Public Prayer: Light of Love
For Orthodox Christians, prayer is private, flowing out of the heart. Prayer is also public and culminates in the physical settings of our churches, homes, and anywhere in the world where two or more gather. When an individual’s heart longs for God, it cries out, and this prayer connects with others’ prayers. Others may be physically and or spiritually present. Even when seemingly alone, we pray with all the saints alive in Christ Jesus from ages to ages.
Prayer is communion with God and others. For this reason, prayer is more than belief, for even the demons believe, and tremble. Prayer is more than emotion, for Mother Theresa was said to “feel little,” though her life was prayerful: self-sacrificing, gracious and careful of life. Prayer is more than words, for the prayer of silence is said to be of great spiritual value: groans of one’s heart express truth that the most eloquent words often cannot. Prayer is communion with God and others who have also “put on Christ” through holy baptism. Prayer is an individual’s public confession of faith, and even when private, prayer connects us to all who love God.
A Divine Community of Faith
We are not alone. Recently, I had a strange dream. Our parish priest was apparently alone at the head of the church. There were no icons on the walls. The church felt cool and empty. Fortunately, this is not the reality of Orthodox worship. The Theotokos and the patron saint of a given parish accompanies the priest, and many more Saints add to the depiction of the Kingdom of Heaven, risen and present.
Likewise, in prayerful corners where Christians engage private prayer, Orthodox have icons. We need self-focused reflection to be sure, and Christ Himself went alone to talk with His Father. However, as Orthodox, we are also always communing with all of those who are united in Christ Jesus. For this reason, we ask for the intercessions of the Saints, and we look upon the icons that remind us that our personal prayers are also always feeding into the One Body. During public prayers in a church, our physical bodies allow God’s greatest miracle: the Eucharist.
In fact, the “Greatest Miracle of God,” the Holy Fire, happens during the gathering of Orthodox Christians on Pascha. No other miracle is known to happen so regularly and consistently over time, and it occurs during public prayer on Pascha in Jerusalem.
The ceremony surrounding ‘The Miracle of Holy Fire’ may be the oldest unbroken Christian ceremony in the world. From the 4th century A.D. all the way to our time, sources recall this awe-inspiring event. From these sources, it becomes clear that the miracle has been celebrated on the same spot, on the same feast day, and in the same liturgical frame throughout all these centuries.
The miracle happens at the Church of the Resurrection, within the holiest place on earth, the “Holy Sepulchre,” where Christ was buried and rose. The Sepulchre is inside the church, nested within a small chapel called the “Holy Ciborium.” Its occurrence is particular, as is the date for Pascha: the first Sunday after the spring equinox and Jewish Passover. The miracle occurs at the same time, place, and in the same manner each year. SS. John Damascene and Gregory of Nissa have written about the Apostle Paul seeing the Light of Christ in the Sepulchre after His Resurrection. The miracle has not been known outside of this particular time and place and within the context of Orthodox public prayer, though Roman Catholics and Protestants have attempted to invoke the miracle. Only through the invocation of an Orthodox Archbishop, on Pascha, when faithful are gathered in public prayer will the Holy Fire spontaneously ignite.
The ceremony of the Holy Light is anticipated by many pilgrims who gather with hearts full of love for God and faith in His power. Together, in public prayer, pilgrims camp nearby and Arab Christians chant traditional hymns: “We are Christians; have been for centuries; ever will be! Amen.” Drums powerfully declare victory, and Christians today, with Christians throughout the ages—alive in Christ by Pascha—recall times on earth when their hymn was contained within the churches. During the 13th century, the Turks occupied Jerusalem. Persecution then and persecution now cannot wash out (even when contained within a building) the fiery souls of the faithful who gather in public prayer and together manifest miraculous faith, inextinguishable and ever-alive in Christ.
After local authorities inspect the tomb for any hidden sources of fire, commotion fades and silence cloaks those present. The authorities seal the tomb with wax. The Orthodox Archbishop enters the tomb, kneels, and offers traditional prayers. A blue tinted light begins, like a mist above water, and rises in the tomb. It does not burn face, mouth, hands in its supernatural form. It becomes a column from which the Patriarch receives Light and illumines the Jerusalem and Coptic patriarchs’ candles. The fire spontaneously ignites many candles and is said to sparkle, flash like lightning, and fly like a dove around the tabernacle.
Embracing the Light of Life
My inquisitive four-year-old daughter asks me why we go to church on Sunday. “Because it is Resurrection Day,” I begin. “Because we come together and partake of the Body and Blood of Christ,” I continue. Because we leave time, lay aside all earthly cares, accept the Light that Illumines all. Because we are illumined by the Feast and made joyful by the fire of faith that the faithful from all ages embrace. Because we are not alone but together in our Lord and Savior. And because of the miracle of our Communion in Him our souls may continually experience a sort of “system reset” that makes us a little more right. And a little more bright.
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