St. Basil the Great, Archbishop of Cæsarea in Cappadocia

St. Basil the Great of Cappadocia (329–379)

St. Basil the Great of Cappadocia (329–379)

Saint Basil the Great, Archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, “belongs not to the Church of Caesarea alone, nor merely to his own time, nor was he of benefit only to his own kinsmen, but rather to all lands and cities worldwide, and to all people he brought and still brings benefit, and for Christians he always was and will be a most salvific teacher.” Thus spoke Saint Basil’s contemporary, Saint Amphilochius, Bishop of Iconium.

Saint Basil was born in the year 330 at Caesarea, the administrative center of Cappadocia. He was of illustrious lineage, famed for its eminence and wealth, and zealous for the Christian Faith. The saint’s grandfather and grandmother on his father’s side had to hide in the forests of Pontus for seven years during the persecution under Diocletian.

Saint Basil’s mother Saint Emilia was the daughter of a martyr. On the Greek calendar, she is commemorated on May 30. Saint Basil’s father was also named Basil. He was a lawyer and renowned rhetorician, and lived at Caesarea.

Ten children were born to the elder Basil and Emilia: five sons and five daughters. Five of them were later numbered among the saints: Basil the Great; Macrina (July 19) was an exemplar of ascetic life, and exerted strong influence on the life and character of Saint Basil the Great; Gregory, afterwards Bishop of Nyssa (January 10); Peter, Bishop of Sebaste (January 9); and Theosebia, a deaconess (January 10).

Saint Basil spent the first years of his life on an estate belonging to his parents at the River Iris, where he was raised under the supervision of his mother Emilia and grandmother Macrina. They were women of great refinement, who remembered an earlier bishop of Cappadocia, Saint Gregory the Wonderworker (November 17). Basil received his initial education under the supervision of his father, and then he studied under the finest teachers in Caesarea of Cappadocia, and it was here that he made the acquaintance of Saint Gregory the Theologian (January 25 and January 30). Later, Basil transferred to a school at Constantinople, where he listened to eminent orators and philosophers. To complete his education Saint Basil went to Athens, the center of classical enlightenment.

After a four or five year stay at Athens, Basil had mastered all the available disciplines. “He studied everything thoroughly, more than others are wont to study a single subject. He studied each science in its very totality, as though he would study nothing else.” Philosopher, philologist, orator, jurist, naturalist, possessing profound knowledge in astronomy, mathematics and medicine, “he was a ship fully laden with learning, to the extent permitted by human nature.”

At Athens a close friendship developed between Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian (Nazianzus), which continued throughout their life. In fact, they regarded themselves as one soul in two bodies. Later on, in his eulogy for Basil the Great, Saint Gregory the Theologian speaks with delight about this period: “Various hopes guided us, and indeed inevitably, in learning… Two paths opened up before us: the one to our sacred temples and the teachers therein; the other towards preceptors of disciplines beyond.”

About the year 357, Saint Basil returned to Caesarea, where for a while he devoted himself to rhetoric. But soon, refusing offers from Caesarea’s citizens who wanted to entrust him with the education of their offspring, Saint Basil entered upon the path of ascetic life.

After the death of her husband, Basil’s mother, her eldest daughter Macrina, and several female servants withdrew to the family estate at Iris and there began to lead an ascetic life. Basil was baptized by Dianios, the Bishop of Caesarea, and was tonsured a Reader (On the Holy Spirit, 29). He first read the Holy Scriptures to the people, then explained them.

Later on, “wishing to acquire a guide to the knowledge of truth”, the saint undertook a journey into Egypt, Syria and Palestine, to meet the great Christian ascetics dwelling there. On returning to Cappadocia, he decided to do as they did. He distributed his wealth to the needy, then settled on the opposite side of the river not far from his mother Emilia and sister Macrina, gathering around him monks living a cenobitic life.

By his letters, Basil drew his good friend Gregory the Theologian to the monastery. Saints Basil and Gregory labored in strict abstinence in their dwelling place, which had no roof or fireplace, and the food was very humble. They themselves cleared away the stones, planted and watered the trees, and carried heavy loads. Their hands were constantly calloused from the hard work. For clothing Basil had only a tunic and monastic mantle. He wore a hairshirt, but only at night, so that it would not be obvious.

