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(April 2009)

The Great Miracle of the Centuries

An excerpt from the booklet “I Saw the Holy Light,” by Archimandrite Savvas Achilleos.

The Holy Light as it miraculously pours forth from the Most Holy and Life-giving Tomb of the Resurrected Savior Christ

Many things have been told and have been written about the Holy LIGHT. However, no matter what has been recorded, the Holy LIGHT still remains a reality for all believers and an “enigmatic phenomenon” for others. This “mysterious” Light spontaneously and inexplicably pours forth every Holy Saturday from the Most Holy and Life-giving Tomb of the Resurrected Savior Christ.

The booklet from within which the subject article is extracted is a short description of the life of a saintly monk, Fr. Mitrofanis, who for 57 years served as the diligent guard at the entrance to the Holy Sepulchre. It is the result of many interviews the author had with the saintly Elder Mitrofanis. This specific excerpt relates to Fr. Mitrofanis’ personal witnessing of the Holy Light, when he hid in a location right above the Holy Sepulchre, in his effort to personally witness the arrival of the Holy LIGHT.

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In the beginning cold sweat bathed me from head to toe. My whole body trembled and I began to shiver. I felt as one who was about to be executed. Then, I experienced an exceedingly great fear, such as I had never felt before. Even until today I still seek to find the reason for that panic. I can give no explanation. My sense of helplessness and bewilderment was unprecedented. At the same time inside me, a strong intense, threatening voice of censure, constantly threw me into confusion. “Who else dared something similar in the passing of the centuries of Christianity? How could you decide upon this daring act? If, for any reason you are caught, what will you do? What justification will you give? What excuse will you dare to voice? What, Fr. Mitrofanis?”

Despite these horrible thoughts that terrified me, my perseverance did not desist. I must resolve my doubts. Why should I live every day with questions and misgivings? For my own satisfaction I must verify whatever happens, whether it is called a miracle or a delusion, I needed to know so that I could live the rest of my life in peace and trust. I must have weakened, however, because soon my strong persistence was on the wane and repentance was setting in.

I began to repent for the things I had done up to that moment. I felt someone forcefully telling me, “Come down quickly! Why did you entangle yourself in such a predicament? You still have time. In a little while the Orthodox Divine Liturgy will begin. It will end at 4 o’clock in the morning. Immediately following, the Armenians will come, and their service will last as long as ours. You will be compelled to be still continuously silent, composed, and calm. Will you last? And if not, then what? After the Armenians, the Latins will follow. Until 6:15 in the morning when they finish their Liturgy, you will not be able to make a move or a sound. What if something annoys your throat, and you are forced to cough? What then? Well? Woe to you and three times woe to you. What will become of you, Fr. Mitrofanis?”

I began to deplore myself for my hasty and foolhardy decision. Continuously I was upbraiding myself and repeatedly kept saying: “The whole world believes! Who are you not to believe? Think of the consequences if you are discovered. In what a dreadful and difficult position you will find yourself then!”

While all of these thoughts, pricked my conscience, my eyes were glued to my watch. The minutes seemed as days and the hours seemed to last for years. The hour hand, as if in revenge for my rashness, refused to move.

Finally, it was two o’clock after midnight towards Holy Saturday, when the Orthodox priest came to the Holy Sepulchre to commence the Divine Liturgy. After the Orthodox worship, at exactly 4:00 in the morning, the Armenian priest came and immediately began his Liturgy.

The excruciating fatigue of being in a cramped position compounded by protracted wakefulness affected my hearing. Every sound reverberated through the whole of my feverish throbbing body. The taxing strain and exhaustion of the previous days combined with unwavering weariness and monotony brought on an unimaginable dizziness. Finally the Armenian service ended and the Latins arrived. To keep myself alert and awake I followed and observed closely whatever occurred during the duration of each Liturgy. I saw the unleavened wafers, thin round pieces, used as the Body of Christ, instead of the bread that the Orthodox use. With abated breath I sat patiently. The need to cough was unnecessary since I was in good health, but my mouth was dry from agony. Only from time to time I put a little water on my lips to cool and wet them.

At 6:15, the morning hour of Holy Saturday, the last of the Latins departed and the Holy Sepulchre was given over to my geronda, Fr. Anatolios.

