Skepticism and the Holy Fire

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A wise man once said, “What we believe always remains intellectually possible; it never becomes intellectually compulsive. I have an idea that when this ceases to be so, the world will be ending.” That is, in this age we walk by faith, not by sight. By God’s design and providence, the world contains no proof that could compel belief by force, nothing that would “prove” the truth of Christianity so that faith was no longer necessary to discipleship. Scientific facts can be proven in a lab: for example, if you add fire to gunpowder, this produces an explosion. That is not a hypothesis or a theory; it may be considered a fact. Faith in the explosive result of combining fire and gunpowder is not required. All that is required is that you watch for yourself what happens (presumably from a safe distance). The truth of Christianity is not a fact like this. Faith is still and always will be required. That is one of the reasons faith will be rewarded on the Last Day.

That said, the annual miracle of the Holy Fire in Jerusalem does come rather close to proof. For about 1200 years (since Jerusalem fell to Islam, and Christians there needed some divine encouragement) every year at the eve of Pascha a fire is supernaturally kindled in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Patriarch enters the edicule, the Tomb of Christ, with a bunch of unlit candles, kneels down, says a prayer, and then the candles are supernaturally lit. He emerges from the Tomb and shares the light with others. At that time, some candles held by the faithful throughout the church are spontaneously lit before their eyes, even before the fire from the Tomb reaches them. This is called “the holy fire”, and it has been occurring faithfully for centuries. Orthodox take it for granted as a sign of the abiding presence of the risen Christ.

Non-Orthodox have been (shall be say) rather more skeptical of the supernatural origin of the fire. For them the fire is not supernatural at all, but is lit every year by the Patriarch behind the closed doors, presumably after he smuggled a BIC lighter into the Tomb undetected.

Throughout the years, skepticism has reigned, especially in some Protestant quarters. One English visitor to Jerusalem, John Kelman, wrote in about 1912 that in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, “on Easter Eve, the sham miracle of the ‘Holy fire’ has been enacted annually for at least a thousand years”. For him, it was a symbol of the light of Christ, not a miracle. Rather later, another Englishman, H.V. Morton, wrote the same thing, only more entertainingly: “The crowds have been told time and again that the Holy Fire is a piece of symbolism, but nothing will shake their belief that on this day it descends from heaven into the Tomb of Christ…I thought what an extraordinary thing it was that a frenzied ceremony that might have occurred in a grove of Adonis should have taken place at the Tomb of Christ” (from his In the Steps of the Master, 1934). A little later still, yet another Englishman, the Methodist military chaplain Leslie Farmer, wrote after witnessing it that “the superstitious believe that the appearance of this fire is a yearly miracle from heaven. There was a miracle. It was that no conflagration was caused. I stood in my sheltered corner and gazed fearfully at the scene, expecting catastrophe at any moment” (from his We Saw the Holy City, 1944).

What is strange is that both Morton and Farmer admitted that they saw people passing the newly-kindled fire over their faces, beards, and clothes without being burned, but they offered no explanation for why this was. Surely such a thing cries out for some comment? For the fire was not passed so quickly as not to burn, but was held in place long enough to catch hair and clothes on fire, if it was a normal fire. Film footage of this can be seen here.

We note too that, for all Morton saying that the crowds were told time and again that it was just a bit of liturgical symbolism and not a miracle, a recent Patriarch said precisely the opposite. That is, he insists that he experiences a miracle every year and did not kindle the fire.

One person asked the Patriarch about what actually happened in the Tomb.  The Patriarch replied: “I find my way through the darkness towards the inner chamber in which I fall on my knees. Here I say certain prayers that have been handed down to us through the centuries, and having said them, I wait. Sometimes I may wait a few minutes, but normally the miracle happens immediately after I have said the prayers. From the core of the very stone on which Jesus lay an indefinable light pours forth. It usually has a blue tint, but the colour may change and take many different hues. It cannot be described in human terms. The light rises out of the stone as mist may rise out of a lake; it almost looks as if the stone is covered by a moist cloud, but it is light. This light each year behaves differently. Sometimes it covers just the stone, while other times it gives light to the whole sepulchre so that people who stand outside the tomb and look into it will see it filled with light. The light does not burn. I have never had my beard burnt in all the sixteen yers I have been Patriarch in Jerusalem and have received the Holy Fire. The light is of a different consistency than a 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. Then I give the flame to all people present in Church.”

In other words, the skeptics ask us to believe that the Patriarch is a liar, as have been all his predecessors in that office for the past 1200 years. That would be a miracle harder to believe than that of the Holy Fire itself. Surely in all that time someone would have blown the gaff and let out the secret of the hoax? (One also wonders how his predecessors pulled it off hundreds of years ago without the aid of BIC lighters.) And one wonders too about the hundreds and thousands of worshippers who have testified that their own candles were supernaturally lit at that time.