In their solitude, Saints Basil and Gregory occupied themselves in an intense study of Holy Scripture. They were guided by the writings of the Fathers and commentators of the past, especially the good writings of Origen. From all these works they compiled an anthology called Philokalia. Also at this time, at the request of the monks, Saint Basil wrote down a collection of rules for virtuous life. By his preaching and by his example Saint Basil assisted in the spiritual perfection of Christians in Cappadocia and Pontus; and many indeed turned to him. Monasteries were organized for men and for women, in which places Basil sought to combine the cenobitic (koine bios, or common) lifestyle with that of the solitary hermit.

During the reign of Constantius (337-361) the heretical teachings of Arius were spreading, and the Church summoned both its saints into service. Saint Basil returned to Caesarea. In the year 362 he was ordained deacon by Bishop Meletius of Antioch. In 364 he was ordained to the holy priesthood by Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea. “But seeing,” as Gregory the Theologian relates, “that everyone exceedingly praised and honored Basil for his wisdom and reverence, Eusebius, through human weakness, succumbed to jealousy of him, and began to show dislike for him.” The monks rose up in defense of Saint Basil. To avoid causing Church discord, Basil withdrew to his own monastery and concerned himself with the organization of monasteries.

With the coming to power of the emperor Valens (364-378), who was a resolute adherent of Arianism, a time of troubles began for Orthodoxy, the onset of a great struggle. Saint Basil hastily returned to Caesarea at the request of Bishop Eusebius. In the words of Gregory the Theologian, he was for Bishop Eusebius “a good advisor, a righteous representative, an expounder of the Word of God, a staff for the aged, a faithful support in internal matters, and an activist in external matters.”

From this time church governance passed over to Basil, though he was subordinate to the hierarch. He preached daily, and often twice, in the morning and in the evening. During this time Saint Basil composed his Liturgy. He wrote a work “On the Six Days of Creation” (Hexaemeron) and another on the Prophet Isaiah in sixteen chapters, yet another on the Psalms, and also a second compilation of monastic rules. Saint Basil wrote also three books “Against Eunomius,” an Arian teacher who, with the help of Aristotelian concepts, had presented the Arian dogma in philosophic form, converting Christian teaching into a logical scheme of rational concepts.

Saint Gregory the Theologian, speaking about the activity of Basil the Great during this period, points to “the caring for the destitute and the taking in of strangers, the supervision of virgins, written and unwritten monastic rules for monks, the arrangement of prayers [Liturgy], the felicitous arrangement of altars and other things.” Upon the death of Eusebius, the Bishop of Caesarea, Saint Basil was chosen to succed him in the year 370. As Bishop of Caesarea, Saint Basil the Great was the newest of fifty bishops in eleven provinces. Saint Athanasius the Great (May 2), with joy and with thanks to God welcomed the appointment to Cappadocia of such a bishop as Basil, famed for his reverence, deep knowledge of Holy Scripture, great learning, and his efforts for the welfare of Church peace and unity.

Under Valens, the external government belonged to the Arians, who held various opinions regarding the divinity of the Son of God, and were divided into several factions. These dogmatic disputes were concerned with questions about the Holy Spirit. In his books Against Eunomios, Saint Basil the Great taught the divinity of the Holy Spirit and His equality with the Father and the Son. Subsequently, in order to provide a full explanation of Orthodox teaching on this question, Saint Basil wrote his book On the Holy Spirit at the request of Saint Amphilochius, the Bishop of Iconium.

Saint Basil’s difficulties were made worse by various circumstances: Cappadocia was divided in two under the rearrangement of provincial districts. Then at Antioch a schism occurred, occasioned by the consecration of a second bishop. There was the negative and haughty attitude of Western bishops to the attempts to draw them into the struggle with the Arians. And there was also the departure of Eustathius of Sebaste over to the Arian side. Basil had been connected to him by ties of close friendship. Amidst the constant perils Saint Basil gave encouragement to the Orthodox, confirmed them in the Faith, summoning them to bravery and endurance. The holy bishop wrote numerous letters to the churches, to bishops, to clergy and to individuals. Overcoming the heretics “by the weapon of his mouth, and by the arrows of his letters,” as an untiring champion of Orthodoxy, Saint Basil challenged the hostility and intrigues of the Arian heretics all his life. He has been compared to a bee, stinging the Church’s enemies, yet nourishing his flock with the sweet honey of his teaching.

