In EnglishΘαύματα και θαυμαστά γεγονόταΟρθόδοξη πίστη

The Holy Flame: the Greatness of the Miracle, and the Helplessness of the Skeptics

8 Ιανουαρίου 2010

The Holy Flame: the Greatness of the Miracle, and the Helplessness of the Skeptics

The Holy Edicule after the descent of the Holy Fire

Why do atheists and skeptics want to destroy faith?

During the long history of Christianity, there has never been a single miracle that skeptics and atheists have not tried to disprove. They have used and still use every possible means in this bat­tle. Even St. John Chrysostom talked about those [the chief priests and Pharisees] who denied the miracle of the Resurrection, saying, “But note, I pray thee, their plotting, how ridiculous it is. They [the chief priests and Pharisees] say, ‘Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, “After three days I will rise again”’ (Matthew 27:63). Yet if He were a deceiver, and boastfully spoke falsehood, why are ye afraid, and why do ye rush about, and make such a com­motion? They reply, ‘We are afraid that the disciples might steal Him away, and deceive the multitude.’ And yet it has been proved [in the previous paragraph of his homily] that this could in no way happen. Malice, however, is a thing obstinate and shameless, and attempts to do what is foolish” (The Homilies of St. John Chrysostom on the Gospel of St. Matthew. Homily LXXXIX 2).

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For the two thousand years that unbelievers have been fighting with Christianity, they have never lost their obstinacy. One might pose the question: why do some people, instead of doing something positive, waste so much time and energy trying to disprove facts and causes that they do not believe in and that they have no personal relationship with? Why is it so important for them to destroy someone else’s faith? Why do some people make the dissemination of disbelief their profession? Until very recently, in Russia there were still associate-professors and even full professors of “scientific atheism”.

In the charter of the “Union of Militant Atheists”, the first article was formulated in this way: “the Union of Militant Atheists is a voluntary proletarian social organization whose goal is to unite the working masses of the USSR for the active, systematic and unrelenting struggle against religion, in all of its aspects and forms, since it hinders socialist construction and cultural revolution.”

But now, there is no “construction of socialism”. What, in the eyes of contemporary militant skeptics, is being hindered by the Christianity of millions of people?

The reason for their opposition is found in the demonic nature of atheism, and of all adamant disbelief and skepticism, which in appearance manifest themselves in different forms in different epochs but whose underlying [demonic] nature remains the same. In the times of Soviet atheism, the main root of this phenomenon was found in pride, which led to the God-hating replacing of Christianity by the ideology of an “earthly paradise”; whereas now the fundamental causes of mass atheism are passions and lusts, which the majority of people have fallen into and indulge themselves in. “Disbelief proceeds from a life of vice and from vanity” (St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople +407 AD). [Note: Words are sometimes underlined in this English translation to make clear an emphasis present in the original Russian.—trans.]

Suspicions and conjecture instead of evidence and reasonable arguments.

Skeptics completely neglect the rules and methods—that have taken centuries to develop—that are used to determine the validity of facts and conclusions. What I have in mind here are the fields of logic and its laws, scientific investigation and scholarly research, and the science of jurisprudence and acceptable evidence in court.

Logic formulates rules for proof and for the substantiation of assertions and conclusions. For the formulation of any conclusion, the premises should be valid; and conclusions should be drawn only when they correspond to (the philosopher and mathematician) Leibniz’s “law of sufficient reason”. In accordance with this law, “for any idea to be valid, there should be sufficient grounds [sufficient reason]; that is, a conclusion should have substantiation [or grounds] proceeding from propositions and assertions that have already been proven.” Skeptics not only themselves doubt the validity of the miracle of the Holy Flame, they also try to convince the rest of the world that every year, for many centuries, a fraud and deception have been committed. How do they try to prove this?

Because the skeptics often make use of the concepts of “eye-witness” and “[personal] testimony”, it is important to turn to the field of Law, or Jurisprudence, as a branch of learning, because centuries–old international legal custom and established legal practices have worked out clear, well-defined criteria which precisely determine who can be admitted as a witness in a court-case. In all systems of law, and even in the everyday use of the word “witness”, a witness is a person who was personally present at a given event, that is, he saw it with his own eyes, was an eyewitness.

