.
(26) Meinardus, "Ceremony," p. 246.
(27) Peters, Jerusalem, p. 552.
(28) Ibid., p. 553.
(29) Ibid., p. 570.
(30) Ibid., pp. 571-72.
(31) Ibid., p. 572.
(32) Ibid., pp. 574-75, 577-78.
(33) Ibid., p. 618, n. 43.
(34) This account is from the second volume of his five-volume work, Report of the Wanderings and Journeys across Russia, Moldavia, Turkey, and the Holy Land (Moscow, 1855), pp. 1898-1901.
(35) See note 20.
(36) Parthenius, "Holy Week, pp. 32-34.
(37) See a detailed account and symbolic explanation in Callistos, "Holy Fire," pp. 18-24.
(38) Callistos (ibid.) notes that "Phos Hilaron" is also sung during the procession, which is no doubt a vestige of the vespers service that once contained the ceremony.
(39) There is no reason to assume the absence, here, of the Armenian cleric, whose participation is well documented.
(40) Walther's account, it should be noted, would place the three-fold procession around the edicule after the descent of the Holy Fire.
(41) Parthenius, "Holy Week," p. 37.
(42) On the problem of naming and dating this source, see Wilkinson, Egeria Travels, pp. 235-39, 329-31.
(43) Egeria, Diary of a Pilgrimage, tr. and ed. G.E. Gingras (New York, 1970), p. 114.
(44) Bertoniere, Easter Vigil, p. 22
(45) Gingras, Egeria, p. 90.
(46) Summarized in Bertoniere, Easter Vigil, pp. 8-10.
(47) Ibid., pp. 29-30.
(48) Ibid., pp. 10-12.
(49) Ibid., p. 33.
(50) Ibid., p. 35.
(51) So a postscript in the Typicon itself tells us.
(52) Ibid., p. 14.
(53) Related in Callistos, "Holy Fire," pp. 9-10.
(54) Gingras, Egeria, p. 90.
(56) Bertoniere, Easter Vigil, p. 31.
(57) Ibid., p. 36.
(58) Ibid., p. 39, n. 86.
(59) See Archimandrite Chrysostomos and Hieromonk Auxentios, "The Holy Shroud: The Controversy in Perspective," Diakonia, XV(2), 120-128.
(60) Ibid., p. 122.
(61) Ibid., p. 121.
(62) Quoted by Callistos, "Holy Fire," p. 8.
The Right Reverend Auxentios is Director of the Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies in Etna, California. He received his undergraduate education at Princeton University, where he was a student of the late Protopresbyter Georges Florovsky, the Licentiate in Theology at the Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, and his doctoral degree in Liturgics at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. He is the author of many articles and a number books in Orthodox theology, including an extensive historical, liturgical, and theological study of the Rite of the Holy Fire, which was published in English by the St. John Chrysostom Press in Berkeley, California, and in Romanian translation by Editura Deisis in Sibiu.
Cited: Bishop Auxentios of Photiki. The Paschal Fire in Jerusalem: A Study of the Rite of the Holy Fire in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Berkeley, California, 1999.
Miracle of Holy Fire site mapBegining of the sectionBishop Auxentios of Photiki. The Paschal Fire in Jerusalem: A Study of the Rite of the Holy Fire in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Berkeley, California, 1999.