Monday, July 11, 2005


William Holman Hunt's portrayal of the Holy Light Miracle
When I woke up that Holy Saturday morning, my friend was already at the window, gazing up at the sky. "Look," he said. "There is a rainbow around the perimeter of the sun. "Rubbish," I retorted. "That my friend, is the hallucination of an idle mind." One of the things about solar phenomena is that much like the existence of God themselves, they are most difficult to prove without going blind. Sneaking a peak at the celestial orb through the corner of my eyes however, I could perceive a strange white halo surrounding it and I remembered that it was Μεγάλο Σάββατο, I was in Jerusalem and that today, despite the rule of rationalism, post-modernism, globalism and cynicism, I was supposed to witness of the greatest existing miracles in this non-miraculous age, the coming of the Holy Fire.
From the Jaffa Gate, it usually takes one not less than five minutes to traverse the cobble-stoned steps to the ancient crusader church of the Holy Sepulchre. On this day, however, we found ourselves running into police block after police block, as Jewish police struggled to contain the crowds of believers in an ordered and shall we say, orthodox fashion. Blocked off with no hope of entry at the last 'checkpoint' and suddenly feeling a great sympathy for sheep hemmed into their stalls before the slaughter, we finally sought refuge in the already overflowing in a vast current of heaving middle-aged Greek flesh Greek orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. One can ascend to the flat roof of the complex and from there…well who knows? The milling crowd of corpulent Greek females throwing themselves at the compliant and smiling Russians, patiently waiting, obscures all else from view. You follow the crowd, pushing and elbowing your way till you arrive at a barrier and the unsmiling face of a burly Israeli police officer. This is the utter limit of the pilgrim's progress. Any further progress forward is wholly to be determined by his grace. As the sun rises in the sky and begins to scorch the bleached limestone walls, as the old Greek aunties begin to shed rivers of sweat mixed with cheap copy perfume and bleat like sheep that they are about to faint, the Israeli soldiers remove the first barrier, sending a multitude of pilgrims stampeding down a carvenous dark staircase with the mania of a Pamploman bull chasing its tormentor. The barriers suddenly slam shut. As we descend the stairs, we can hear the Israeli guards snarl to a howl of protest: "Do not push. We will only let you in if you behave and do what you are told."
At the base of the steps is an open air grotto, which is used as a church. Further within is another church and we can hear Romanian pilgrims chanting within. Yet this is no time to sit and reflect. Elbows and arms out, we proceed into the church of the Holy Sepulchre, its vast pillars reverberating under the excited babble of the crowd below. The atmosphere is asphyxiating. Slowly, we push past the holy rock where Jesus was said to have been prepared for burial, past the Armenian shrine of the flagellation and ensconce ourselves beside a pillar, next to the Ciborium, the resting place of the crucified Jesus. It is now 11:00 am and the hubbub of the crowd is pierced by the ululating rush of Orthodox Palestinians. Perched on each other's shoulders, they dance around the Ciborium, chanting traditional hymns, to the rhythmic beat of the dawla. 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!" As they circumambulate the Ciborium faster and faster, it is difficult to distinguish them from whirling dervishes or angels. But at 1:00 pm the chants give out, and then there is a tense silence.
A few bored pilgrims wave their candles in the air, thirty three, one number for each year of Jesus life. They wave them in the idle hope that they will spontaneously catch fire, the symbol of a righteous person. One by one, we all subconsciously mimic the gesture, looking up to the sun in the opening of the vast dome above, or even the electric lights around the Sepulchre, desperately seeking reassurance and absolution.
Then, a delegation from the local authorities elbows its way through the crowd. At the time of the Ottoman occupation of Palestine they were 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 Ciborium with wax. Before they seal the door, they enter the tomb, and to check for any hidden source of fire, which would make a fraud of the miracle about to unfold.