Pseudo-witnesses and pseudo-evidence. Skeptics of the Holy Fire use as “witnesses” people who were not participants nor present in any way at the described event. So, for example, they use quotes by Ibn al-Qalanisi* († 1162), al-Jawharī* († 1242), and Mudjir ad-din* († c. 1496). [*The spelling of foreign names, transcribed here from the Russian, may not always be accurate.]

Ibn al-Qalanisi:

“When they are [in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre] on Easter, they hang oil lamps [lampadas] in the sanctuary, and use trickery so that fire will travel to them by means of Balsam-tree oil and devices making use of that oil. It works because one of this oil’s properties is that it catches on fire when it is combined with Jasmine oil. This flame is of a bright light and a resplendent radiance. They cleverly stretch between neighboring oil lamps a taut iron wire as thin as a thread, which runs sequentially from one lamp to another, and they rub it [this iron thread] with the oil from the Balsam tree, hiding this from view until [the oil] has gone along the thread to each lamp. When they are praying and the time of the descent of the sacred flame approaches, the doors of the altar are opened where they believe that the cradle of Isa [Jesus] is—peace be upon Him—and [believe that] from there He [also] ascended into heaven. They enter and light many candles, and in the building it becomes hot from the breathing of the multitude of people. One of the people standing [near] tries to bring [his candle-]flame close to the iron thread, and it [the flame] catches [onto the iron thread] and proceeds to each lamp, from one to the other, until all of them are lit. Whoever sees this, thinks that fire has descended from heaven and lit the lamps.”


“And the thing is that this lampada [oil lamp] is the greatest of tricks, set up by the first generations; I will explain this to you, and reveal the secret: The fact is that at the top of the cupola there is an iron box which is attached to a chain by which it is hung [from the cupola]. It [the chain] is attached to the very dome of the cupola, and nobody sees it except for this monk [mentioned earlier by al-Jawharī]. And on this chain is the box, which is empty inside. When the evening of the “Saturday of the light” approaches, the monk climbs up to the box and puts in it some sulfur similar to a “sanbuseka”, and under it [he puts] fire, [which is all] calculated to the hour when he needs the descent of the holy fire. He rubs the chain with oil from the Balsam tree; and when the time comes, the fire lights the composition at the place where the chain and the attached box meet. The Balsam oil collects at that point, and begins to flow down the chain, going down to the oil lamp. The fire touches the wick of the lamp, which has already been soaked with Balsam oil, and lights it.”

The skeptics took these excerpts from the work of orientalist [specialist in Eastern studies] I.Yu. Krachkovsky (“The Holy Fire” according to the story of al-Biruni and other Moslem writers 10-13th C.//The Christian East. Petrograd, 1915. Vol.3. 3rd Ed. in Russian). They borrowed these statements [quoted above], but either did not read the commentary to them of Krachkovsky himself, or else chose to ignore it.

[Krachkovsky writes:] “In the above-given survey, it is easy to see the main thing distinguishing Moslem stories about the miracle from Christian [reports about it]. The Moslem stories are all understandably brief, sometimes coming down to a simple mentioning (al-Djakhiz, ‘Ali-al-Kherevi); none of them is based on personal observation. The one exception is Ibn-al-Djawzi and its source, al-Biruni, analysis of which we will defer for the time being. The fact that these are transmissions of a third-hand account explains such immediately obvious mistakes, as the date in al-Mac’udi, or Ibn-al-Qalanisi’s report of the belief of Christians about the place of the birth and ascension of Jesus Christ[as supposedly being the same place as His Resurrection]. In these stories, the factual side comes down to very little; from them we can sift out only that, during the whole time relating to the lives of the above-mentioned authors, the miracle took place every year and was a well-known, regularly-occurring event. Description of the miracle itself and of the whole rite is found solely in Ibn-al-Djawsi [this is the eyewitness-account reported by al Biruni which will be analyzed below]. All the remaining elements of the other reports should be regarded not as legitimate, historical accounts but as legendary stories. In one of them, with complete obviousness, are the telling effects of literary editing and reworking of the plot; this is the story [not quoted in this article] about the conversation of the high-ranking person with the monk concerning the “real” cause of the miracle. This story may have arisen as an attempt to give meaning to the destruction by al-Hakim [the mad caliph] of the Jerusalem church through [the literary technique of] his possible conversation with someone in his retinue, as presented originally by Ibn-al-Qalanisi and al-Hariri [spelling?]. All the subsequent versions clearly represent reworkings of the storyline and details, where instead of al-Hakim is a ruler (in Yakut = Al-Kasvini) or al-Melik al-Mu’assam (in al-Jawharī’s story) or, finally, Saladdin himself (in Ibn-al_Djawzi; and instead of someone in his retinue—a monk (in-al-Jawharī), a priest (in Yakut = al-Kasvini) or [even] the patriarch (in Ibn-al-Djawzi).