Imagine what an unbearable shock he would have had if he had known that I was within reach of him. Truly, what would have happened? What a dreadful reaction could result if he knew that my pleas and my tears were all a monstrous lie, a lie that I was forced to resort to in order to pacify my dubiousness!

Immediately, preparations were begun, which under different circumstances I would have been the one to bring to completion. Fr. Anatolios, put out one after the other the 43 vigil lights of the Holy Sepulchre. Then, he went to the entrance of the Tomb where the Holy Stone was. There he occupied himself to have the sealing wax ready.

There was no delay in this preparation, because at 11 o’clock, the search was to be made for any instrument capable of igniting. Immediately after, the doors of the Tomb would be sealed. At exactly 12 o’clock noon the Holy Sepulchre would be opened. Every Holy Saturday, this routine was executed with attention to every detail. I was aware of all the movements. At 11 o’clock when the Tomb was sealed, I was in total darkness. I lit the flashlight that I had with me and I saw on the Tomb the Holy Kantila. I saw it, awaiting an invisible hand to give it LIGHT. Beside it, I saw the Prayer Book closed, except for a thick candle between some pages which would allow easy access to the special supplications. I turned off the flashlight. My agony reached its climax. I prayed to Christ.

“My Lord, You know the reasons for my decision to be in this unlikely predicament. All emanated by doubts of one shaken and weak in his faith. I have imitated your chosen and beloved Thomas. He didn’t want to believe when the other disciples assured him of your Resurrection. Instead he wanted to see for himself and to touch your wounds and then to be convinced. I, much weaker than your doubting Thomas, ask to see with my own eyes what takes place regarding the Holy LIGHT. My faith such as it is, You know, Lord. My love does not escape Your omniscience. My Lord, and My God, make me worthy to see what will happen so that faith will replace faithlessness. Besides, even Your disciples asked You for reassurance even though they witnessed innumerable miracles, Increase our faith (Lk 17:5), they said.”

When I finished my prayer, I again turned on the flashlight to see the Holy Tomb. The light fell precisely on the candle. “Oh, that candle,” I said. “What is this candle doing there?” In a moment, I interrupted my monologue, because I noticed the door of the Holy Sepulchre opening. With a quick glance I saw it was exactly 12 o’ clock noon. Agony began to overcome me, and my heart multiplied its beats so rapidly that I thought it would jump out of my chest. I felt a tightening pressure about me. I was ready to faint. I tried to control myself with all my strength and to give courage to my quaking body. The sound of footsteps inside the first chamber of the Holy Stone startled me. For a brief moment, I noticed the silhouette of the Patriarch, who bent down in order to enter the space of the Life-giving Tomb.

My excitement had reached a fearful peak; Yet I was so immersed in an endless silence that I could hardly hear my own breath. Suddenly came the sound of a soft whistling. It was similar to a fine breeze of wind. And immediately, an unforgettable sight, a blue LIGHT filled the entire Tomb. That blue LIGHT, was going round and round exactly as a strong whirlwind, whose force uproots the tallest trees, grasps them, and carries them off. The restless blue LIGHT gyrated about with lightning speed and then the movements slowed down.

Within that LIGHT I saw very clearly the Patriarch. Drops of perspiration trickled down his face. As he was kneeling, he placed his finger at the opening in the Holy Book where the ‘candle’ was. In the meantime, he placed on the Tomb four bundles, each containing 33 candles. When the mysterious LIGHT changed to a steady glow the Patriarch opened to the ‘candle’ page and he began to read the prayers.

The then somewhat calm blue LIGHT, began again an uneasy movement. It was an unimaginable and indescribable whirling, stronger than the first. Immediately it began to change into an all-white LIGHT, as at the Transfiguration of Christ (Mt 17:2). Gradually the all white LIGHT began to take the form of a disc, brilliant as the sun, and stopped motionless precisely over the head of the Patriarch. I saw the Patriarch take in his hands the bundles of candles. He raised them and waited. He was awaiting the arrival of the elusive LIGHT from God. As he raised his hands slowly, not quite reaching the height of his head, instantaneously as if he were touching a lighted furnace, the Holy Kantila and the four bundles of candles lit. In an instant that bright disc vanished before me.

My eyes filled with tears. I felt shivers in my spine while my whole body was burning. I had the feeling that untamed flames of an incandescent furnace enveloped me. My entire body was soaked in perspiration, while my mind, heart, and soul seemed paralyzed at the heavenly revelation of the Holy LIGHT.

