Thousands of Orthodox Christian pilgrims will once again converge in Jerusalem, one of Christianity’s holiest cities for what many call a miraculous annual event. Known simply as “the miracle of the Holy Fire” by Orthodox Christians throughout the world, it is the annual event that draws worshippers and cynics alike.
The ritual dates back at least 1,200 years.
Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected at the site where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher now stands in the Old City of Jerusalem in the modern state of Israel.
While the source of the holy fire is a closely guarded secret, believers say the flame appears spontaneously from his tomb on the day before Easter to show that Jesus has not forgotten his followers.
Thousands of Christians wait outside the church every year for it to open on Holy Saturday morning. Custody of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is shared by a number of denominations that jealously guard their responsibilities under a fragile network of agreements hammered out over the last millennia that often breaks down, leading to violent scuffles between rival religions.
In 2008 a violent fight broke out between Greek and Armenian Orthodox monks.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem is the main guardian of the ritual. Every year after an elaborate procession, he is led into the small tomb structure where it is believed Jesus was buried. At exactly 2pm local time, a sun beam is believed to shine into the window of the ceiling of the church and light the lamp inside the tomb.
Church lights are switched off and the silence of anticipation follows.
The Patriarch then lights a bundle of candles with the holy fire— 33 of them, each representing a year of Jesus’ life on earth, and passes them on to worshipers inside the church.
Seconds after the Greek Orthodox Patriarch reveals the Holy Fire, it is rapidly spread throughout the church as worshipers light each other’s candles. The fire is then passed on to the worshipers who are waiting outside.
Many of those gathered carry similar bundles and try to have them lit by the Patriarch’s flames. Within seconds, the basilica is aglow from the candles church bells ring out in joy.
Lanterns containing the fire are sent throughout the world, in time for various Orthodox Christian churches to use it to celebrate the Resurrection. Special flights to Athens and other cities take place every year at great expense— often criticized by local non-believers.
Criticism and cynicism of the event Orthodox Christians call a miracle isn’t just a recent phenomenon.
In 1238, Pope Gregory IX denounced the Holy Fire as a fraud and forbade Franciscans from participating in the ceremony and many scientists, writers and foreign visitors have written about it over the centuries, some calling it a fraud, others calling a natural phenomenon using chemicals.
This year, a group called the Atheist Union of Greece wrote to Greek government ministries criticizing the government’s involvement in transporting the flame from Jerusalem to Athens, citing the financial crisis and the government’s spending crunch.
Citing the ongoing economic woes of the country, the union wrote in the letter: “In a time when taxpayers Greeks are experiencing cuts in wages and pensions, a severe taxation, unemployment and compression of real income, we consider unthinkable that the Greek State and therefore the Greek taxpayers give even one euro for the transfer of the supposed ‘Holy Light’.”