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The Holy Fire: Darkness to Light

By Fr David Barton, LC (Chaplain at Notre Dame Center)


May 5th, 2024 - Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center


Sometimes we have to experience the darkness to appreciate the light.  I grew up in Kentucky where we have some of the most famous natural cave systems in the world called Mammoth Cave.  One of my favorite caves to visit as a kid was the so-called “cave of darkness” where the guide would take us and then turn off their flashlight for a few minutes until we experienced that even after our eyes adjusted to the darkness, one could see absolutely nothing.  Complete darkness.  After these few minutes the guide would suddenly light a match and you could not help but squint from the intensity of the light – it was like looking at the sun!  When you have been in darkness, even the smallest light becomes bright and radiant.

 

As most Americans, I had never heard of the Holy Fire which Christians celebrate on Holy Saturday. This ceremony date back to more than 1,000 years ago and is the moment of a miraculous descent of fire on the Holy Sepulchre.  It was the buzz around the city last year and so I thought that if I was given the chance, I would love to participate. Thanks to help of a few lovely Orthodox friends I have made during my time here: I was offered a ticket to be in the church and experience the Holy Fire for myself!


For those unfamiliar with the Holy Fire, I recommend you read this interview with His Beatitude Patriarch Diodorus I (Patriarch of Jerusalem 1980-2000) as it is very beautiful in telling what happens and also explains the deep spiritual significance of the event. When asked about his role in the ceremony he replies:

In the tomb, I say particular 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 on 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 behaves differently each year. Sometimes it covers just the stone, while other times it gives light to the whole sepulchre, so that people who are standing outside the tomb and look into it see the tomb 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 the normal fire that burns in an oil-lamp.

Here is an explanation on Youtube:


I woke up early and made my way to the Holy Sepulchre, passing through various police checkpoints that were set up in the Old City to keep those without tickets away.  Even with a ticket it proved a challenge because of this tight police security until I met a friend who was able to help me make my way successfully to the church.  I was recovering from being a little under the weather the last few days, so I made sure to have a bottle of water with me since I was going to be standing in the church from around 9am until 2pm when the Holy Fire was expected to arrive.  Enter moments of darkness….

 

When I found a place not far from the tomb of Jesus and with a security barrier in front of me, I happily planted myself there around 9:15am and mentally prepared for the long wait.  What I didn’t initially realize is that there would be thousands of people packed in behind me from all over the world who thought that constantly pushing forward for hours would somehow get us closer to the tomb where the fire would enter.  I began to feel as if being cooked on a grill and pressed upon by the chef’s spatula as I was pushed upon for hours up against the grated security fence and the heat and intensity in the church began to rise. 

 

"It's a good thing I have my water with me"...or so I thought until I received a nudge on my back only to realize the lady behind me had taken my water bottle out from my bag and was drinking it.  She happily returned my almost-empty bottle to me and I assume she said “thank you” in whatever language she was speaking, but by this point I was in no shape to return a “you’re welcome” knowing that my only life support had been taken away.  Could things get worse?  I won’t go into details but suffice it to say that after hours of standing, even the most patient people behind me were getting agitated with one another.  I even received reprimands from someone behind me for being “too tall”, but I was not able to even move enough to turn around and let them know that they needed to thank my parents for this trait, not me.

 

The minutes passed by and I felt my energy slowly depleting and then all of a sudden it happened just before 2pm.  The moment we had been waiting for – THE HOLY FIRE ARRIVED!  As candles lit spreading the fire and cheers filled the church I looked around me and people were crying for joy.  “The Lord has risen from the dead!” and “Happy Easter!” people were yelling.  Nothing else mattered anymore.  Death had been overcome by Jesus and the Easter light had arrived and it was truly blinding.  I rejoiced and found myself overcome with excitement and energy like I have barely experienced before in my life.  It was a moment of joy, a moment of life, a moment of grace.

The Holy Fire has arrived!

 

On the one side of the Holy Sepulchre there is Calvary, the place where Jesus died and the darkest event in history happened when creatures crucified their Creator.  On the other side of the church is the empty tomb where the greatest light in history came forth from where Jesus rose from the dead.  In those moments of darkness in our lives let us look to the light of the Resurrection, and we will certainly realize that God truly can bring us from darkness and suffering to joy and light.  When the wait is long and we feel that we are losing hope let’s keep our eyes fixed on the Lord, for he will bring us His Holy Fire.


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