[The quote from Krachkovsky continues:] The second obvious element in these stories is the attempt to explain away the miracle. This explanation in part comes from the author himself (al-Jawharī, Ibn-al-Djawzi, Mudjir-ad-din), in part is inserted into the story of the conversation of the ruler with the Christian churchman. (Ibn-al-Qalanisi, Yakut). The very diversity of these explanations, and the way they contradict each other, indicate that here also it is hardly possible to expect a basis in fact. In Ibn-al-Qalanisi and Mudjir-ad-din, this explanation comes down to lighting an iron thread which runs to all the lampadas; or (closer to contemporary practice) to one lampada, appearing in Yakuta and al-Jawharī. According to the words of the former [Yakuta], the thread is simply lit; according to the latter, the wick bursts into flame from a complex, hidden apparatus containing sulfur, calculated to a known time. In the latter account, there is also an inner contradiction: at the beginning, he says that all Christians are participants in the conspiracy regarding this “sham” miracle; at the end of the story, however, it is revealed that the secret is known only to the monk who sets up the apparatus.” [End of quote from Krachkovsky’s commentary.]

Filtering of [or sifting through] sources. The skeptics, having set forth from Krachkovsky several “debunking” excerpts from Moslem authors, the stories of whom according to the opinion of I.Yu. Krachkovsky are contradictory and have no “basis in fact”, the skeptics deliberately bypass in silence [or filter out] Krachkovsky’s report of the well-known scholar of Xorezma, Ibu Reixana Muxammeda ibn Axmed al-Biruni [or simply “al Biruni”] (973-1048), who sets forth the story of a person who was actually present at the descent of the Holy Fire. Al-Biruni himself has full confidence in this narrating person, and both of them acknowledge it as a great miracle: “[All] around are [small, natural] little cliffs [inside the Church of the Lord’s Sepulcher] which are like balconies on which are Moslems, Christians, and all who come to the Tomb on this day, bowing down before God and supplicating him from noon till evening. The muezzin from the main mosque and the imam and the emir of the city arrive. They sit near the Tomb, bringing lampadas which they put on the Tomb; and it [the Tomb] is shut. Christians before this extinguish all their candles and lampadas and remain thus until they see that a pure white fire lights the lampada. From it are lighted the lampadas in the main mosque and in the churches; and then they write to the capital of the Caliphate informing them of the time when the fire descended. According to the quickness of the descent and its closeness [in time] to noon, they make a conclusion about [the abundance of] the harvest that year; according to its [the descent’s] delay until evening and distance (from noonday)—about the leanness of the harvest.

This narrating person told me also that once one of the [Moslem] rulers instead of a wick [in the lampada] put copper so that it wouldn’t light and thus the whole thing would collapse. But when the fire descended, the copper itself caught fire. The descent of this fire on a [particular] day [Great Saturday], the date of which changes from year, is not so much cause for amazement as its appearance without visible material, which is much more amazing. It is impossible to have doubts about this….” [this quote from al Biruni is also taken from: I.Yu. Krachkovsky. “The Holy Fire” according to the story of al-Biruni and other Moslem writers 10-13th C.]

