Monday, April 21, 2014

The Holy Fire

Worshippers hold candles as they take part in the Christian Orthodox Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City April 19, 2014 (Reuters / Amir Cohen)

Happy and Blessed Easter, May the Light of the Risen Christ fill you with His Joy!

The Exultet speaks of the Church shaking, of the night being changed to day, of the mighty voices of the faithful. of trumpets sounding, of being filled with joy it doesn't seem to happen quite that!

The Miracle of the Holy Fire in Jerusalem, is the popular highlight of Orthodox worship in the city of the Resurrection. It is a strange mixture of liturgy, devotion, political expression, partisanship, it is exuberant and wild, westerners who have witnessed have described it as terrifying. For Palestinian Christians especially it is a celebration of who they are and of the simple fact that they belong in the Holy Land, Holy City and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

This year Israeli police have tried again to restrict access to the Holy Sepulchre and to the areas around it, it is part of the process of 'control' of minorities, especially Palestinians and Christians who have lived in Jerusalem for centuries. Even under the Ottomans there was fear of riot, today the same fears exist, as well as modern concerns about 'elf and safety'.

Many really do accept the fire is indeed supernatural as the videos introduction says; in the West the movement of the Crucifix from the tomb to the High Altar was often so described, before the Reformation; and I seem to remember, when Holy Week rituals varied considerably from place to place that fire or a candle was 'entombed' in some hidden place and its reappearance as fire was described as 'miraculous'. Many Orthodox would describe not just the coming of the fire as miraculous but the fire itself, saying that when first taken from the tomb it doesn't burn, of torches spontaneously lighting, even of miracles of healing taking place during the ceremony.

For us Westerners exotic exuberance is really very alien, it is certainly not part of the staid matter-of-factness of the Roman Rite. If anything post-Concilliar piety has become even more staid and controlled.

A Polish priest friend told me of having several thousand at food blessing on Holy Saturday, less than a hundred at the 'Queen of Liturgies', the Easter Vigil and just hundreds at the Easter Masses. In Spain the traditional penitential street procession bring out the whole town, apart from the old lefties, whilst the attendance at official liturgies can be somewhat meagre. At Christmas some parishes do a children's crib service with the Eucharist tacked on, early on Christmas Eve, they are packed out, whilst the actual Christmas Day Masses have dramatically decreasing congregations.

Low Sunday, the Liturgy certainly speaks of God's mercy, the Gospel of Jesus giving the Apostle power to forgive sins but it is the devotion to St Faustina's 'Divine Mercy' that has gradually taken over. For some, Good Friday seems to be just the first day of the Divine Mercy Novena.

Most priests are creatures of the 'Liturgical Movement' but I am beginning to wonder whether its followers are necessarily doing something good. 'Devotions' were very much part of the Irish experience, pilgrimage to local sacred sites, the Rosary, the Sacred Heart, private penitential practices seemed to have nourished something vibrant, I can't help thinking imposing the liturgy on people at the expense of devotions is one of the reasons for the loss of health in the Irish Church.

The video of Fr Ray Kelly fills me with horror but I wonder if in fact for most people the modern Liturgy actually creates a vacuum, which priest like Fr Kelly feel obliged to fill, other 'pastoral' priest seem compelled to fill something which is lacking by puppetry, dance, entertainment, felt banners, in fact what people like me roll our eyes at.

In the Old Rite, which even Pope Francis recently described as becoming fashionable, especially amongst the young, it seems to be accepted that the clergy said Mass and did what priests should do, often in a perfunctory, workman-like way, whilst the faithful simply did their own thing. Clergy and laity were interdependent but somehow rather than controlling the faithful, or worst still clericalising them, the clergy seemed to feed and encourage their devotion.

In the video of the Miracle of the Holy Fire the clergy seem to do their own thing and they laity there's, is there a clue that the laity here are predominantly rather loud men, not in suits? They could be a football crowd. It strikes me that perhaps one key to new-evangelisation is simply putting as much effort into promoting popular devotion as we have into the Liturgy, maybe somehow especially amongst men.

Basically, I want people to go wild with the Easter Mysteries rather than treat them as an old maid's tea party in an English parlour.

Another example of 'Greek Fire'
thanks to Fr Tim


Jacobi said...

“For us Westerners exotic exuberance is really very alien”

Particularly, Father, in the post-Vatican II liturgy. We have shut out the Holy Spirit.

We must welcome back the Holy Spirit by re-sanctifing the Novus Ordo alongside a re-instituted Vetus Ordo!

John Vasc said...

