Every year, on the occasion of Orthodox Easter, believers enjoy what they call the miracle of the Holy Light. This miraculous event takes place every year in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, during the vespers that take place on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter.
During the ceremony, the Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem surrounds the Holy Sepulcher with a council of hierarchs and priests. After the procession, the Patriarch enters the Holy Sepulcher with 33 candles, where it is believed that the Holy Light descends and lights them. After this event, the Patriarch comes out of the tomb and distributes the Light to the faithful present in the church.
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The event is considered by followers of Christianity to be the oldest miracle attested annually. Although it has been described in several writings since the 4th century AD, the miracle began to be systematically documented as early as 1106, when it was mentioned in the writings of the Russian monk Daniel.
Controversies throughout history
Ever since Jerusalem was ruled by Muslims, there has been a serious dose of skepticism about this phenomenon, but it was tolerated because pilgrims traveling specifically to witness at the time brought in substantial income.. When Jerusalem was conquered by the Crusaders, they drove out the Orthodox priesthood and discovered that the miracle had ceased to occur. The absence of pilgrims and the taxes paid by them convinced King Baudouin to allow Orthodox priests to return to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, but the incident amplified skepticism.
The phenomenon is described by the famous historian Edward Gibbon in his masterpiece, The History of the Decline and Collapse of the Roman Empire, in Volume IV, published in 1788: This pious fraud, conceived in the ninth century, was appreciated by Latin crusaders and is repeated annually by the priesthood of the Greek, Armenian and Coptic sects, imposing it on the gullible spectators for their own benefit and that of the tyrants who lead them. Over time, tolerance of this phenomenon has increased and of interest, the income of the prince and the emir increasing every year due to the thousands of foreigners who came to observe the phenomenon.
Another historical source used by skeptics is the Russian archimandrite Porphyry, who was sent to Jerusalem in the 17th century by the Russian Orthodox Church to found the Russian mission. In his diary, he mentions that the priesthood in Jerusalem knew that the “miracle” was in fact a fraud. ” A hierodeacon who entered the altar of the Tomb when, as everyone believes, the holy fire descends, saw in horror that the fire is lit from a simple icon lamp that never goes out, and so the holy fire is not a miracle . He himself told me about it today , “Porphyry wrote in the journals published between 1894-1901.
Victoria Clark, the Romanian correspondent for the British publication The Observer in the 1990s, wrote a book dedicated to the miracle in Jerusalem, entitled Holy Fire: The Battle for Christ’s Tomb. The journalist reports that in the 19th century, the Orthodox clergy in Jerusalem wanted to present the miracle to the general public as rather symbolic, but the financial and spiritual losses were considered too great, so the idea was abandoned . Not even the serious incident of 1834, when hundreds of pilgrims died trampled by the crowd gathered near the small church, did not change the decision of the clergy.
In 2001, an Armenian faclier who often took part in the Jerusalem ceremony revealed to The Telegraph the secret of the Holy Light. “It is no miracle. Greek priests bring a lamp – which has been used for this purpose for 1,500 years – to light the Holy Light. For the faithful pilgrims, who come from distant lands, it is a fire from heaven, a true miracle. But not for us “, he confessed.
The hypothesis of a 1500-year-old lamp does not seem to be very credible. The most plausible explanation was given a few years ago by a Greek specialist, who studied the phenomenon for several years.
Phosphorus, the key to the Holy Light
Because the Patriarch cannot enter the church with fire sources, being controlled by the Israeli authorities, the skeptics explained that the secret of the Holy Light is hidden in the candles he takes with him in the Church. If they are impregnated with white phosphorus, no source of fire is needed to ignite them, because phosphorus, in contact with humid air, tends to catch fire spontaneously .
A Greek historian, Michael Kalopoulos, gave a live demonstration on Greek television, showing how the candles used by the Patriarch can be lit without the need for a fire source .
In the video images below you can see how the Greek researcher soaks the tip of the candles in phosphorus, and they then light themselves:
In order to delay the ignition of the flames, the candles can then be soaked in an organic solvent, the phosphorus coming into contact with the air only after it evaporates.
Grades phosphorus have been known since ancient times, says Kalopoulos being used by magicians Chaldeans in the fifth century BC also Strabo describes its use by the Babylonians in Geographic paper published in 23 AD
Holy Light in the near future
even if resisted time For centuries, despite skeptics who have accused the phenomenon of fraud, the Holy Light could be affected by a practical constraint: the need to ensure fire exits.
The Israeli authorities are worried that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher has only one entrance, thus disregarding the safety rules that require the presence of an emergency exit that can be used in case of a fire.
During the Easter processions, more than 10,000 believers crowd into the church, and several thousand others are outside the building. Israeli authorities fear that a fire or an uncontrolled rush during the Easter ceremonies could lead to a real tragedy. The fears are supported by the precedent of 1834, when hundreds of people died trampled and suffocated when the crowd got scared and tried to leave the church.
The main problem is that the Church is precisely divided between the Greek Orthodox, the Roman Catholics and the Armenians, other cults (such as those of the Ethiopians, Copts and Assyrians) also having rights. Every inch of the building is distributed to one of the 6 Churches according to an agreement dating back 155 years. The construction of a fire exit would be done only on the territory belonging to one of these cults, but none of them is willing to give up.
Also, the Israeli authorities cannot impose the construction of a fire exit, because Israel’s sovereignty in the Holy City is not recognized internationally, and each of the 6 Churches has the support of at least one government.
The Patriarch of Jerusalem warned the Israeli authorities that it is extremely difficult to intervene in the balance agreed by the 6 cults: “The church is like a ruined house – if you remove a stone, you risk collapsing completely.” Thus, the problem does not seem to have a short-term solution, emphasizing the risk that, in the future, a miracle will turn into a tragedy.