For all that, we of course still walk by faith, and the Holy Fire is given to comfort and encourage believers, not to convert skeptics. We have our Lord’s own testimony that no miracle could do that, even the miracle of someone rising from the dead (Luke 16:31). But I would like to leave the reader with two questions. Why is it that other religions can offer nothing as compelling as the Holy Fire and that this is found in Christianity alone? And why it is that the Holy Fire occurs only in the Orthodox Church?

See also
Is the Holy Light of Jerusalem a Scam? Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol Responds Is the Holy Light of Jerusalem a Scam? Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol Responds Is the Holy Light of Jerusalem a Scam? Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol Responds Is the Holy Light of Jerusalem a Scam? Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol Responds
Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol
What I saw when I was at the All-Holy Sepulchre, was that ... the candles of the people who were up at the dome of the All-Holy Sepulchre lit up on their own.
How the Holy Light Descends Upon the Holy Sepulchre How the Holy Light Descends Upon the Holy Sepulchre
Russian Abbot Daniil
How the Holy Light Descends Upon the Holy Sepulchre How the Holy Light Descends Upon the Holy Sepulchre
Russian Abbot Daniil
May the blessing of God, of the Holy Sepulchre, and of all the holy places be with those who read this narrative with faith and love; and may they obtain from God the same reward as those who have made the pilgrimage to those holy places. Happy are those who, having seen, believe! Thrice happy are those who have not seen, and yet have believed!
The Holy Flame: the Greatness of the Miracle, and the Helplessness of the Skeptics The Holy Flame: the Greatness of the Miracle, and the Helplessness of the Skeptics
Hieromonk Job (Gumerov)
The Holy Flame: the Greatness of the Miracle, and the Helplessness of the Skeptics The Holy Flame: the Greatness of the Miracle, and the Helplessness of the Skeptics
Hieromonk Job (Gumerov)
The skeptics gather “witnesses” in order to cast doubt on the miracle of descending the Holy Fire, they once again display incompetence in basic methods of scholarly and scientific research. Unbelief and skepticism are barren, infertile. “As someone withdrawing from the light does not in the least do harm to the light, but does very great harm to himself, becoming immersed in darkness, so also one accustomed to scorning the power of the Almighty does not in the least do harm to it [His power], but upon himself brings extreme harm” (John Chrysostom).
Pfmd5/4/2023 6:17 pm
Your buffoonery is beyond cringe.
nikolai5/3/2023 4:43 pm
Interestingly enough, during the recent complete renovation of the tomb, they found an underground tunnel directly underneath. There was also at least one hole from the tomb down into the tunnel. Could someone have put a lit taper up through the tunnel into the tomb?
Barbara Timpani4/28/2023 3:03 pm
I have a story to share. Last night, I woke up in the middle of the night to move a fan closer to a papier mache project I am working on, the Tomb of Christ. It will be used for Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a Montessori based approach to faith formation for children 3-6 years. I went back to bed and could not sleep so I opened Facebook. The first thing I saw and read was this beautiful article. Wow, how wonderful to be blessed with this special moment! Glory to God! Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!
Harrison J Krenitsky4/28/2023 8:42 am
As one who doubted the legitimacy of the fire, I greeted the attending monk with, "Christ is Risen," then asked if he ever seen the Holy Fire? He said that he had and then invited me to put my hand into the flame of the candle sitting upon the Gabriel stone just before the entrance of the sepulcher. He said it would not burn me if I placed my hand over and into the flame. My doubts had me wanting to prove him wrong. My witness was my copilot that flew to Israel with me. He, not wanting to get burned, ran his hand quickly across the flame. I decided that I, in order to prove the monk wrong, would have to place my hand into the flame and hold it their until it got burned. I held my hand in the flame for approximately 30 to 45 seconds. During that time, I only felt a warmth but not any burning of my palm. I looked at the monk, and he only smiled back at me. My palm was totally blackened but there was not a burn mark to be felt or seen. My experience was real!
Panagiotis4/28/2023 1:49 am
Excellent article and commentary by Father Lawrence. For myself, I would say who cares what some of the Protestants think, with there second hand religion. To me, many of them are weak in the True Faith, and I would have to say it may be an exaggeration to call some of them Christians..... Here is proof to me that Jesus was the Son of God: The evil ones who killed Jesus and said He was not God are masters of lies and deception, and when they say something is not true, then you should believe that IN FACT IT IS TRUE. Jesus Himself said that they are of their father Satan. And we know that Satan is a master of Lies and Deception.. All glory to our True God Jesus Christ. Just my humble opinion.
Rezili4/27/2023 2:48 pm
Pappa L.
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