Interview with His Beatitude Theophilos III, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem

The Light that enlightens
the people

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30 April 2021

Every year the Holy Fire brings many enthusiastic followers of Jesus to Jerusalem. How do you explain the fact that such a high level of engagement has persisted and grown throughout the centuries?

The ceremony of the Holy Fire has its origins in the early years of the Church when the liturgical practices of the Church were developed and it is one of the most ancient experiences in our tradition in the Church of Jerusalem. We have evidence of this from the itineraries of early pilgrims, like Egeria. Year after year both local Christians and pilgrims gather for this moment when we have a foretaste of the resurrection, which we call in our tradition the “First Resurrection.” This represents the light that shone from the tomb which the myrrh-bearing women experienced. As we read in the Gospel of Saint Matthew:

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Maty went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow (Mat 28:1-3).

This is an experience of the Uncreated Light that shines from the Holy Tomb and that is symbolised in the lighted candles that spread light not only throughout the church, but throughout the world. In every Orthodox church at the beginning of the Easter liturgy the people come forward to receive the light from a candle held by the priest and this custom came to them from Jerusalem. Even in times of persecution and difficulty for the Church of Jerusalem in ages past, the witness of the Holy Fire has continued.

There are several reasons that account for the important place of the ceremony of the Holy Fire in the lives of so many.

First of all, the Holy Fire is a potent sign of the continuity of the faith of the Church in the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. From the same place from which the Holy Fire emerges every year our Lord himself emerged after his three-day burial, to declare that death had been destroyed for ever and that the new life of the resurrection is open to all. The living flame is a witness to the living Lord, the “Father of lights” (James 1:17). Christ himself said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

Then we must remember that the Holy Fire reminds us of the mystery of God’s divine life and our own human existence: our God-created purpose to “become sharers of divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).

Life itself is a great and sacred mystery, and this life has been given to the human family in the creation.

We are drawn into the mystery of God’s divine life in this early life in a range of ways - in the sacraments, and most especially in the Divine Eucharist. The human heart is profoundly susceptible to the divine initiative of God. This divine initiative finds its greatest focus in the divine-human encounter here in the Holy Land, where we are the living witnesses to our sacred history. So, where we see the symbols or the evidence of this mystery of the divine-human encounter, as we do in the ceremony of the Holy Fire at the very place where the resurrection happened, people are naturally compelled and moved in their spiritual lives, and they want to be close to the event and to be a witness.

But there is more to it even than all this. The ceremony of the Holy Fire is a truly ecumenical event, by which we mean that it is a moment that unites not just Christians, but all people of good will both from our local communities and from around the world, without distinction. This is a moment for Orthodox Christians, of course, but also for the other Christians who participate, the Armenians, Copts, and Syrians, as well as for the Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, and people of other faiths who we know are present every year in the church for this event. The Floly Fire gives its light generously to all, so that all who wish to receive it may know the illumination that the Uncreated Light brings to our hearts and minds. The Holy Fire itself is a reflection of the fire that burns in the heart of every person in search of God, and so it is no wonder that it continues to attract and inspire thousands of people.

How is the ceremony interpreted within the Orthodox theological tradition? What is the supernatural meaning of this event?

Occurring as it does on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, in Orthodox theology the Holy Fire is principally a foretaste of the resurrection. In both the Eastern and Western traditions of Easter fire plays an important role as the herald of the new life of the resurrection, and so it is with this ceremony. As the fire bursts forth from the Holy Tomb, so our Lord Jesus Christ burst from the tomb on the first Easter morning. In many cases, lamps that are lit from the Holy Fire are taken back to other countries where they arrive in time for the Paschal Liturgy later the same night, so that the candles that are lit in faraway churches share directly and intimately in this Paschal celebration in Jerusalem.

The supernatural meaning is the same. The Holy Fire draws us more closely into the mystery of the resurrection, and so deepens the conversion of the soul. It makes the resurrection more real and immediate to us, and speaks to us too about the reliability of God’s love for us, encouraging us in our own commitment in the spiritual life. As the Bible assures us, God will never leave us or forsake us (Deut 31:6 and Heb 13:5), and the fact that this assurance occurs in both the Hebrew Scriptures as well as in the Christian Scriptures is a powerful testimony to its universal truth.