This description, coming not from a Christian, but from a Moslem who has no interest in composing anything in favor of Christianity, is sufficient to make useless all the vain attempts of the skeptics. What is most important in this story?

1. Into a Christian church come the muezzin* of the main mosque, and the imam and emir of the city, all bringing lampadas. For what purpose? In order to receive a “pure white fire”. If the Christians received this fire from an already burning lampada or with the help of a “lighter”, then why from this flame do they light all the lamps in the main mosque? [muezzin: the crier who issues the call to prayer five times a day from one of the minarets of a mosque.]

2. Al-Biruni speaks directly about the descent of the fire.

3. Then they write to the capital of the Caliphate about the time of the descent of the fire. Why? In it [the time] Moslems see a sign: according to the quickness of the descent, “they make a conclusion about [the abundance of] the harvest that year.”

4. Al-Biruni writes about one more miracle: “…when the fire descended, the copper itself caught fire.”

It is appropriate here to raise a simple question: If this didn’t really take place, why would a Moslem invent it and elevate Christianity?

And thus the skeptics filter, or sift through, the sources. This sifting of the sources is forbidden by scientific and scholarly methodology. The academic community has undertaken much effort in order to protect the fields of scholarly and scientific knowledge from various fabrications and counterfeits. One point which is directed to the battle against various forms of intellectual fraud is stated thus, “Methodologically forbidden: The ignoring of facts and information substantially differing from the rest, without making note of it.” The skeptics engage in this.

 The miracle of the descent of the Holy Fire is a real occurrence. In contrast to the complete lack of hard evidence for the skeptics’ assertions, the miracle of the descent of the Holy Fire is an annual and observable event. Every year several thousand people present in the Church of the Lord’s Tomb witness: into the previously inspected and sealed Edicule*, the Patriarch—whose clothing has been specially searched—enters with a cluster of 33 [unlit] candles. This is a fact. According to the expression of ancient Roman judges, contra factum non est argumentum (There is no argument against a fact). In answer to this, the skeptics have only suspicions and conjectures. The extreme artificiality of the objection of the skeptics is obvious, if you bear in mind that in the inspection of the Edicule, in its sealing, and in the searching of the Patriarch, every year representatives of other Christian confessions take part.

[*Edicule: the small, free-standing chapel [inside the huge Church of the Resurrection] enclosing the tomb of the Lord. Another name for the Edicule is “Holy Ciborium”.]

