The Ceremony of the Holy Fire


THE Greek Church ceremony of the Holy Fire is celebrated on Easter Eve. It is the great feature of the annual Easter routine of Jerusalem, altogether eclipsing the Resurrection services on the following day; but historically it is incidental, not implicit in the story of the Passion of Our Lord, and it is in no way connected with either the Holy Ghost or the Pentecost, as is commonly believed. The story of the Miracle is legendary, dating, according to some, from Apostolic times, but in greater likelihood from the second century of our era. However that may be, and whatever truth there may be in the legend itself, the rite of the Holy Fire has been established for at least eleven hundred years. For in the ninth century the monk Bernard of France recorded in his memoirs its existence and observance in terms which indicate that at that date it had already a permanent place in the calendar of the Church. But in telling the story of its origin we may ignore the arguments as to both its veracity and its date.

An early Christian monk in Jerusalem was celebrating the Easter Passion. He and his scanty flock had observed Good Friday, and preparations had to be made for the relighting of the lamps in the chapel to greet the Risen Lord on Easter morning. But there was no oil. The monk sought everywhere in vain, and between times prayed devoutly for divine assistance. Good Friday passed. Easter Eve was nearly spent. But, still hoping that his prayers would be answered, even at the eleventh hour, he prepared the lamps for lighting, putting water in them in anticipation of the film of oil in which the burning wick would float. He then retired once more to the altar and prayed as he had never prayed before. And this time his prayers were answered. On rising from his knees he found a layer of oil in each vessel, in which burned, bright and clear, a lighted wick.

The story spread rapidly through Christendom; the Divine Fire was kept alive through the years; and the festival of the miracle was absorbed into the Easter ritual of the Christian Church, which had not yet been split by the schism between the East and the West. When the schism came, the Greek Church alone retained the ceremony of the Holy Fire, and to-day the Latin Church gives no countenance to the annual Orthodox service in Jerusalem. It is, however, a curious coincidence that in the Roman Catholic missal the Holy Saturday service at the station of Saint John Lateran opens with the kindling of a light outside the church, which is subsequently blessed by the priest at the entrance. ‘Meanwhile there are no lights burning in the Church, so that they may be presently lighted from the Blessed Fire ’ The deacon brings a taper ‘lighted from the new fire,’and after a threefold repetition of the words ‘Lumen Christi,’ to which the congregation responds, ‘Thanks be to God,’ he lights the candles on the altar one by one.

In the Greek Orthodox Church the mysticism and reality of the celebration of the miracle have survived undimmed throughout the ages. To the majority of Christians of the Eastern churches, the Russians, the Greeks, the Armenians, and the Copts, it is still a miracle and its annual representation still miraculous. Once a year, at Easter time, divine fire is given to them. They smear their faces with its smoke; they burn themselves in its flame; they bear it and happiness and hope to their homes. The festival is for them a festival of joy, the precursor of the universal joy which will come to Christendom all the world over on Easter morning. Modern evolution in the West may spurn the idea of the miraculous and be at narrow-minded pains to scoff at the clumsiness of the ritual and the transparence of the deception; for in a world slavishly concentrated on an analysis of cause and effect we of the West have lost our faith in miracles. But when we were children we believed in fairies; we lent our applause to Peter Pan when he pleaded for Tinker Bell; and we were as happy in our innocent beliefs as is the childlike Eastern Christian of to-day over the Miracle of the Holy Fire.

The ceremony naturally drifted into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and has ever been an eventful feature of that extraordinary fane. In Turkish times the estimate of the successful or unsuccessful issue of the ritual was based on the number—more or less — of the deaths which its celebration had occasioned. For Ottoman Jerusalem was at its unhappiest during Easter time. The Christian sects which had a footing within the precincts of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre were forever wrangling and even fighting on the slightest provocation; and to complete the chaos there was always the Turk, ready to exploit the internecine strife of his Christian subjects at Easter, in accordance with his avowed principles of government on the lines of divide et impera. Moslem intrusion and incitement were a feature of Turkish tactics, and in the cramped rotunda around the Sepulchre quarrels amounting to battles and degenerating into a primitive struggle for life itself were almost yearly occurrences.

Curzon in his book, Monasteries in the Levant, has left, us a classic account of the riot in the Holy Sepulchre on the occasion when Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt in 1834 elected to see for himself what was this much-advertised Christian miracle. Being late by half an hour, he caused its consummation to be delayed pending his Moslem convenience. The additional and unwelcome wait turned the fanatical exhilaration of the pilgrims into indignant fury and resentment; and, in the terrible scenes which followed, Ibrahim and Curzon all but lost their lives. Three hundred pilgrims were trampled to death or killed by the Turkish bodyguard of the Egyptian Pasha, and two hundred more were seriously wounded. In more recent times Holman Hunt, the artist, was present to collect material for his subsequent picture of the ceremony. On that occasion there was desperate fighting, and two hundred pilgrims, mostly Russian, perished.