The emperor Valens, mercilessly sending into exile any bishop who displeased him, and having implanted Arianism into other Asia Minor provinces, suddenly appeared in Cappadocia for this same purpose. He sent the prefect Modestus to Saint Basil. He began to threaten the saint with the confiscation of his property, banishment, beatings, and even death.

Saint Basil said, “If you take away my possessions, you will not enrich yourself, nor will you make me a pauper. You have no need of my old worn-out clothing, nor of my few books, of which the entirety of my wealth is comprised. Exile means nothing to me, since I am bound to no particular place. This place in which I now dwell is not mine, and any place you send me shall be mine. Better to say: every place is God’s. Where would I be neither a stranger and sojourner (Ps. 38/39:13)? Who can torture me? I am so weak, that the very first blow would render me insensible. Death would be a kindness to me, for it will bring me all the sooner to God, for Whom I live and labor, and to Whom I hasten.”

The official was stunned by his answer. “No one has ever spoken so audaciously to me,” he said.

“Perhaps,” the saint remarked, “ that is because you’ve never spoken to a bishop before. In all else we are meek, the most humble of all. But when it concerns God, and people rise up against Him, then we, counting everything else as naught, look to Him alone. Then fire, sword, wild beasts and iron rods that rend the body, serve to fill us with joy, rather than fear.”

Reporting to Valens that Saint Basil was not to be intimidated, Modestus said, “Emperor, we stand defeated by a leader of the Church.” Basil the Great again showed firmness before the emperor and his retinue and made such a strong impression on Valens that the emperor dared not give in to the Arians demanding Basil’s exile. “On the day of Theophany, amidst an innumerable multitude of the people, Valens entered the church and mixed in with the throng, in order to give the appearance of being in unity with the Church. When the singing of Psalms began in the church, it was like thunder to his hearing. The emperor beheld a sea of people, and in the altar and all around was splendor; in front of all was Basil, who acknowledged neither by gesture nor by glance, that anything else was going on in church.” Everything was focused only on God and the altar-table, and the clergy serving there in awe and reverence.

Saint Basil celebrated the church services almost every day. He was particularly concerned about the strict fulfilling of the Canons of the Church, and took care that only worthy individuals should enter into the clergy. He incessantly made the rounds of his own church, lest anywhere there be an infraction of Church discipline, and setting aright any unseemliness. At Caesarea, Saint Basil built two monasteries, a men’s and a women’s, with a church in honor of the Forty Martyrs (March 9) whose relics were buried there. Following the example of monks, the saint’s clergy, even deacons and priests, lived in remarkable poverty, to toil and lead chaste and virtuous lives. For his clergy Saint Basil obtained an exemption from taxation. He used all his personal wealth and the income from his church for the benefit of the destitute; in every center of his diocese he built a poor-house; and at Caesarea, a home for wanderers and the homeless.

Sickly since youth, the toil of teaching, his life of abstinence, and the concerns and sorrows of pastoral service took their toll on him. Saint Basil died on January 1, 379 at age 49. Shortly before his death, the saint blessed Saint Gregory the Theologian to accept the See of Constantinople.

Upon the repose of Saint Basil, the Church immediately began to celebrate his memory. Saint Amphilochius, Bishop of Iconium (November 23), in his eulogy to Saint Basil the Great, said: “It is neither without a reason nor by chance that holy Basil has taken leave from the body and had repose from the world unto God on the day of the Circumcision of Jesus, celebrated between the day of the Nativity and the day of the Baptism of Christ. Therefore, this most blessed one, preaching and praising the Nativity and Baptism of Christ, extolling spiritual circumcision, himself forsaking the flesh, now ascends to Christ on the sacred day of remembrance of the Circumcision of Christ. Therefore, let it also be established on this present day annually to honor the memory of Basil the Great festively and with solemnity.”

Saint Basil is also called “the revealer of heavenly mysteries” (Ouranophantor), a “renowned and bright star,” and “the glory and beauty of the Church.” His honorable head is in the Great Lavra on Mount Athos.