Father Mitrophan Papaioannu, who for 57 years was a guard at the chapel [Edicule] of the Lord’s Sepulchre, reported the following particulars to Archimandrite Savva Axilleos: Between 10-11am on Great Saturday [the day before Pascha (Easter)] a rigorous search and inspection is carried out. Special authorized persons enter the Edicule of the Holy Tomb, over which [Tomb] hang 43 golden lampadas; these lampadas burn day and night: 13 of them belong to the Orthodox, 13 to the Catholics, 13 to the Armenians, and 4 to the Copts. These lampadas, like light-bearing angelic ranks, are spread as a canopy over the Tomb of Christ. Into the interior of the Life-bearing Tomb [for this inspection] enter only specially authorized officials in order to, at the last minute before the Patriarch enters, extinguish all 43 lampadas. On the day of the descent of the Holy Fire has been imposed a most-rigorous order which for centuries here has been strictly complied with. On this day without fail, to inspect and monitor everything, are present the representatives of other Christian confessions: the Catholics, Armenians and Copts; together into the Edicule with them also enters the authorized Orthodox representative. Their presence has only one goal: to make sure that there has not been a lampada left burning or some kind of object from which a fire could be ignited, and also that no one is hidden there. The Edicule is inspected three times. Having extinguished all lampadas and candles, the representatives leave the Edicule. The [huge, overarching] Church of the Life-Bearing Tomb of the Lord is plunged into total darkness. Exactly at 11:00 o’clock in the morning of Great Saturday is carried out the procedure of sealing [the entry into] the Tomb. By this time the wax–on which beforehand has been served 40 liturgies—has been prepared; that is, softened in advance for attachment of the seal onto the entry to the Edicule. Then two enormous white ribbons, intersecting each other in the form of the Cross, cover the doors of the entry to the Edicule; the ends of these ribbons flutter, adorning the entry to the Edicule. To the double-doors [of the entry], on all four sides is applied a sufficient quantity of wax; and in the place where the ribbons intersect, is applied the largest part of the wax; and then the entrance to the Edicule is sealed with the official seal of the Patriarch. This procedure brings to mind the hopeless attempt of the Jewish chief priests and the Pharisees, desiring to seal the Tomb of the Author of life with a seal so that His disciples could not steal His body. And coming before the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate in order to receive legal permission for this, they said, ‘“Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, ‘After three days I will rise again’”…. Pilate said unto them, “Ye have a watch: go your way, make it as sure as ye can.” So they went, and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch’ (Matthew 27:63-66). After they [these representatives] seal the doors of the Tomb, exactly at 11 o’clock on the morning of Great Saturday begins a procession of the cross around the Edicule. They go around three times. This solemn Cross-procession is accompanied by the singing of psalms; the whole church resounds with wondrous sacred Byzantine hymns. The divine sounds of psalms and sacred songs rings throughout the whole church. The Patriarch and all the hierarchs [i.e., bishops], vested in golden chasubles, process around the Edicule accompanied by all the holy clergy. At the head of the procession go the subdeacons with candlesticks and six-winged ripidia [representing cherubim] in their hands, preceding the precious Cross of the Lord. This solemn Byzantine procession carries the pilgrim to another sphere of being. For a time, all standing and praying here become citizens of Heaven. After the third procession around the Edicule, the Patriarch stops opposite its entrance; at this time they subject him to the most thorough and meticulous search in the presence of the authorized representatives of the other Christian confessions plus the official persons and all the God-fearing people. This inspection is done to eliminate any suspicion about the possibility of the presence on him of some object by which he could light a fire when he goes alone into the Edicule. After this procedure, the Patriarch, wearing only a simple under-tunic, epitrachelion [priest’s stole], and hierarchal [episcopal] omophorion, enters the Edicule. And so exactly at 12 o’clock in the afternoon, the ribbons are cut and the seal is removed from the entrance to the Edicule.” (Savva Axilleos, Archimandrite. I Saw the Holy Fire. Athens, 2002).

I ask your forgiveness for the preceding long quote. I presented it because the skeptics try to convince their readers that this search on Great Saturday is a sham. The atheists consciously disregard the fact that the present custom of inspection of all actions connected with the receiving of the fire (the inspection of the chapel, the seal on the doors, the guards, and also the inspection of the Patriarch) arose under circumstances of a fierce struggle against Christianity by the Moslems, who ruled Jerusalem from the 7th century to the beginning of the 20th (with the exception of the 12th century). The Turkish authorities desired to discredit this phenomenon, and employed every means to prevent the kindling of this fire, because it attests that Christianity is of God. The skeptics cunningly withhold the fact that the Turks, capturing Palestine in 1517 [from the also-moslem Marmelukes], every year for 400 years subjected the Patriarch and the Edicule to a search which was not at all “theatrical”, as some unbelievers insultingly express it.

What prevented the Islamic rulers from proving the Fire to be a fraud, thus unmasking the Christians and depriving them of impressive testimony of the truth of their Faith?

