Holy Saturday typically has all the pinnings of anticipation for Easter Sunday, but for the Eastern Orthodox there is a tradition which goes back to at least the 9th Century and perhaps further — The Miracle of Holy Fire:
The miracle is not confined to what actually happens inside the little tomb, where the Patriarch prays. What may be even more significant, is that the blue light is reported to appear and be active outside the tomb. Every year many believers claim that this miraculous light ignites candles, which they hold in their hands, of its own initiative. All in the church wait with candles in the hope that they may ignite spontaneously. Often unlit oil lamps catch light by themselves before the eyes of the pilgrims. The blue flame is seen to move in different places in the Church.
A number of signed testimonies by pilgrims, whose candles lit spontaneously, attest to the validity of these ignitions. The person who experiences the miracle from close up by having the fire on the candle or seeing the blue light usually leaves Jerusalem changed, and for everyone having attended the ceremony, there is always a “before and after” the miracle of the Holy Fire in Jerusalem.
Now I have never been in Jerusalem to witness this event, but there are thousands who swear by it.
Of course, good old Wikipedia is there to debunk the myth of the Holy Fire:
, 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. According to Kalopoulos’ website:
If phosphorus is dissolved in an appropriate organic solvent, self-ignition is delayed until the solvent has almost completely evaporated. Repeated experiments showed that the ignition can be delayed for half an hour or more, depending on the density of the solution and the solvent employed.
Kalopoulos also points out that knowledge of chemical reactions of this nature was well known in ancient times, quoting Strabo, who states “In Babylon there are two kinds of naphtha springs, a white and a black. The white naphtha is the one that ignites with fire.” ([Strabon Geographica 126.96.36.199-24) He further states that phosphorus was used by Chaldean magicians in the early fifth century BC, and by the ancient Greeks, in a way similar to its supposed use today by the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem.
There are other explanations for the Holy Fire and the Orthodox priests uncanny ability to generate it. Some claim a lamp inside the Tomb is left lit, others say a lighter, still others argue that it comes from a sacred lamp and is therefore more of a “sacred fire” than the spontaneous appearance from God.
There is a certain beauty to it, regardless as to whether or not you believe the miracle to be genuine.
The light alone is beautiful to see spread in an otherwise drab and grey Sepulcher. The cheers, the bells, the fire — all of this ending more than three days of anticipation of the Risen Lord.
More than this, the fire itself seems to have the unique property of not burning, not in the sense that it doesn’t burn, but pilgrims will wave their hands, their faces, and beards in the fires themselves.
Whether this is a trick of Byzantine science or a miracle in its own right, the expression is nonetheless a beautiful one.