Father, slightly O/T here, I realize - but there is one very practical reason why many faithful Catholics cannot attend Midnight Mass and have have great difficulties in being at Christmas Day Mass, or the Easter Vigil:- It is because in this country public transport (which in London is manages to run through the night on New Year's Eve to cope with drunken revellers) closes early on the night of Christmas Eve, and does not run on Christmas Day (or after the end of the Easter Vigil). Only those with private transport can get to Mass on these occasions - unless they happen to live within walking distance of a Catholic church and can safely walk home alone at 1am.
I wonder if PPs might consider (say, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent or in the newsletter) asking their flock to be generous in offering lifts to and from Mass on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, to enable all the faithful to attend Mass. And for anyone coming to the Easter Vigil to help out those who are 'going their way' home.
I have never seen any such appeal. But not everyone can afford a car...(Some cannot drive.)And these days, I'm afraid, most car-owners will not offer lifts of their own volition.

Fr Ray Blake said...

One wonders how people managed Midnight Mass when public transport invariably stopped mid evening on Bank Holiday Eves and when fewer people had personal transport apart from legs.

Novus Catholicus Romanus said...


Slight old topic here... But the "miracle of the Holy Fire" of which you are referring to here might not be so "miraculous" after all...

Wikipedia has an entry regarding criticism of such "miraculous fire" here:

"Some Greeks have been critical of the Holy Fire, such as Adamantios Korais, who condemned what he considered to be religious fraud in his treatise "On the Holy Light of Jerusalem." He referred to the event as "machinations of fraudulent priests" and to the "unholy" light of Jerusalem as "a profiteers' miracle".

In 2005, in a live demonstration on Greek television, Michael Kalopoulos, author and historian of religion, dipped three candles in white phosphorus. The candles spontaneously ignited after approximately 20 minutes due to the self-ignition properties of white phosphorus when in contact with air."

You can view a demonstration of how a "miraculous fire" can be produced here:

Fr Ray Blake said...

I think it is more likely the hidden being 'miraculously' revealed, not a fraud, simply a way of teaching about a higher and truly miraculous event, the renewal of faith.

Orthodoxy abounds in the 'miraculous' whereas we have stripped it away but the miraculous is there to point to another reality.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. Might not be miraculous. But presumably the Ottoman, and later the Jewish authorities who view the whole thing as somewhere between an annoyance and a blasphemy, and who insist on searching and examining everything before and after the event, would have found and published evidence of the fraud to put a lid on the whole thing.

Then there are the other things that happen at the same time, such as the fire lighting candles among the congregation before the Patriarch has even left the Sepulchre, leaping from candle to candle, running up walls. And the fact that the fire seems not to burn for several seconds.

I'm a scientist. I tend to dislike miracles because they don't fit into my scientific worldview. But neither would I dismiss them all as frauds or coincidences. If the Holy Fire is indeed a fraud, then it is perhaps the most successful one in history, given that it has gone on for centuries, under the noses of people who have actively sought to expose it.

Anonymous said...

the burst of light is completely obscured by the size of the priests that completely hide the bees wax from sight. This is all by the masters of mysteries the byzantine orthodox. They of the weeping icons with holy oils, double canvases with oil between them whereby when candles heat the outer canvas the oil expands thru6685 the pin pricks. A couple of years ago an orthodox priest was caught in Toronto hiding under his altar up to conjuring tricks.

John Vasc said...

Father, your question is a fair one, and I have pondered it. When I was a child, I walked (or ran) the mile-long road to church and back every day without a problem. Now that church is still where it was those sixty years ago, but because of property price inflation I could not now afford to live anywhere near my childhood home. That mile to church is now several miles (and I several miles longer in age!:-) and the solitary nighttime roads are much more dangerous, and the risks greater.
They were indeed different times.

Nicolas Bellord said...

Here in Portugal we have the same phenomenon of a packed church on Palm Sunday but much sparser attendance through to Easter Sunday. I have always put this down to potato planting which takes place at the full moon which is immediately before Easter. However the priest really did manage to give a great feeling of joy at the Easter Vigil with ringing of bells both inside the Church and outside. Easter Sunday morning the mass at dawn really gives you the idea of resurrection with a procession of the blessed sacrament around the village followed by benediction and then mass. We then get given lots of cakes and bread - far more than we can eat.

On Monday the PP begins his visits of all the houses to bless them. He announces his arrival in each part of the parish by letting off a few rockets. You have to be prepared with a white table cloth, sugared almonds, bread and cheese and a donation for the group which accompanies him to bless the house and let us kiss the crucifix.

John Nolan said...

Low Sunday, Dominica in Albis, Quasimodo Sunday - some are actually referring to it (erroneously) as 'the Feast of Divine Mercy' Of the two popes to be canonized on Sunday, one canonized Sr Faustina and the other condemned her writings as bordering on heresy and placed them on the Index. Interesting.

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