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Holy Fire Timeline

ca. 28 AD: After the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, His empty tomb is illuminated by a divine light.

April, 70 AD: Roman commander Titus destroys Jerusalem to squelch a Jewish revolt.

135: Emperor Hadrian sends his general Severus to put down another Jewish revolt at Jerusalem.

136: Hadrian re-founds and rebuilds Jerusalem, giving it the name Aelia Capitolina. The tomb of Christ is filled with earth and a temple of Aphrodite is built on top of it.

326: Saint Helen, mother of Saint Constantine the Great, travels to Jerusalem and unearths Golgotha, the tomb of Christ, and the true Cross. The first Church of the Resurrection is erected over Golgotha and the holy tomb, finally being completed and dedicated on September 13, 336.

ca. 330: On Pascha, Saint Gregory the Illuminator of Armenia places a lamp over the tomb of Christ, and after his prayer, the lamp is lit with an immaterial light.

614: Jerusalem is conquered by the Persian King Chosroes II. The Church of the Resurrection is burned. The true Cross is taken captive by the conquerors.

December, 627: Byzantine Emperor Heraclius defeats the Persians and personally returns the true Cross to Golgotha on September 14, 630.

637: Jerusalem is conquered by the Muslim Arabs.

April 7, 947: Because of the conversion to Christianity of many Syrian Muslims after witnessing the Holy Fire, a Muslim emir was sent to Jerusalem to forbid the rite to take place. However, the Christian patriarch negotiated for the ceremony to take place in exchange for a payment of 7000 gold coins. The emir attempted to sabotage the miracle by replacing the lamp’s wick with a piece of iron, but the Holy Fire still descended and miraculously ignited the iron wick.

September, 1009: Because of the continued influence of the miracle of the Holy Fire, the caliph of Egypt al-Hakim orders the destruction of the Church of the Resurrection and launches a persecution against the Christians. The church was finally rebuilt at the expense of Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos from 1038-1048.

1095: Pope Urban II initiates the First Crusade. In his speech, he praises the greatness of the “yearly miracle” of the Holy Fire.

July 15, 1099: The Crusaders capture Jerusalem. The Orthodox Patriarch Symeon is banished and later replaced with a Roman Catholic patriarch, Arnulf, who was replaced in December by Daimbert, Archbishop of Pisa.

1100: Daimbert is the first Roman Catholic to be made the head of the Holy Fire ceremony. After waiting for many hours for the descent of the Holy Fire, the Latin priests urge the Crusaders to repent and confess their sins. The Orthodox were grieved at the delay of the Holy Fire and were praying for the mercy of God. When night had nearly fallen, the Holy Fire finally appeared.

April 20, 1101: For the first time in history, the Holy Fire does not descend on Holy Saturday, to the shame of the Latin clergy who are officiating. The next day, Pascha Sunday, the Latins continue their prayers, but finally decide to leave the church. The Greek and Syrian Orthodox priests start the rite again on their own, and the Holy Fire then descended. The Latin king Baldwin decides from henceforth to make the Greek bishop the head of the Holy Fire ceremony.

October 2, 1187: After defeating the Crusader army, Sultan Saladin occupies Jerusalem.

April 4, 1192: After the Holy Fire appears, the suspicious Sultan Saladin orders the divinely lit oil lamp to be extinguished. Immediately it is miraculously relit. He orders the lamp to be put out again, and again it relights. A third time the lamp is extinguished, and once more it relights. The sultan is astonished.

1229: Roman Emperor Frederick II conquers Jerusalem in the Sixth Crusade.

1238: Pope Gregory IX denounces the Holy Fire and forbids Roman Catholics to participate.

1244: Sultan Salih Ayyub of Egypt conquers Jerusalem.

ca. 1480: Up to this time, during the rite of the Holy Fire, the edicule (kouvouklion) containing the tomb of Christ would be empty and sealed. After the Orthodox prayers for the descent of the Holy Fire, the Holy Fire would descend and illuminate the interior of the edicule, and the Orthodox patriarch or clergyman or Muslim ruler would enter the edicule to retrieve the Holy Fire. At this point in history, the ritual changed so that the patriarch would first enter the edicule alone to pray for the descent of the Holy Fire.

1579: The Armenian Monophysites bribe the Muslim ruler of Jerusalem and are given exclusive access to the Church of the Resurrection for the rite of the Holy Fire, while the Orthodox are left waiting outside the locked church. After a long wait, outside near the entrance to the church a column split and the Holy Fire came out for the Orthodox Patriarch Sophronios IV to distribute to the faithful. The Muslims were amazed and the Armenians inside were put to shame.

1643: The Armenian heretics again connive to exclude the Orthodox from the rite of the Holy Fire. As the grieved Christians stood outside, there was an earthquake and the Holy Fire appeared from a corner of the roof of the Holy Sepulcher and lit up the whole church to the joy of the Orthodox. The disgraced Armenians bribed the Muslims to keep silent about this manifestation.

1686: France negotiates to fight on the side of the Ottoman Empire in exchange for custody of the tomb of Christ and the Church of the Resurrection. The Greek patriarch retains the right to conduct the ceremony of the Holy Fire.

1735: The Greeks are given control of the shrines by sultanic decree.

1740: The Latins regain control of the holy places due to the interference of the French.

1757: Sultan Osman III returns the shrines to the Greeks.

1808: The Church of the Resurrection is destroyed by a great fire. After a dispute between the Latins, Greeks, and Armenians, Sultan Mahmud II grants the rebuilding license to the Greeks.

September, 1810: The new church is completed and stands to this day.

1852-1853: The Ottoman sultan issues two decrees by which Golgotha and the Holy Sepulcher are definitively given over to the custody of the Greeks.

1926: Patriarch Damianos I of Jerusalem testifies that sometimes, if he is in a bad state of soul, the oil lamp has already been lit with the Holy Fire before he enters the edicule or prays for its descent: “If I have a calm conscience and nothing is troubling me which could have the strength to overshadow my serenity and devotion to God, I am consumed by an inexplicable joy. As soon as I enter the Holy Sepulcher and open the holy book and read a few lines from the prayers, and raise the bunches of candles, then the holy lamp and the candles ignite. If, however, tranquility of soul does not accompany me and I am not sufficiently prepared and devoted to God, I do not have that inexplicable joy. Then, as soon as I bend to enter the sacred tomb I see the sacred lamp is already lit.”

2008: Russian physicist Andrey Volkov makes a scientific study of the phenomenon of the Holy Fire. Using an oscilloscope located ten meters from the holy tomb, he measures electromagnetic radiation and determines that there is an entirely inexplicable electrical discharge that occurs at the moment of the appearance of the Holy Fire.

Present time: As can be seen by the above brief timeline history of the Holy Fire, this miracle is manifested to the world as a unique part of the Orthodox tradition, and it comes to the Orthodox shrine of the Holy Sepulcher not because of the spiritually fallen Patriarch of Jerusalem, but in spite of him. It comes for the consolation of Orthodox Lifeall around the world. The Holy Fire is not some kind of trickery with formula that only the patriarch can invoke. It is a manifestation of the grace of God, which is forever connected to this sacred site, the holiest place in all Christendom.


Sources:
Skarlakidis, Haris. Holy Fire: The Miracle of Holy Saturday at the Tomb of Christ. Stamoulis Publications (Athens, GR: 2011).
“The Holy Fire,” by Archimandrite Callistos; “Holy Week and Pascha in Jerusalem,” by Monk Parthenius. Orthodox Life. No. 2, March-April 1984.

 


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