In some countries it is customary to sing special carols today in honor of Saint Basil. He is believed to visit the homes of the faithful, and a place is set for him at the table. People visit the homes of friends and relatives, and the mistress of the house gives a small gift to the children. A special bread (Vasilopita) is blessed and distributed after the Liturgy. A silver coin is baked into the bread, and whoever receives the slice with the coin is said to receive the blessing of Saint Basil for the coming year.

The Making of Christ Pulling Peter from the Water

Source: Orthodox Arts Journal

By Jonathan Pageau

Christ Pulls St-Peter from the Waters. Linden and gilding. 4′ x 5′. Carved by Jonathan Pageau.

Christ Pulls St-Peter from the Waters. Linden and gilding. 4′ x 5′. Carved by Jonathan Pageau.

Since I began icon carving full time 4 years ago now, I had a secret list of the things I wanted to make, certain objects and images that were dear to me.  To my own joy and surprise, I have been progressively checking off items from that list with ongoing commissions, making even those objects and icons I did not think could find patrons such as complex reliquaries, wedding crowns, opus sectile icons or the image of the Holy prophet Jonah.

One of the images I had secret hope of making is Christ pulling St-Peter out of the water. For those who have read some of my writings one can quickly see how it encompasses so much of my vision of the incarnation, of death, resurrection and the pastoral reminder on where to focus our eyes when advancing into the chaotic world.  So last year, when a patron commissioned this icon at a size of 4’ x 5’ for St. Peter Orthodox Church in Bonita Springs, Florida, I was ecstatic.   This is the biggest icon I have carved to date.

In working out the drawing for the icon carving, I based the composition on my favorite version of this event, a 12th century mosaic from Sicily.

12th century mosaic from Sicily

12th century mosaic from Sicily

Many details are different, but the basic composition is the same. I reduced the size of the boat to make it less overwhelming and to fully have St-Peter under the boat.  I also wanted to make sure we could see at least the eyes of all the Apostles.  I changed Christ’s left hand so that instead of holding a scroll, it was placed in a position suggesting the upcoming motion, the rising of St-Peter.  I also added a few details, such as a dragon head on the boat and I changed the shape of the mast and sail to suggest a Chi-Ro.

Process of the drawing from first sketch to finished sketch. This drawing was small, 8′ x 10″.

Process of the drawing from first sketch to finished sketch. This drawing was small, 8′ x 10″.

One of the things that kept changing as I worked on the drawings was just how deep Peter was in the water.  The priest of the parish, Fr. Hans Jacobse, commented that he really wanted the water to be high up on his body to give that sense of sinking, but this created some challenges for me because I still wanted us to see St-Peter.  Wood is generally opaque to say the least. In the mosaic version, there is wonderful use of transparency and so I began pondering just how it could be possible to at least suggest transparency in wood.

Final scaled drawing at 4′ x 5′. The level of water on St-Peter is higher than on the sketches and will still change in the final carving.

Final scaled drawing at 4′ x 5′. The level of water on St-Peter is higher than on the sketches and will still change in the final carving.

Icon in process, attempting to find ways to show the transparency of water. Also notice that in the final image, the water goes up to St-Peter’s shoulder.

Icon in process, attempting to find ways to show the transparency of water. Also notice that in the final image, the water goes up to St-Peter’s shoulder.

I wanted the composition of the water to say something about the event and so beyond suggestions of transparency to show that St-Peter is actually in the water, I also designed it so to have a wave wrapping around his right foot in an image of the Psalms:

The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me. (Psalm 116:3)

The water under Christ’s feet in contrast seems to shoot out from under them, organized by their contact with them. I gilded some of the water to add to this sense of the organizing and transfiguring effect Christ has on creation.

The wave wraps around St-Peter’s foot.

The wave wraps around St-Peter’s foot.

Water seems to organize itself at the touch of Christ’s feet.

Water seems to organize itself at the touch of Christ’s feet.

Visually, I was looking forward to taking further the experimentation in carving water I had begun in my icon of Jonah. I wanted to create a sense of almost overwhelming movement which would contrast with the vigorous yet safe relationship established between Christ and St-Peter. Christ holds St-Peter by a firm grip, reminding us of the grip Christ has on Adam in the icon of the resurrection. Their gazes are fixed on each other, Peter with a hint of surprise and Christ with calm compassion.