These facts may appear mediæval to the visitor to Jerusalem to-day. The supercilious accounts of the ceremony both by Dean Stanley and by Curzon represent it as a barbarity. But their accounts are faithful, sincere versions of what they saw and experienced. To the visitor of to-day, however, they read as though the writers had viewed the happenings in the Holy Sepulchre from the lofty respectability of Westminster Abbey, which, as a matter of fact, a Russian pilgrim would hardly look on as a church at all. The East demands something from religion which the West does not look for, and which it dislikes when found. What is sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander. Eastern Christendom has standards and ethics of its own, and in a special way the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is its Cathedral Church. The two are supplementary one to the other, but supplementary in an Oriental fashion. Together they plead to the West, ‘For God’s sake, leave us our illusions.’


The British régime in Palestine has not in any way interfered with the ritual of the ceremony of the Holy Fire, but it has brought much-needed order into its proceedings. The crowds are still so great that the onlooker wonders how in the available space they could be greater, although he is assured that in other days they were. The excitement of the Holy Fire is still so intense that involuntarily he averts his eyes from the sight of the mob surging and screaming to light their candles. But there are now no casualties; method, unobtrusively applied, makes avenues where processions have to walk, and movement in a single direction where clashing tides have in the past spelled tragedy. And the service has gained thereby. It is still of the East, Eastern, primitive, exuberant, and exciting; but the venom has been drawn, and it is once again the healthy, albeit boisterous, expression of thanksgiving for the divine miracle which, centuries ago, saved the old monk in his dilemma.

Jerusalem at Easter time has points of resemblance to Bayreuth during the Festival. ‘What have you got tickets for?’ And the old habitué, ‘No, I’m not going. I’ve seen that.’ Everyone in the Holy City talks tickets for weeks before Easter, and the stranger must bestir himself betimes if he wishes to get one for the exclusive and popular Holy Fire ceremony. When he has got it, only half the battle is over, and he must leave his hotel early on Holy Saturday if he hopes to benefit from his good fortune. The crowd will already be thick in the courtyard outside the Holy Sepulchre when he arrives; he will have to push his way through serried rows of candle hawkers and onlookers before ho finally reaches the great door of the Church. There the coveted ticket has to be shown. It proves to qualify for a view of the ceremony from a side gallery of the Greek Cathedral, the Catholicon, which stands on the site of the original Crusaders’ Church and opens to the west, directly on to the entrance to the Sepulchre itself, a few steps below in the centre of the domed rotunda. But after climbing through Calvary and up several flights of stone stairs, worn slippery by many feet before him, the visitor will find that from his gallery the view round the Tomb, where the culminating scenes of the ritual will be enacted, is sadly blocked by the massively arched west end of the Catholicon. Happy then the man who has a smattering of Arabic and a handy five-piastre piece to open other avenues to him. There will be more stairs and a tottering ladder to negotiate; but in the end he will find himself on dizzy heights among the angels — or, in other words, he will be admitted to standing room overlooking the Catholicon on the top of the arch of the lofty reredos, a thick, heavily ornamented wall separating the main body of the Cathedral from the choir, and containing in its recesses, among other treasured Orthodox relics, a bone of Saint Oswald of Northumbria, who died in 642 A.D.

He is indeed among the angels. The narrow sloping ledge on which he stands is fronted, toward the Sepulchre, by a closely set row of gilded wooden angels, their wings spread so that they overlap, the wormholes with which they are everywhere pierced redolent with a haunting aroma of incense. On the apex of the arch, supported by chains from the roof, is a fifteen-foot cross, also of gilded wood, and by craning his neck under the protecting and — from the point of view of vision — highly obstructive wings of the angels, he can see on the wall below him a great gold medallion, a rayed sun, which hangs over the arched entrance leading from the main part of the Catholicon to the choir and altar behind him. Being British, he proceeds without delay to take stock of his most immediate surroundings. On his arched ledge, the East is meeting the West in a way which gives a sad lie to the superior criticisms of Dean Stanley and his Victorian compeers. On his left, clutching in one hand a bunch of tapers, is a Greek woman of Jerusalem, waiting for the fire which will bring her a year’s happiness. In the crook of her spare arm she holds a rather elderly baby, which is suckling with that frank gusto which a Western mother would find embarrassing. On his right, a full-voiced Briton is discussing Palestinian politics with a glib little Syrian woman, who knows nothing and cares less about such things, and is only waiting for an opportunity to tell this dull but obviously powerful representative of the mandatory government that her husband’s salary is too low. Farther up the slope an amazing female dreamily lights a cigarette immediately behind the cross. The visitor turns away in horror, picks up the shawl which has fallen from the Greek woman’s shoulders, and, red with shame for the civilized West, seeks shelter under the angels’ wings. From the gloom of the Catholicon, sixty feet below him, rises a murmur of voices. Ahead, through the arches of the West End, he can see the rotunda and the Holy Shrine bathed in Eastern sunshine.


