The Miracle of the Holy Fire?

The Holy Fire emerges from the tomb of Jesus, at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (credit: Greek City Times)

I meant to post something about this last weekend, but this past Sunday was Pascha, the Eastern Orthodox celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus, otherwise typically known as “Easter” among English-speaking Western Christians. Different methods of calculating the day of Easter explains why the Eastern and Western churches are not always in sync, when it comes to celebrating the Resurrection.

But I am glad that I waited to post something until now, in that I ran across a very interesting article, by Rod Dreher, of The American Conservative, addressing a popular Eastern Orthodox tradition, associated with Holy Saturday, the day right before Pascha/Easter. Dreher is the author of the widely discussed book The Benedict Option, a prolific journalist, who converted to Eastern Orthodoxy several years ago.

As readers of Veracity might know, I believe that evangelical Protestants have a lot to learn from the Eastern Orthodox. Sadly, Eastern Orthodoxy remains an enigma to most evangelical Protestants, who tend to confuse Eastern Orthodoxy with Roman Catholicism, which only shows just how myopic some evangelical Protestants can be.

When the (once) popular evangelical apologist Hank Hanegraff was received into the Greek Orthodox church in 2017, you would have thought that he had renounced Christianity altogether, based on the criticism levied by some evangelical Protestants. Some even think that Mormonism is more theologically orthodox than Eastern Orthodoxy, which is a pretty laughable judgment.

To summarize those previous posts: Eastern Orthodoxy (abbreviated hereafter as “EO”) does have a lot going for it. Let me list a few of the reasons:

  • A generous posture towards “disputable matters,” for non-essential Christian doctrine: For evangelical Christians tired of the on-going theological debates among Protestant evangelicals, that never seem to go anywhere, EO is like a breath of fresh air. Among the EO, they do not get hung up on matters such as the minute details of the “End Times”, the age of the earth, or the dispute over God’s sovereignty vs. human responsibility. Even though the Book of Revelation is considered to be canonical Scripture, the EO refrain from being obsessive in parsing out the technical details of the book. When it comes to the first few chapters of Genesis, most EO have no problem with the use of metaphorical language to express great theological truth. The dispute between Calvinists and Arminians among evangelical Protestants is a mute point among the EO. On and on the list goes.
  • A consistent and awe-inspiring liturgy, that unites the faithful: For the EO, worship is theology and theology is worship. There is a strong emphasis on integrating doctrine with practical spirituality, something that is often missing in evangelical circles. A profound sense of reverence pervades the corporate worship experience. This is in contrast to a popular trend in many evangelical circles today, where Sunday worship looks more like a rock concert followed by a TED talk, than it does an attitude of awe of being in the presence of a Holy God.
  • A moderate and stable view towards “women in ministry” : Evangelical Protestants love to fight about the so-called “women in ministry” issue. Evangelical churches tend to divide from one another, with complementarians on the one side, opposing women serving as elders, in a local church, and egalitarians on the other side, promoting women to serve as elders. Mark my word, in a good twenty years, you will see even starker lines between complementarian and egalitarian evangelical churches, where you can tell the difference, just by examining what Bible translation is being used by that church. Such a trend does not bode well for the evangelical movement, as such a trend merely reinforces tribalism….  But among the EO, this issue has been settled for hundreds of years. Yes, only men are permitted to serve as priests, and preside over the administration of the sacraments. But in most of the EO churches I have seen, women are more involved in the leadership of the local community, than they are in many evangelical congregations today…. which is all the more ironic, in that the growing trend towards egalitarianism among evangelicals puts up yet another barrier to reconciliation among the Great Traditions of the church.

Yet like any other Christian tradition, EO is not perfect:

  • Nominalism is rampant. More than a few EO are Orthodox in name-only. While many EO Christians have a profoundly deep, even evangelical faith, a vast number of EO parishioners go to church simply because of family tradition, or because there is a sense of fear coming from the local priest or bishop. But then again, that happens in just about every Christian tradition.
  • EO theology sometimes seems fixed in the 8th century: The EO have not had a major church council meeting since the Seventh Ecumenical Council of 787 A.D. The EO emphasis on their long-abiding tradition often leaves them resistant to making certain changes, that would not necessarily compromise their core theological commitments. But a number of EO theological traditions strike evangelical Protestants today as being quite quirky, like the perpetual virginity of Mary.
  • EO churches tend to be more ethnocentric. This is easily seen in the United States. There is an Orthodox Church of America, that spawned off from Russian Orthodoxy, but still, the majority of EO movements in America are strongly tied to their non-American ethnic roots, like the Ukranian, Russian, and Greek Orthodox churches. This has made it hard for the EO to fully integrate into the broader American culture, inhibiting the EO from establishing an authentically American flavor of EO faith.

Anyway, what I wanted to highlight here is this popular tradition among the EO on Holy Saturday. Tradition has it that a miracle occurs every year at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, on Holy Saturday: the miracle of the “Holy Fire.” The story goes like this: a blue light emerges from the traditional location of Jesus Christ’s tomb, rising above a stone slab, where it is thought that Jesus’ body was laid on Good Friday evening. From the light, candles are lit and then taken outside of the tomb, so that other pilgrims can have their candles lit.

What was quite unusual in 2020 was that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was officially closed this year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so there were only a handful of priests on-site to witness the miracle.

I must admit, I am a bit skeptical of this. But I appreciate the perspective shared by Rod Dreher, that his faith is not built upon such signs and wonders. Below is the video posted by Rod Dreher, showing the moment when the Holy Fire is used to light the candles, that are taken out of the tomb. What do Veracity readers think of this?

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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