The Patriarch, deeply touched, and in a state of bliss, departed. Out of reverence for the Holy space of the Tomb, he bent his head low and backed out to enter the chamber of the Holy Stone. In his hands were the bundles of candles lit by the flames of the Divine LIGHT. Here was evidence of Grace in its glory!

Now was the time for the first bundle of candles to be presented to the Orthodox prelate. Out of joy, he was carried on the shoulders of the faithful to transport the LIGHT to the Church of the Resurrection. From his hand the LIGHT would be passed out to all of the people who clamored to have their tapers lit by the Holy FLAME.

The Armenian, the Latin, and the Coptic prelates each received their bundles of burning candles, and they in turn, distributed the Holy FLAME to their followers.

The bells of the Holy Church of the Resurrection began to ring joyfully while all of the people, elated and jubilant, began to sing with fervor, hymns of praises and gratitude to the Resurrected Christ. The pealing of the bells sounding as trumpets of Heaven, proclaimed to the faithful the message of the Resurrection “that the Lord is truly risen!”

During that period of high glee and in the excitement of the enthusiastic people, an opportunity was given to me. Without losing any time and after a quick glance, I jumped from the niche down into the space of the Holy Tomb. Immediately I took the Holy Kantila and the Holy Book for which I was responsible as well as the thick “candle” which was used only as a marker for the page of the prayers. In a quick moment I appeared before my geronda, Fr. Anatolios. He, astonished by my unexpected presence, asked me: “How did you get here, Fr. Mitrofanis?” “Didn’t you see me, my geronda? I was next to you. I was right by your side. I promised you that I would be here on time and here I am!”

Now, my friends, if you can put yourself in my place, and if you can perceive the gamut of sensations which pierced my soul, then let me compare two Paschas for you, the one of 1925, and that of 1926. As much sadness as I felt on the Pascha of the previous year, that is how much more happiness was mine this present Pascha. As shakable as was my faith the last Holy Saturday, that much more fervent and strong it was this Pascha.

Wherever my eyes turned toward whatever direction, inside and outside the Church of the Resurrection, everywhere I saw before me the Heavenly Blue LIGHT. I saw it restless and vibrant with an unbelievable velocity. Everywhere I heard its faint but penetrating whistling, and felt its delicate cool breath touching me. Its Heavenly grace overshadowed me. The visitation of the Holy Spirit filled me, although I felt so unworthy.

Immediately my whole being was transported to the upper room of Zion, there where the disciples were gathered and waiting for the gift from above of the Holy Spirit. The awe that seized me filled my soul with an inexpressible joy and kept my mind on the Divine Event. Through my imagination I followed the Heavenly vision. Continually I saw the restless presence of the mysterious and ultramundane blue LIGHT filling the Holy Tomb with its unique brightness, illuminating the entire surroundings. I saw its all-white transformation and its reshaping into a bright disc of a summer day.

Again I returned to the upper room of the disciples. I brought to mind the infinite quietness and their waiting. Suddenly I heard the breath and the sound from heaven. (Acts 2:2). Yes, the upper room was transformed into a place for the descent of the Holy Spirit. To me, the Holy Tomb replaced the upper room. There, “in the shape of fiery tongues,” here, in Holy LIGHT. There, to the disciples, here, to the multitude of the faithful, its grace was distributed.

A great length of time passed. I didn’t, however, have the power or the inclination to dismiss from my mind the Heavenly vision. The wondrous joy would not depart from my soul. Continually I repeated “Glory be to God.” At times, as I thought of the forbearance of God, with shame and regret I admonished myself for my doubts and for my persistence to witness in order to believe. It was in His infinite Love that He granted to me whatever I wanted and He satisfied the longing in my soul.

Others too have seen the Holy LIGHT, on the hallowed day of Holy Saturday, not, however, in the same way. Each one, according to the degree of his faith is made worthy of this vision. Some see the Holy LIGHT as a flash of light similar to lightning. Other, see the Holy Tomb surrounded by flames. Again, others see a small LIGHT, as that of a bright star.

There are also non-believers who go during Holy Saturday to the Church of the Resurrection and they demand to see the Holy LIGHT. These naive people do not comprehend that everything depends on faith. Since they do not believe, they misinterpret and speak demeaningly of all that occurs. This reflects the emptiness in their souls. All that they want to do, is to argue with those who do believe.