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When Christ appears to the Apostles floating at sea, the waters are rising in a tempest. Christ approaches them above the flood, mastering the chaos, the chaos of the primordial waters, the chaos of the passions, of doubt, of all that is in the world of death. St-Peter is the only one to dare walk out with Christ, but because of this boldness, when peering into the storm he panics and sinks. Which one of us has not experienced this? We can imagine St-Peter crying out:

Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold. (Psalm 69: 1,2)

But the face of Christ appears to him through the waves and his hand reaches to catch him. We can hear St-Peter confess:

He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. (Psalm 40:2)

This is St-Peter, the son of Jonah, both the stable “rock” and the one who sinks, the bold fisherman who finds the gold coin in the fish’s mouth, but also that one in constant danger of being swallowed by the sea.

This is his story repeated over and over in the Gospels, the story of the one who recognized Jesus as Christ then immediately called out by Christ to “get behind me Satan”, the one who tells Christ he will never deny him then deny him three times as the three days of Jonah in the fish, the three days of Christ in the grave. To meditate on this cycle in the story of St-Peter is to pierce so many mysteries of the Church, so many signs of the times and so many cycles in our own lives.

What is the end of this, what is the end of this story? When Christ appears to the disciples on the Sea of Galilee after his resurrection (John 21), it is the same sea in which St-Peter sank when attempting to walk on water. St-Peter recognizes his Lord on the land, and this time he does not walk on the water. This time his boldness leads him to dive into the deep, to put on his garment and voluntarily plunge, then to be asked three times by Christ: “Peter, son of Jonah, do you love me?” It is not when we walk on the water that we are closest to Christ, but it is when our boldness serves humility. It is when our boldness leads us to die that we are closest to the image of Christ. What impossible thoughts to consider, what scandal it is to fathom such things?

Coming back to our icon, we can say without hesitating that the image of St-Peter being pulled out of the waters is an image of our salvation in so many ways, and I find great joy in having made it.  I hope it will be a blessing for the parish to which it is headed.

Detail

Detail

Detail

Detail

Process of Icon Carving

Process of Icon Carving

Process of Icon Carving

Process of Icon Carving

Process of Icon Carving

Process of Icon Carving

Process of Icon Carving

Process of Icon Carving

Recipe for Phanouropita

Everyone loved Fr. Stephanos’ phanouropita so we published the recipe below!

St. Phanourios is a saint who helps us in difficult situations including finding lost things, employment troubles, a saint to go to when we need something we do not have. When he answers the custom is to bake a cake in gratitude and thanksgiving and share it with others.

St. Phanourios’ name “Phanourios” comes from the Greek word, φανερώνω “phanerono”, meaning “I reveal”.

Learn more about St. Phanourios on the Antiochian Archdiocese website.

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What is Salvation For?

Icon of the Holy Eucharist

Icon of the Holy Eucharist

From the Palamas Institute for Orthodox Christian Pastoral Studies.

By Fr. Gregory Jensen

If I ask myself this question at all, “What is salvation for?” I’m likely to answer that my salvation is for me; so that I can be saved from sin and enter the Kingdom of God. But this is only a partial answer.

In his defense of the Christian faith, St Justin Martyr (Apology, 66 & 67) makes a couple of points that are worth reflecting on as we try to answer the question.

Let’s begin, with Justin’s outline of the basic structure of how the Church celebrated—in fact still celebrates—the Eucharist.

Interestingly, he doesn’t start with telling us what the Eucharist is but the conditions for participating in it:

And this food is called among us ???a??st?a [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined.

Sharing in the Eucharist requires that we believe what the Church teaches, that we have been baptized “for the remission of sins” and finally live as disciples of Jesus Christ (“lives in accordance with the principles given us by Christ”). So, we need three things:

  1. Obedience to the teaching of the Church
  2. Repentance and baptism
  3. A life of intentional discipleship (“so living as Christ has enjoined”)

It only when all three of these are fulfilled Justin says, that we may “allowed to partake” ofthe Eucharist And we do this so that we can be joined to Christ by “prayer of His word” making “our blood and flesh … transmutation[ed]” into “the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”

So, what is salvation for? Well it is for our transformation into another Jesus; we are saved so that we can become another Christ (alter Christus) not just metaphorically but actually by sharing in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).

