The Fire of Pentecost in Orthodoxy

No one, of course, can describe the fire that fell on the Apostles at Holy Pentecost. At most we are told that the Spirit appeared “like tongues of flame lighting upon the heads of the Apostles.” Not much a description. Other times in Scripture we are told of a Pillar of Fire and of the bush that burned but was not consumed. Again, this is very little information.

To this day, there occurs a miracle of fire at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The Orthodox Patriarch, having been searched by the authorities, enters the Tomb of Christ with an unlit torch of candles. He prays. Year after year he has dones so, and year after year emerges with what in Orthodoxy is known as “The Holy Fire.” It seems to have the odd property of not burning people (at least at first). Video’s (I’ve included one here) show the enthusiasm of the crowd (it seems to have a distinct Middle Eastern flavor – imagine that). This one includes some shots of people virtually “bathing” in the flame.

Of course this has gone on for centuries with little fanfare, at least in comparison to the fanfare most Christians are used to in our modern world. But the fire continues. For those interested here is a youtube of the event from last Pascha:

Of greater interest to me (my faith in Christ’s resurrection from the dead has nothing to do with the nature of the phenomenon of the Holy Fire), is the fire spoken of by the Desert Fathers, when we are urged to become flame.

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’

 This fire can consume our passions, consume our hearts with the love of God. It can consume our desire for worldly things and set us on the path of salvation. There is a fire that can be ours – and burn endlessly without consuming. But there will be no advertisements or movements which shout to us, “Come to this city or that city and experience the Holy Fire.” Indeed bathing in the Holy Fire in Jerusalmen will not change your life. Like all fire that changes us, only the fire of ascetism and true yearning for God will change us. And then we will shine like the sun. 

For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor. 4:6)

This is the great miracle for which our heart yearns – to know in our inmost self that God has become man, and in turn has called us to union with Himself. Anything less would be nothingness.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


5 responses to “The Fire of Pentecost in Orthodoxy”

  1. Mary Bethany Avatar
    Mary Bethany

    In my moments of truest prayer, of greatest longing, this is what I want. To be all flame. To be the burning bush. How easily I am distracted by earthly cares! God have mercy.

  2. Death Bredon Avatar

    Of course, my faith relies solely on the supernatural and miraculous events commonly known as the Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, Ascension, Second Coming, and Last Judgment of Christ Jesus. But the Holy Flame is nevertheless a fascinating phenomena!

  3. Kyra Avatar

    I recall one year that our Bishop in Pittsburgh spoke of his time of having been there. He said he stood and watched with a careful eye. He said he had believed before with a belief that was still harbored doubt. But at he stood in the Sepulchre he watched with his doubt niggling at the back of his mind.

    He told me that at that time as he saw the flame spring forth he knew that he was still just a man, incapable of grasping all that God is willing to do for us to help us in our faith and trust of Him.

    To this day I will hear of the flame and think to myself how much God helps us even when our faith is small and doubt niggles at the back of our minds.

    I feel sorry for those in denominations that do not believe in these kind of things…how small their faith must be…how restrained.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    Kyra, I’ve heard many eye-witness accounts and have no doubts about the miracle of the holy fire. For me it confirms the miracle of the holy fire that burns within our hearts revealing the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ (not to in any way detract from the miracle in Jerusalem).

  5. Sbdcn. Athanasios Avatar

    Bless Father,

    I am glad to read the story of Kyra’s bishop having some initial doubts about the Holy Fire. I too, have always cast a doubtful eye on the proceedings, but find the personal testimonies of those who have witnessed it to be convincing.

    “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief.”

    I also had similar doubts about the Jordan reversing its flow when the Patriarch tossed the cross into the waters for Epiphany. However, I changed my mind when I met someone who had been there. Amazing.

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