Holy Fire

The Holy Fire: the Orthodox tradition bring us back to the mystery of Easter.

Veronica Brocca22 April 2022

This is the most awaited moment of the Orthodox Christians’ Easter.

Seven days after the Easter of Catholics and Protestants, the Holy Saturday of the varied mosaic of the Orthodox Christians announce the upcoming miracle in the heart of the Holy Sepulchre.

The day before the Orthodox Easter, that this year according to the Julian calendar falls on April, 24th, thousands of Greeks, Armenians, Copts, and other believers take the streets of Jerusalem in anxious waiting of the Holy Fire.

For this year, the Supreme Israeli Court of the Orthodox institutions of Jerusalem decided to allow the entrance in the Holy Sepulchre to four thousand people.

The darkness in the Basilica

But what is this fire? Where does it originate? And why is it so acclaimed?

To understand the importance and beauty of this day, so beloved by the Orthodox, you should try to enter the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, making your way through the crowds.

Outside it is broad daylight. Inside, an unusual darkness and confident expectation reign.

It is the culmination of the Easter Triduum for the Orthodox faithful throughout the world. All the lights in the Basilica are off. Only a beam of light from the midday sun touches the sacred shrine that holds the empty tomb of the risen Christ. The darkness symbolises the sad crucifixion and death of the Lord.

The most vigilant faithful recognise the footsteps of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilus III approaching the Basilica.

Jerusalem is a sea of crowds. Faithful, pilgrims, journalists, ordinary citizens, photographers, curious people. A multitude waiting for the miracle of light.

The firs to enter the great Basilica are the Armenians, whose task is to knock on the heavy main door. The heads of the Armenian, Syrian and Coptic Orthodox churches march in solemn procession. Everyone has their own seat; everyone knows where to go. The young Christians are the last to enter, accompanied by joyful traditional songs and festive music.

Each believer holds an unlit candle in their hand. When they reach the wayside shrine of the Holy Sepulchre, the procession makes three laps around it, invoking God to manifest Himself again this year through the holy light.

The expectation of the miracle

After the solemn procession, the long-awaited moment arrives. His Beatitude Theophilus III removes his liturgical vestments and approaches the door of the wayside shrine sealed with wax and honey. He holds in his hand two bundles of 33 candles, which are obviously extinguished. The Armenian Patriarch Nurhan Manougianis the only witness to the miracle and only he can enter together with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch.

The pile of wax is removed. The Armenian Patriarch remains in the antechamber, the Chapel of the Angel. The door of the wayside shrine closes behind His Beatitude Theophilus III. He kneels down. He recites a prayer for the coming of the miracle. In the Basilica, a sea of faithful, many weeping. The strongest ones manage to push their way to the small windows at the side of the Sepulchre, so as to be the first to catch a glimpse of the Holy Fire.

After a few moments, the Greek Patriarch emerges triumphant from the Holy Place with two flaming candle bundles. The miracle is accomplished. According to Orthodox tradition, on Holy Saturday, a flame appears on the stone of the Holy Sepulchre as a sign of the Resurrection of Christ. It is the victory of the Son of God over death. A roar of joy and tears fills the Basilica. The faithful push to receive the Holy Fire, a fire that, according to them, does not burn the skin for the first 33 minutes. In the blink of an eye, the miraculous light pours into the entire Basilica, which had been dark just a few moments before. It is the defeat of darkness and the advent of light.

The Holy Fire in the world.

The bells of the Holy Sepulchre ring out in celebration.

This year, participation is expected to be very close to pre-Covid levels. In April 2020, the faithful of the Christian quarter, armed with candles, had to wait for the arrival of the fire on their doorstep.

Today, bagpipes, chants, cymbals, dances, drums are back: since centuries, the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem fill up with music and torches,passing from hand to hand to all the people that this year will be back celebrating this day of celebration on the streets.

But it is not only Orthodox Jerusalem that waits for the Holy Fire. Special airplanes take off from the Tel Aviv airport with lanterns containing the sacred light. Destination Russia, Greek, Poland, Ukraine, and other countries of East Europe. All the Orthodox churches must wait the arrival of Holy Fire in order to celebrate, at night, the Easter Vigil. .