Time to Prove or Disprove the Holy Sepulchre Fire Mystery

Dan Georgakas and Constantinos E. Scaros discuss the mystery of the Holy Fire at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Is it a hoax or is it “the greatest story never told?”


Dan, I’m going to shift gears this time and move beyond our usual arena of American politics, because I’d really like your thoughts – as well as those of our readers – on a topic that, potentially, may be the most underreported story in the world: the Holy Fire at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – believed to be the site of Jesus’ resurrection.

Here’s the background: each year, thousands gather to witness what is considered to be the longest-sustaining miracle in history: the appearance of the Holy Light of the Resurrection, which the Patriarch of Jerusalem receives once he enters Jesus’ tomb, apparently without any use of a lighter or a match. The ceremony is hardly different from the annual ritual at midnight mass in Orthodox Churches the world over, except for that one monumental detail: all of the other religious leaders who conduct those masses light the flame manually; only the candle at the Holy Sepulchre Church purportedly is lit by a supernatural force.

As I wrote three years ago in a piece titled “The Greatest Story Never Told – is the Holy Fire a Hoax?” (TNH, May 21, 2011), “even if it happened only once, it would be quite a miracle to behold. If, indeed, it happens every year – as thousands upon thousands of the faithful believe – then it is a miracle no less amazing than the Resurrection itself. If the story is false, however, and the candle is lit by some illusory technique, like a magic trick, then it would be a hoax that every self-respecting human being – Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike – should denounce actively and emphatically until the phony practice is stopped.”

Recently, we reported on our website (thenationalherald.com) that Greek politician Panos Dimou is leaving the newly-formed party Potami, and suspending his campaign to become a Member of the European Parliament, as a result of backlash due to his recent ridiculing of the Holy Fire phenomenon.

According to the Holy Sepulchre Church’s website, holyfire.org, Diodorus I, who served as Patriarch of Jerusalem from 1981-2000, claims his beard did not burn once during all those years when he received the Holy Fire (typically, clergy with long beards suffer such pyrrhic mishaps).

Is it really a special flame that originates by Divine intervention, and does not burn what it touches?

What baffles me, Dan, is why the jury is still out on this one. Why haven’t the world’s leading newspapers, for example – such as the New York Times, Washington Post, the Times of London, and Le Monde, not to mention those of Greece – the country most deeply associated with Eastern Orthodoxy – traveled to that site and attempted to, say, burn copies of their own newspapers with the flame? And why hasn’t Geraldo Rivera, who years ago famously starred in a special televised program in which he opened Al Capone’s vault (though not finding much of anything inside), chase after this far more compelling story, by going to Jerusalem to see if his prominent mustache blazes up when the flame touches it?

As I see it, there are three possibilities regarding the flame: 1) it is indeed created divinely; 2) it is a hoax perpetuated by the patriarch and those in his circle, one that passes from generation to generation; or 3) there is a scientific explanation for it, maybe along the same lines as a lighting a piece of paper on fire by reflecting the sun’s rays onto it via a magnifying glass – which may or may not be known to the patriarch and the other leaders.

If, in fact, there is a scientific explanation, then the patriarch – and the rest of us – deserve to know. If it is a hoax – if the patriarch retrieves a lighter or match planted as cleverly as the gun in the men’s room that Michael Corleone used to blast Virgil Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey in the Godfather – then certainly the people, particularly the patriarch’s faithful followers, should know they are being hoodwinked.
But if it is indeed lit by a supernatural force – arguably the direct hand of God – then is there any story in the entire universe more worthy of media attention?


Dino, I am not running for any office, not even a local post in a Greek-American organization, so I can speak my mind freely even though I know I am sure to generate angry responses. I, of course, agree that a responsible news agency should indeed photograph the entire event from beginning to end. That that has not happened indicates to me that the Patriarch of Jerusalem is not particularly interested in such an event. Al- Jazeera would be ideal for many reasons, but the BBC will do. I can’t imagine a responsible news organization not accepting an invitation to film such a ritual.

Before looking at the specifics of the Jerusalem Holy Light, it is useful to be cognoscente of parallel religious traditions. Zoroaster, the religious prophet born in Persia six centuries before Jesus of Nazareth, used fire as a symbolic means of understanding and worshiping the divine. In the centuries that followed, numerous religious ceremonies developed involving a Holy Light. The one best known to most Americans is Jewish Hanukkah.

Such rituals may be symbolic or commemorate what is considered an actual miracle from the past. Retrieving Holy Light usually involves a single man or group of men (never seems to be any women holy enough for the task) that go unaccompanied into a dark hallowed place and emerge with light. This has always struck me as an odd way for a divine power to reach masses of people, particularly non-believers.

Michael Kalopoulos, a famed critic of organized religions, like Panos Dimou, the politician, believes the Holy Light in Jerusalem is a hoax. This charge has been made repeatedly over the centuries by Christians and non-Christians. Kalopoulos has demonstrated that one explanation for Holy Fire might involve self-igniting white phosphorous. He has shown that if you dip candles in white phosphorous, they will spontaneously ignite within twenty minutes. This well-known property of white phosphorus is used in activities as innocent as gorgeous firework displays and as lethal as military warfare.

Kalopoulos also notes that in Ancient Chaldea and later in Classical Greece hot phosphorus was used by magicians to show their supernatural powers. Ancient Babylon, according to the geographer Strabo, had a spectacular self-igniting white phosphorous spring in a royal courtyard.

Some sources assert that Greek Orthodox priests dip the candles in a white phosphorous mixture while in the Holy Sepulcher. Having a camera record every movement they make would substantiate or disprove this assertion. You ask if it is really true that the flame does not burn what it touches. Surely, this is not a hard thing to prove or disprove. If the flame does not burn, it has definitely not been treated with white phosphorous.

I agree that there are three possible explains for the Holy Light. At you say, it could indeed be of supernatural origin. Just as likely, there may be some scientific explanation. White phosphorous is only one such possibility. Finally, you are willing to consider the Holy Flame may be a hoax perpetrated by the Patriarch of Jerusalem and his inner circle. To that idea, I would add the possibility that the rituals they perform in all sincerity may contain the scientific elements for self-igniting fire of which they are ignorant. Given that I am a rationalist (most of the time), I accept the view developed by Occam that when it doubt, accept the simplest or most logical explanation. Better yet, let the cameras roll so all can see for themselves.


1 Comment

  1. Not easy to perpetuate a Hoax for 1200 years considering the fact that Muslims search the Patriarch to make sure that he has nothing but his underrobe on before they hand him the bees wax candles. Then, explain why nobody is burned for 15-20 minutes. 1200 years!
    The odds of this secret and it’s phenomenon is pretty amazing.
    I’m of the opinion that nobody wants to believe in miracles these days. Few care about the Orthodox or Coptic Eastern Christians either.

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