This is what a Russian pilgrim wrote in the 17th century: “And as the Pascha of Christ approached, on the Friday of Holy Week, near vespers, by the order of the Pasha, the Turks (God’s mercy) unsealed the great church—the holy of holies and the Resurrection of Christ; and the Metropolitan, and the Archbishop, and the elders, and every rank of people believing in Christ, pilgrims and local [inhabitants], Greeks and Arabs, entered the church and began to chant vespers[….]And the time drew near to chant the festal vespers, and the Metropolitan went up to the chapel where the Lord’s Tomb was. And the chapel at that time was sealed, and fire was extinguished; and the Turks thoroughly searched the Metropolitan, to make sure that he had no flint(stone), nor kindling, nor tinder, nor sulphur; and that chapel they did unseal for him. And the Metropolitan is at the doors of the chapel and beholds the Deisis , directly to the East, and upwards to heaven he looks, where the broken cupola is, raising praise to God with tender compunction of heart and with tears; and prayed [thus] for two hours. And as the clock struck the 11th hour, over the cupola of that great church, thunder from heaven resounded three times; and the Greeks and the Arabs began to cry out with a great voice, ‘Agios, agios, agios’, which in our language is ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Saboath’, and they began crossing themselves. After this thunder, three bluish grey doves did come flying [up]; and these three doves sat on that broken cupola: one sat from the East, and the second sat from the South [lit: noonday] and the third to the West. And the metropolitan crossed himself, and went up to that chapel, and was there for a long time; and the revered old man was standing outside that chapel at the doors and often looking into that chapel—now he opens, now he closes. Then above the Lord’s Tomb the lampada first was ignited from heavenly fire; and in a short time, from that chapel the metropolitan came out and brought out two bunches of lighted candles in both hands and stood in the High Place* where a place had been prepared for him, and all Christians light their candles from the metropolitan, and the Turks after this lit candles; and that heavenly fire … not like an earthly fire.” (The Life and Journey to Jerusalem and Egypt of Kazan citizen Vasily Yakovlevich Gagara (1634-1637) //Orthodox Palestinian Collection [of Stories]. Saint Petersburg, 1891. Issue 33. Pp. 33-34.) [*the High Place: the raised place in the very east side of the altar where a bishop sits.]

Could it really be that, over the course of 400 years, the Pasha and his [fearsome] janissaries were so weak and feeble that they would not have to put an end to this custom if it had been a fraud?

The Holy Fire has been descending every year for more than one thousand years. Let us conditionally take as an origin for the miracle the report of the European monk, Father Bernard (c.865 or 870), who unambiguously refers to the miracle of the descent of the Holy Fire: “On Great Saturday, on the day before Pascha [Easter], in the morning church service in the Church of the Lord’s Tomb, after the singing of “Kyrie Eleison” (Lord, have mercy), an angel descends and lights the lampadas hanging over the Tomb of the Lord. The Patriarch passes this fire on to the bishop and finally to all the people, so that each person can light this fire in his own home. The present Patriarch is named Theodosius [863-879]; he was called to this position because of his piety.” (quoted from: Dimitrievsky A.A. The Holy Fire at the Lord’s Tomb on Great Saturday. Saint Petersburg, 1908. p. vi).

From that patriarch, Theodosius, to the present patriarch, Theophilus, there have been72 patriarchs. In the years 1931-1935 and 2000-2001, the Jerusalem cathedra was “widowed”; and the Holy Fire was received by metropolitans. Could it really be that for 11 ½ centuries, not one of the 72 heads of the Church plus several metropolitans, was prevented by his Christian conscience from committing such a grave sin—the intentional and callous deception of a host of believers? One must also add that in the Edicule together with the Orthodox Patriarch is present an Armenian bishop. The previously mentioned guard at the Tomb, Father Mitrophan, relates: “Then with my own eyes, I saw how they sealed with wax the Edicule, [myself] standing there next to them, at the doors to the Tomb. After the solemn Procession of the Cross, exactly at 12 o’clock noon, the doors of the Edicule were opened wide, all the ribbons and wax were removed, and the first to enter in was the Patriarch. After him in the capacity of an observer, followed the representative of the Armenian Church having primacy. A [main] duty of his is to carefully observe every move of the Patriarch. Usually into the second [inner] part of the Edicule, where the Life-Giving Tomb of the Lord is located, he [the Armenian representative] may not enter, [but] only observes the actions of our Patriarch from the Angel-narthex [the immediately adjacent first part of the Edicule].”

The skeptics don’t even consider the moral implications of their activity: in asserting their rightness of their claim, the skeptics must perforce defame all the Patriarchs of the Orthodox Church for one thousand years, imputing each them of lying, mercenariness, and cowardice.

To be continued….