Though this process of becoming another Christ is personal, It isn’t individualistic; it isn’t up to me alone to decide what it does or doesn’t mean to be a Christian. This is why, to return to Justin’s apology, when we gather to celebrate the Eucharist we begin by listening to the Scriptures:

[O]n the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray.

It’s only after reflecting on the Scriptures and our common prayer to God that, Justin says, the eucharist is “distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons”

So our salvation is not for our becoming another Christ. It is also for becoming a member of the Church. My salvation then is not simply “for me” but “for you” as well.

If, as often happens, we stop here, we risk missing the fullness of what our salvation is for.

The late Fr Alexander Schmemann has pointed out that Orthodox parishes are self-absorbed and self-important. We do things, he says, for the Church that we would condemn if done for the individual.

Hard as it is to say it, it is often the case that parishes really only care for themselves. The individual Christian and the local parish are important but they aren’t, really, the point of our salvation.

God doesn’t save me simply to transform me into the likeness of His Son.

And while God calls me to live as a member of the Body of Christ, this isn’t really what salvation is for.

So what is salvation for? Back to St Justin:

And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.

Compare this to what we usually hear about stewardship. We give what our heart tells us not to keep the church open but to care for those “in distress.”

What this means is that salvation is for “the life of the world.”

So now the question is, how do we put our salvation into practice?

This essay first appeared on the Palamas Institute for Orthodox Christian Pastoral Studies website and is reprinted with permission.

The Miracle of the Holy Fire [VIDEO]

The video below chronicles the struggle of a film crew to gain entrance to the Holy Sepulcher, and records the miracle and scenes from the Paschal (Passover) Resurrection Service at the Holy Sepulcher.

What is the Miracle of the Holy Fire? When and where does it occur?

Source: St. Barnabas Orthodox Church

The ceremony, which awes the souls of Christians, takes place in the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem. The Holy Fire is the most renowned miracle in the world of Orthodox Christianity. It has taken place at the same time, in the same manner, in the same place every single year for centuries.

No other miracle is known to occur so regularly and so steadily over time. No other miracle is known to occur so regularly and so steadily over time. It happens in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the holiest place on earth, where Christ was crucified, entombed, and where He finally rose from the dead.

Miracle of the Holy Fire

The Ceremony of Holy Light

Source: holyfire.org

In order to be as close to the Sepulchre as possible, pilgrims camp next to it. The Sepulchre is located in the small chapel called Holy Ciborium, which is inside the Church of the Resurrection. Typically they wait from the afternoon of Holy Friday in anticipation of the miracle on Holy Saturday.

Beginning at around 11:00 in the morning the Christian Arabs chant traditional hymns in a loud voice. These chants date back to the Turkish occupation of Jerusalem in the 13th century, a period in which the Christians were not allowed to chant anywhere but in the churches.

“We are the Christians, we have been Christians for centuries, and we shall be forever and ever. Amen!” – they chant at the top of their voices accompanied by the sound of drums. The drummers sit on the shoulders of others who dance vigorously around the Holy Ciborium.

But at 1:00 pm the chants fade out, and then there is a silence. A tense silence, charged from the anticipation of the great demonstration of God’s power for all to witness.

Miracle of the Holy Fire

Shortly thereafter, a delegation from the local authorities elbows its way through the crowd. At the time of the Turkish occupation of Palestine they were Muslim Turks; today they are Israelis. Their function is to represent the Romans at the time of Jesus.

The Gospels speak of the Romans that went to seal the tomb of Jesus, so that his disciples would not steal his body and claim he had risen. In the same way the Israeli authorities on this Holy Saturday come and seal the tomb with wax.

Before they seal the door, they follow a custom to enter the tomb, and to check for any hidden source of fire, which would make a fraud of the miracle.

How the Miracle Occurs

The Miracle of the Holy Fire

From the narration of Patriarch Diodor:

I enter the tomb and kneel in holy fear in front of the place where Christ lay after His death and where He rose again from the dead. 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 color 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 years I have been Patriarch in Jerusalem and have received the Holy Fire.

The light is of a different consistency than 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. Hereafter I give the flame to all people present in the Church.

