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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On a Strange and Mysterious Fire

What is a miracle? Something that defies logic, that does not accord with our understanding of nature, something that we cannot explain. For those who follow a faith, a miracle is regarded as the intervention of the deity, an act that proves the existence of the divine being as an agent capable of controlling nature. For the agnostic, just as there are no deities there are no miracles. Everything can be explained by science. But there are some things that science and logic are hard placed to answer.

On a late winter afternoon in 1997 two Israeli helicopters carrying 73 soldiers collided over the fields and water channels of the settlement, She'ar Yashuv near the Lebanese border. A witness to the event described observing the two helicopters pass over his house without their lights on. There was a sudden flash and one of the helicopters fell in a fireball and the other wavered on for half a kilometre before exploding and crashing into fields of nearby Kibbutz Dafna. Now, this event seems like just another human tragedy. There was nothing about the accident that could not be explained by scientific fact. The helicopters were on a reconnaissance flight that was planned to cross over the border into Lebanon, but had been stalled due to bad weather conditions, and they were hovering over the settlements waiting for orders. Visibility was poor and the mission had already been delayed from the previous day. Weather and human fallibility were regarded as the causes of the crash, which was the worst air disaster in Israel's history and a catalyst for its withdrawal from the security zone in Lebanon three years later.

But there is one aspect of this tragedy that cannot be explained by science and logic; the fact that the place, the time and the manner of this event were seemingly mentioned 2,700 years earlier, in a text identified with the 8th-century BCE prophet Isaiah Ben Amoz and composed during and following the Babylonian captivity. Each week in synagogues across the world a weekly portion of the Torah is read, followed by a shorter reading of part of the other books of the Bible, known as the Haftorah. On the very week of the tragedy at She'ar Yashuv, the portion of the Haftorah was from the Book of Isaiah, 7.1. It read:

"Then said the Lord to Isaiah, Go out now to meet Ahaz, you and She'ar Yashuv, your son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller's field; and say to him, 'Take heed, and be quiet; fear not, neither be fainthearted on account of the two tails of these smoking firebrands, for the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram, and these sons of Ramalyahu.'"

Coincidence? Perhaps... Divine intervention? Who can say...?

The Descent of the Holy Fire, Biblioteka Vaticana, cod. Urb. Lat. 1362, f. 1v

After the Franks occupied Jerusalem in 1099, Latin clergy were installed in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre replacing the Greeks, and the Orthodox liturgy was replaced with that of the Catholic Church. One important ceremony, however, was retained; the ceremony of the Holy Fire. It was re-instigated by popular demand. The Holy Fire was believed to miraculously descend from heaven on Saturday eve before Easter. But in 1101 something went terribly wrong. The fire did not appear when it was expected in the ninth hour, as it had done every Holy Saturday ever since the miracle was first recorded by Bernard the Wise in 876 AD. The delay caused great consternation among the clergy. According to the Genoese chronicler, Caffaro, who was among the attendants, the patriarch, Daimbert delivered a sermon in which he explained to the disappointed congregation that there was no longer a need for miracles, as the city was now in the hands of the believers.* But, to cover all bases he called upon them to pray that "...His light shine, just as had been His custom" for the sake of those Christians among them who were weak in their faith. The entire Latin clergy and the king with his court, followed by the townspeople, went in a barefooted procession through the streets of Jerusalem to the Templum Domini (Dome of the Rock). One can imagine the distress and emotion. The Greeks and the other Eastern communities remained in the church praying and in tears, tearing their hair in anguish. No one could understand why this had happened, and at this of all times, the city having only just been redeemed, and at great cost. It was only when the patriarch was making his way back to the church that the light finally appeared in one of the lamps of the tomb.

In later years the problem was resolved. Some Greek clergy were reinstated in the church to ascertain that a delay would not reoccur, and the miracle was henceforth reliably on time at the ninth hour of each Holy Saturday. What had been the cause of its delay? At the time some Church leaders might have thought it was due to transgressions on the part of the Christian community. Historian Christopher Tyreman suggested amusingly: "The newcomers evidently had not learnt the knack."** More cynically, recent historians have claimed that the delay had been contrived, perhaps at the instigation of the king in order to discredit the patriarch who was already out of favour at the time. The Muslims no doubt thought it was a technical hitch. In their eyes the whole thing was a fraud, a trick of the priests. There were those who believed that some person was located at the top of the dome, and at the appropriate time ignited an oiled filament that ran down to the opening on the top of the tomb.

Such disbelief and condemnation have continued. As early as the thirteenth century Pope Gregory IX denounced the miracle as a deceit. The Greek scholar and humanist, Adamantios Korais (1748–1833), a critic of many other practices of the Orthodox church, wrote a treatise titled On the Holy Light of Jerusalem in which he referred to the Holy Fire a fraud carried out by fraudulent priests. He gave a scientific explanation of how they managed to carry it off, claiming that phosphorus was used for self-ignition and that this could be delayed from occurring for the appropriate length of time by dissolving it in an organic solvent. Korais claimed that the ignition of the fire could be delayed by half an hour or more until the solvent had almost entirely evaporated, the length of the delay depending on the type and density of the solution. By such means the "miracle" could be perfectly timed. Over the years many other critics, both within and outside the Greek Church, have joined in condemning the ceremony, including the English historian, Edward Gibbon who referred to it in the concluding volume of his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a “pious fraud.”***

But, in spite of its many opponents, the miracle survives, and has on occasion gathered to it additional miraculous events. In 1579, the Armenian patriarch, Hovhannes I of Constantinople, tried to usurp the position of the Greek patriarch by praying day and night in the hope of obtaining for himself the Holy Fire. However, it did not come until, of a sudden, lightning miraculously struck a column at the entrance to the church. The Orthodox patriarch, Sophronius IV was standing beside the column and the candle he was holding was thus ignited. A crack at the base of one of the columns at the main portal is said to have been caused on that occasion by the lightning and remains for believers as a memorial to the truth of the miracle and to the Orthodox Church as its rightful owner.

* Martin Hall and Jonathan Phillips, trans., Caffaro, Genoa and the Twelfth-Century Crusades, Farnham and Burlington, 2013, p. 52.

** Christopher Tyreman, God's War. A New History of the Crusades, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2006, p. 231.

*** Edward Gibbon. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. 6, London 1954, p. 34. p. 34.

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