Suddenly the cry of Axios! Axios! Axios! resounds. Patriarch Eirenaios accompanied by his bodyguards enters the church. He looks visibly nervous and his eyes dart here and there as he sees his Palestinan flock silently offer him the thumbs down. Turning to his bodyguard, he asks anxiously: "Δεν πιστεύω να έχουμε φασαρία;" Then, proceeding in front of the Ciborium, he disrobes, leaving only a thin white robe and is thoroughly checked for matches and other inflammable materials. He then enters the tomb while the faithful watch with bated breath. The former Patriarch Diodorus had once attempted to shed some light on the mystery of the ritual that is to follow: "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 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. 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 Patriarch. Hereafter I give the flame to all people present in the Church."
All the while we wave our candles in the air and I wonder whether the Holy Light is merely a manifestation of God's merciful condescension to let all of us partake of that uncreated light so yearned after by St Gregory Palamas, a little slice of hesychasm for the common man. We look up at the dome, at the pillars and the lamps. For the Holy Light is not only distributed by the Archbishop, but is said to diversely manifest itself. It sparkles, it flashes like lightning, it flies like a dove around the tabernacle of the Holy Sepulchre, and lights up the unlit lamps 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 and for a few minutes after its manifestation, one can wash their face with it without being burnt.
The first written account of the Holy Light dates from the fourth century, but authors write about events that occurred in the first century. St John Damascene and Gregory of Nyssa narrate how the Apostle Peter saw the Holy Light in the Holy Sepulchre after Christ's resurrection. The Russian abbot Daniel, in his itinerary written in 1106-07, presents the "Miracle of the Holy Light" and the ceremonies that frame it in a very detailed manner. It is clear that this ceremony we are partaking in has an unbroken lineage from at least the 4th century AD and here we are, humbly beseeching a sign, a single gesture to wipe away our humiliation and restore us anew, as our ancestors have done since the Resurrection. As the Russians and Arabs pray and the Greek become more garrulous, we note that Patriarch Eirenaios is taking his time. Is this a sign of divine disfavour? Will the Holy Light, for the first time in its history refuse to manifest itself and lift the spirits of an already soul-weary people? What will become of us then?
Even in 1579, when the Armenians supposedly paid the occupying Turks to permit their Patriarch to enter the Holy Sepulchre, a gross violation of tradition, did the Light come. In keeping with tradition, only the Greek Orthodox Patriarch (in its religious not ethnic sense) may receive the Light. The Orthodox Patriarch Sophronios IV 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, lighting his candle. The split column still exists and homage is paid to it by pilgrims as if to thank if for signifying that they are the elect. It is a guarantee of God's grace and this makes Patriarch Eirenaios delay all the more alarming.
I gaze at the split column and in it I can see all those artificial sunderings, chasms and splits that have plagued mankind since the beginning. We are all insignificant, all miniscule crests in a vast sea of people, whether in a church or on the Earth, desperately seeking significance and illumination in one way or another. And it comes. The person standing next to me swears he saw an unearthly blue glow rise up from the tomb and grow larger and larger. I am sure that I saw a brief flash of lighting. Patriarch Eirenaios emerges triumphant and relieved that Divine Favour at any rate does not dispute his patriarchy though the entire world might. By the time the Holy Fire reaches us, the mad nationalistic scramble to obtain it first by the Armenians is over and as far as I can see, only the fewest of fisticuffs have been exchanged. The Holy Fire, as promised, does not burn me and as I choke under the combined piety and candle-smoke of ten thousand people, as the Arabs once more begin their ululation and the pilgrims, having obtained what they came for commence the mad scramble for the door, I gaze at the flame of the candles I hold in my hand intensely, look once more towards the great dome through which the sunlight is cascading onto the Ciborium and after making the sign of the cross, snuff out the flame by enveloping it with the palm of my hand. As I squeeze out of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I wonder why it is that one cannot immediately identify people who have witnessed a miracle and wonder whether this is not, the greatest miracle of them all.
First published in NKEE on 11 July 2005