While the patriarch is inside the chapel kneeling in front of the stone, there is darkness but far from silence outside. One hears a rather loud mumbling, and the atmosphere is very tense. When the Patriarch comes out with the two candles lit and shining brightly in the darkness, a roar of jubilee resounds in the Church.

The Holy Light is not only distributed by the Archbishop, but operates also by itself. It is emitted from the Holy Sepulchre with a hue completely different from that of natural light.

Miracle of the Holy Fire

It sparkles, it flashes like lightning, it flies like a dove around the tabernacle of the Holy Sepulchre, and lights up the unlit lamps of olive oil hanging in front of it. It whirls from one side of the church to the other. It enters some of the chapels inside the church, as for instance the chapel of the Calvery (at a higher level than the Holy Sepulchre) and lights up the little lamps.

It lights up also the candles of certain pilgrims. In fact there are some very pious pilgrims who, every time they attended this ceremony, noticed that their candles lit up on their own accord!his divine light also presents some peculiarities: As soon as it appears it has a bluish hue and does not burn.

At the first moments of its appearance, if it touches the face, or the mouth, or the hands, it does not burn. This is proof of its divine and supernatural origin. We must also take into consideration that the Holy Light appears only by the invocation of an Orthodox Archbishop.

Miracle of the Holy Fire

The miracle is not confined to what actually happens inside the little tomb, where the Patriarch prays. What may be even more significant, is that the blue light is reported to appear and be active outside the tomb. Every year many believers claim that this miraculous light ignites candles, which they hold in their hands, of its own initiative.

All in the church wait with candles in the hope that they may ignite spontaneously. Often unlit oil lamps catch light by themselves before the eyes of the pilgrims. The blue flame is seen to move in different places in the Church. A number of signed testimonies by pilgrims, whose candles lit spontaneously, attest to the validity of these ignitions.

The person who experiences the miracle from close up by having the fire on the candle or seeing the blue light usually leaves Jerusalem changed, and for everyone having attended the ceremony, there is always a “before and after” the miracle of the Holy Fire in Jerusalem.

How Old is the Wonder?

The first written account of the Holy Fire (Holy Light) dates from the fourth century, but authors write about events that occurred in the first century. So St. John Damascene and Gregory of Nissa narrate how the Apostle Peter saw the Holy Light in the Holy Sepulchre after Christ’s resurrection. “One can trace the miracle throughout the centuries in the many itineraries of the Holy Land.”

The Russian abbot Daniel, in his itinerary written in the years 1106-07, presents the “Miracle of the Holy Light” and the ceremonies that frame it in a very detailed manner. He recalls how the Patriarch goes into the Sepulchre-chapel (the Anastasis) with two candles.

The Patriarch kneels in front of the stone on which Christ was laid after his death and says certain prayers, at which point the miracle occurs. Light proceeds from the core of the stone – a blue, indefinable light which after some time kindles unlit oil lamps as well as the Patriarch’s two candles.

This light is “The Holy Fire”, and it spreads to all people present in the Church. The ceremony surrounding “The Miracle of the Holy Fire” may be the oldest unbroken Christian ceremony in the world. From the fourth century A.D. all the way up to our own time, sources recall this awe-inspiring event. From these sources it becomes clear that the miracle has been celebrated on the same spot, on the same feast day, and in the same liturgical frame throughout all these centuries.

Every time heterodox have tried to obtain the Holy Fire they have failed. Three such attempts are known. Two occurred in the twelfth century when priests of the Roman church tried to force out the Orthodox church but by their own confession these ended with God’s punishment.

The Miracle of the Holy Fire

But the most miraculous event occured in the year 1579, the year when God clearly testified to whom alone may be given His miracle.

Once the Armenians paid the Turks, who then occupied the Holy Land, in order to obtain permission for their Patriarch to enter the Holy Sepulchre, the Orthodox Patriarch was standing sorrowfully with his flock at the exit of the church, near the left column, when the Holy Light split this column vertically and flashed near the Orthodox Patriarch.

A Muslim Muezzin, called Tounom, who saw the miraculous event from an adjacent mosque, immediately abandoned the Muslim religion and became an Orthodox Christian. This event took place in 1579 under Sultan Mourad IV, when the Patriarch of Jerusalem was Sophrony IV.

The split column still exists. It dates from the twelfth century. The Orthodox pilgrims embrace it at the “place of the split” as they enter the church.