The Church has by this time filled up considerably. Sunburnt youths of the Palestine police, from Aberdeen, Cardiff, Wigan, and Galway, are heaving and pushing, efficiently but unostentatiously, to keep open the avenues of entrance and exit among the tightly packed crowd on the floor of the rotunda. Its high, arched recesses have been boarded for the occasion into tiers of boxes which recall Mr. Vincent Crummies’s theatre at Portsmouth on the night of Miss Snevellicci’s benefit. They are crammed with onlookers who have paid high prices for their comfort; but they have thereby saved themselves the expense of a night at a hotel, as most of them have been there since the preceding day, eating and sleeping, watching and praying. For thus does the East undertake its religious obligations. All have candles in their hands and friends on the floor with whom they exchange shrill greetings. One greentrousered worshiper waves his arms to give the time to a group which is dancing on the pavement below. His lady friends in the box crane their necks to see the fun, and applaud his and the dancers’ efforts with the high tremolo of the Zaghareet and much handclapping. Suddenly the visitor’s vision is blocked, as a bunch of tapers, dangling on a string, drops past his nose from nowhere. There is a laugh from overhead, and he looks up to catch the eye of a jolly Transjordanian boy, a Christian probably from El Salt, lying full length along the eerie gallery which circles the twin dome of the Greek Cathedral, much as does the Whispering Gallery in London’s St. Paul’s. The boy has lowered the candles betimes to attract attention from the floor below, and to ensure that when the Fire does come some kind coreligionist there will light them for him to bring him early joy on his airy perch.

This is a first sign that time is passing and that things are beginning to move. The visitor looks at his watch. It is nearly noon. On the floor of the Catholicon below him there are indications of happenings. A queer, throbbing, dactylic chant, which is at once taken up by the congregation within the Church, is heard faintly from outside. And suddenly through a side door bursts a noisy troop, singing at the tops of their voices and surging toward the rotunda between rows of the police, who have just been reënforced by the sandwiching between them of Greek Boy Scouts, oddly dressed as sailors. The invaders have entered thus by right of birth. They are of the twelve Greek families of Jerusalem whose immemorial privilege it is to carry the sacred banners of their church round the Sepulchre in the coming patriarchal procession. The chosen bannerets of the year are being escorted by their relations to their post by the Tomb, where the banners have been placed; and soon all except the happy delegates of the occasion ebb back whence they came, still shouting and jostling. The Greek mother proves to be a well-informed churchwoman. The Greek Church, she explains in a mixture of Arabic and French, does not countenance images as does the Roman Church; and these tattered banners of Jerusalem, which are incredibly old and fervently revered, are paraded as the visible emblems of Orthodoxy on days of festival. The visitor has heard her joining shrilly in the tune of the chant of the twelve families, and asks her for an interpretation. Arabic and French, the one only half understood, the other wholly murdered, arc poor material for the reconstruction of what proves to be little more than a doggerel: —

‘Our great day.
We are glad-
Jews are sad.’

The conversation breaks off with a smile on both sides as both parties once more crane their necks under the angels’ wings to see the patriarchal procession which is just forming in the sombreness of the Catholicon below. Its advent is hailed with wild applause, above which rises the shrillness of the women’s Zaghareet and the still more piercing voices of the white-robed acolytes who lead the way. Behind them follow interminable files of black-garbed priests, their long hair coiled under the brimless top hats which are the uniform of their grade. They move slowly and with difficulty through the swaying throng, shepherded lustily by the youths of the police; and in their wake emerge at length into the body of the Cathedral the twelve leading dignitaries of the Greek Church in Jerusalem, who two days before had filled the rôles of the twelve Apostles at the Maundy Thursday ceremony of ‘the Washing of the Feet.’ To-day they are clothed in white embroidered with orange, which glistens and glistens again in the soft radiance of the tall candles which they are holding. Down the nave they proceed, a wonderful oasis of light in the gloom below; and suddenly there is a still greater outburst of song and applause as the Patriarch himself appears. White-bearded, his features strikingly reminiscent of Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, he stands facing down the Cathedral toward the Sepulchre, an arresting figure in his stiff white robes and silver cope, leaning on a magnificent golden crozier, and on his head a golden filagree crown, such as Tsars wore, domed and scintillating with jewels.