Our participation in the ceremony of the Holy Fire is an experience of the divine-human encounter and is therefore similar to our participation in the Holy Eucharist, which is also a divine-human encounter as we share in the Body and Blood of Christ.

What is, in your opinion, the ecumenical dimension of the Holy Fire rite?

As we have already mentioned, the Holy Fire is a truly ecumenical event in the fullest sense of that word.

It is important to remember three things.

The Holy Fire is a sign of unity for the Orthodox, not just of Sister Churches, but also of Orthodox nations that culturally are united by a common religious tradition. In our day we experience the willingness of all Orthodox Christian nations to participate in this, and they send delegations to receive the Holy Fire.

Also, fire is a universal religious symbol. Fire is essential to human life, both the physical and spiritual. In Christian terms, in the sharing of the Holy Fire to candles and to lamps, it reminds us that the life and love of God are shared, but never diminished, just as the Holy Fire continues to blaze even as so many individual fires are taken from it. We call this the “Unsleeping Light,” and its flame bums unceasingly in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, even in times of war and upheaval. So, in and of itself, in its full meaning, the Holy Fire unites all who come into contact with it.

We must also remember the unique ecumenical vocation of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in which this ceremony occurs. For the Church of the Holy Sepulcher has a special ecumenical vocation and mission not just among the Christians of different Churches and confessions, but among all the peoples of the human race, whatever their faith and practice. Here in this church for centuries we have lived a unique life in which we see the oikoumene at work. Every day Christians and others witness the way in which this church, unlike any other in the world, gathers a great multitude that no one can count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, who come here to stand before the throne and before the Lamb (Rev 7:9). This is itself an even greater miracle than the Holy Fire, for all miracles must point beyond themselves to God and to God’s purposes.

This year, as in every year the other Christian confessions who share with us in the guardianship and service of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher will be gathered with us, not just observing from their places in the church, but uniting their prayers with ours in thanksgiving for the resurrection.

This is the ceremony of ceremonies for the Church of Jerusalem. This is why this specific Saturday is known in all languages of the region - Greek, Arabic, and Hebrew - as the “Saturday of the Light,” and so it has entered into the calendars of the Abrahamic faiths here.

So, the Holy Fire is not just for the Orthodox: it is a gift from the Orthodox Church to the world which is in great difficulty and confusion, and which longs for the true Light that enlightens everyone (John 1:9).

What do you think about the possibility of unifying the date of Easter for all Christians?

A date for the universal celebration of Easter is an important one.

We must consider this question in the light of the ecumenical journey. The true goal of the ecumenical journey is the restoration of the common Chalice to all those who are the followers of Christ. Our foil, sacramental unity in faith and love must always be our goal. In more recent times this goal has faded into the background, but we must retrieve it and place it back at the forefront of our efforts. Only in this way will we have a chance of fulfilling the words that our Lord Jesus Christ prayed to his Father when he said, may they become completely one (John 17:23).

Our unity in faith and life is important not just for the Churches; it is crucial for our common witness to the world. We must remember that our Lord prayed for the unity of his followers not for their sake, but so that, as he said, the world may know that you, Father, have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me (John 17:23).

It is in this context that we must work towards a shared date for the celebration of Easter. This is not a matter of convenience for us; it is a matter of our witness to the truth and power of the resurrection. All Christians share this fundamental conviction, that our Lord Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, trampling down death by death, and giving life to those in the tomb (Paschal Troparion). So, a shared date for the celebration of Easter would be a true step forward in faithfulness to our Lord’s prayer for the unity of all his disciples.

The answer is already there. Let us restore our unity on the foundation that was laid for the faith by the acknowledgement and acceptance by the Churches of the Ecumenical councils. It was the Council of Nicaea in 325 that set the calculation of the date of Easter which we follow to this day. So of course, we want a common date, but we must take into serious account the fact that the Bible is made of both the Mosaic Law and the New Covenant. We have to bear in mind that there is a process from the Mosaic Law to the Commandments of Christ. We have no right to change or confuse the course of sacred history, which means that Christian Easter must fall after the Jewish Passover. With these considerations in mind, we would welcome a common date for Easter. The Christian Pascha is the very foundation of Christian faith, and the culmination of the Christian faith is the resurrection: as we read in the words of Saint Paul, If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain (1 Cor 15:13-14).

di Roberto Cetera