Turkish warriors stood on the wall of a building close to the gate and lightning-struck column . When he saw this striking miracle he cried that Christ is truly God and leaped down from a height of about ten meters. But he was not killed-the stones under him became as soft as wax and his footprint was left upon them. The Turks tried to scrape away these prints but they could not destroy them; so they remain as witnesses.

He was burned by the Turks near the Church. His remains, gathered by the Greeks, lay in the monastery of Panagia until the 19th century flowing myrhh.

Muslims, who deny the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ, tried to put obstacles in the way of the miracle. Well known Muslim historian Al Biruni wrote: “… a (Muslim) governor brought a copper wire instead of a wick (for the self lighting oil lamps), in order that it wouldn’t ignite and the whole thing would fail to occur. But as the fire descended, the copper burned.”

This was not the only attempt. The report written by the English chronicler, Gautier Vinisauf, describes what happened in the year 1192.

In 1187, the Saracens under the direction of Sultan Salah ad-Din took Jerusalem. In that year, the Sultan desired to be present at the celebration, even though he was not a Christian. Gautier Vinisauf tells us what happened: “On his arrival, the celestial fire descended suddenly, and the assistants were deeply moved…the Saracens… said that the fire which they had seen to come down was produced by fraudulent means.

Salah ad-Din, wishing to expose the imposter, caused the lamp, which the fire from Heaven had lighted, to be extinguished, but the lamp relit immediately. He caused it to be extinguished a second time and a third time, but it relit as of itself. Thereupon, the Sultan, confounded, cried out in prophetic transport: “Yes, soon shall I die, or I shall lose Jerusalem.”

A Miracle Unknown in the West

One can ask the question of why the miracle of the Holy Fire is almost unknown in Western Europe?

In Protestant areas it may, to a certain extent, be explained by the fact that there is no real tradition of miracles; people don’t really know in which box to place the miracles, and they rarely feature in newspapers. But in the Catholic tradition there is vast interest in miracles. Thus, why is it not more well known?

For this only one explanation suffices: Church politics. Only the Orthodox Churches attend the ceremony which is centered on the miracle. It only occurs on the Orthodox date of Easter and without the presence of any Catholic authorities.

Is the Miracle Authentic?

As with any other miracle there are people who believe it is a fraud and nothing but a masterpiece of Orthodox propaganda. They believe the Patriarch has a lighter inside of the tomb.

These critics, however, are confronted with a number of problems. Matches and other means of ignition are recent inventions. Only a few hundred years ago lighting a fire was an undertaking that lasted much longer than the few minutes during which the Patriarch is inside the tomb.

One then could perhaps say, he had an oil lamp burning inside, from which he kindled the candles, but the local authorities confirmed that they had checked the tomb and found no light inside it.

The best arguments against a fraud, however, are not the testimonies of the shifting Patriarchs. The biggest challenges confronting the critics are the thousands of independent testimonies by pilgrims whose candles were lit spontaneously in front of their eyes without any possible explanation.

Holy Light (Holy Fire) in Jerusalem: Proofs and Testimonies. This video is a documentary featuring an interview with a priest and pilgrim testimonies. (In Greek with English subtitles.)

According to our investigations, it has never been possible to film any of the candles or oil lamps igniting by themselves. However, I am in the possession of a video filmed by a young engineer from Bethlehem, Souhel Nabdiel. Mr. Nabdiel has been present at the ceremony of the Holy Fire since his early childhood.

In 1996 he was asked to film the ceremony from the balcony of the dome of the Church. Present with him on the balcony were a nun and four other believers. The nun stood at the right hand of Nabdiel. On the video one can see how he films down on the crowds. At a certain point all lights are turned off – it is time for the Patriarch to enter the tomb and receive the Holy Fire.

While he is still inside the tomb one suddenly hears a scream of surprise and wonder originating from the nun standing next to Nabdiel. The camera begins to shake, as one hears the excited voices of the other people present on the balcony.

The camera now turns to the right, whereby it is possible to contemplate the cause of the commotion. A big candle, held in the hand of the Russian nun, takes fire in front of all the people present before the patriarch comes out of the tomb.

She holds the candle with shaking hands while making the sign of the Cross over and over again in awe of the miracle she has witnessed.