The progress is agonizingly slow, and the congregation reacts. There is an atmosphere of breaking tension, of rising fanaticism—a working loose of primitive passion which will be assuaged only by the final rite of the ceremony. Three times the procession slowly circles the Sepulchre, the banners in front, the Patriarch, magnificently erect for all his eighty years, bringing up the rear. And at last the climax is reached. On the conclusion of the third circumambulation, the procession makes its way up the steps from the rotunda to the Catholicon. The Patriarch alone remains below. He stands for a few moments before the now frenzied congregation, facing the lowly door of the Angels’ Chapel, where reposes such of the stone which the Disciples found rolled away from the Tomb as has not been removed by the Turks to the Museum at Constantinople. Two archimandrites of his suite, in gold and white, divest him first of his crown, then of the many golden chains of office which hang around his neck, and lastly of the silver cope and the white brocade robe. And, looking more than ever like Moses, he disappears into the Tomb, leaving, as he bends his back to enter the shrine, a memory of a tapering cross of gold embroidered on the pale blue silk of his cassock.

For some five minutes he is hidden from view. Let us not ransack our Western vocabularies for flippancies to describe what happens within or how he will contrive to produce the miracle which will crown the ceremony. This rite is of the East, and we are in the East. Let us rather watch the sea of excited faces round the Tomb, which gaze with straining eyes toward the two openings in the walls of the shrine whence will issue the Holy Fire. There are no questionings or doublings in the minds of those whose upraised hands, each clutching a fagot of candles, stretch out madly, like reeds shaken by the wind, for the light which will bring another year’s happiness to their hearts and homes.

‘Our great day.
We are glad.
Jews are sad.’

The chant swells and echoes to the domed roof, and is suddenly drowned by a crash of bells, a barbaric peal from the beautiful twelfth-century belfry in the courtyard outside. The Holy Fire has appeared. A minute later and the Patriarch himself emerges from the Sepulchre, carrying high above his head two great fagots of candles, flaming and smoking in either hand. There is a mighty cheer of triumph, and the old man, his fine face looking almost unearthly in the yellow light of the blazing torches, is practically carried in the stout British arms of the police up the steps from the rotunda and through the surging, hysterical turmoil of the Catholicon. Once again the parallel of Moses is irresistible. ‘And Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands, the one on the one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were steady.’ He disappears to the din of a beating of gongs and a clash of bells; and the wild chant of Christian joy rises almost to a scream.

Meanwhile the Holy Fire has been kindled, and, from candle to candle, spreads like some forest conflagration. A pall of oily blue smoke rises up to the angels, and through it, blurred but vivid, springs into life a flickering, kaleidoscopic sea of flame. It spreads with miraculous speed; up the balconies, along precarious ledges to the galleries, and finally to the angels themselves. The Greek mother plunges her free hand into the smoking flame of a neighbor’s candle and smears the oily soot first over her child’s and then over her own face. She kisses the infant with a passion which cannot be merely maternal, and shakes the visitor so warmly by the hand that for one embarrassed moment he fears an Eastern embrace. But nothing jars. She is the spirit of the genius loci, the incarnate expression of Eastern Christendom in its moment of supreme jubilation.

The final ceremony of the ritual, which might be compared to our vestry prayers at home after the conclusion of a cathedral service, takes place in the Greek Convent which adjoins the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Patriarch, now once more in everyday black, appears to receive the congratulations of his flock. There are no prayers, only a wonderful chant to the glorification of God in nature. ‘ O all ye Works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise him, and magnify him for ever.’ The words of the Greek Benedicite, omnia opera are different, but the spirit is the same: —

‘To the wind, salutation.
To the sun, salutation.
To the wind, salutation.
To the moon, salutation.
To the wind, salutation.
To the earth, salutation.
To the wind, salutation.
To the stars, salutation.

The refrain is ever of the wind — the mysterious, the rushing wind, the spirit which animates all mankind.

Mr. Bernard Shaw has the true appreciation of the Miracle of the Holy Fire. ‘What is a miracle?’ ‘A miracle is an act which creates faith.’