A Reflection on Holy and Great Saturday

His Beatitude Theophilos Ill Patriarch of Jerusalem

A Reading from the Gospel according to Saint Matthew (Mt 27:62-66)

The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered 
before Pilate and said, "Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, 'After 
three days I will rise again.' Therefore, command the tomb to be made secure until the third 
day; otherwise, his disciples may go and steal him away and tell the people, 'He has been raised 
from the dead,' and the last deception would be worse than the first." Pilate said to them, "You 
have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can." So they went with the guard and 
made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.

A Prayer - From Matins on Holy and Great Saturday

Today a tomb holds him who holds the creation in the hollow of his hand; a stone covers him 
who covered the heavens with glory. Life sleeps and hell trembles, and Adam is set free from 
his bonds. Glory to your work of salvation, whereby you have accomplished all things, granting 
us an eternal Sabbath, your most holy resurrection from the dead.

What is this sight that we behold? What is this present rest? The King of the ages, having 
through his passion fulfilled the plan of salvation, keeps Sabbath in the tomb, granting us a.new 
Sabbath. Unto him let us cry aloud: Arise, 0 lord, and judge the earth, for measureless is your 
great mercy and you reign for ever.

Come, let us see our Life lying in the tomb, that he may give life to those who in their tombs lie 
dead. Come, let us look today on the Son of Judah as he sleeps, and with the prophet let us cry 
aloud to him: you have lain down, you have slept as a lion: who shall awaken you, 0 King? 
Arise, arise in your power, 0 Lord, who willingly gave yourself for us! Glory to you!


On Holy and Great Saturday, we are embraced by a mystery, for today a tomb holds him who 
holds creation in the hollow of his hand. A stone covers him who covered the heavens with glory. 
The body of our Lord Jesus Christ rests in the tomb, and, as we read in the Gospel reading for 
Mattins on this day, the tomb was sealed by a great stone, and guarded by soldiers. This is the 
most blessed sabbath on which Christ has fallen asleep to rise on the third day.

But as we know, even the security provided by Pilate and his guard of soldiers could not prevent 
the great miracle of the resurrection.

Let God arise and let his enemies be scattered.

On Holy Saturday, the Church of Jerusalem keeps one of its ancient traditions. 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. We have evidence of this from the itineraries of early pilgrims, like 
Egeria, who came on pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the 380s. 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 
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary 
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 experience of the Uncreated Light that shines from the Holy Tomb 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 Iives of so many.

First of all, the Holy Fire is a powerful 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. Christ himself said, ''l 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 that is the philanthropy of 
God. Life itself is a great and sacred mystery, and this life has been given to the human family 
in the creation.

We participate in the divine mystery of God in this earthly life in a range of ways - in the 
sacraments, and most especially in the Divine Eucharist - and the human heart is profoundly
susceptible to the divine initiative of God. This divine initiative finds its greatest focus in the divine
human encounter in the Holy Land, where we are the living witnesses to our sacred history. So,
wherever 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, we are 
naturally compelled and moved in our spiritual lives, and we 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, Armenians, Copts,
Ethiopians, and Syrians, as well as for Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and even those of other 
faiths who we know are present every year in the church for this event. The Holy Fire gives its light 
generously to all, so that all who wish to accept it may know the illumination that the Uncreated Light 
brings to our hearts and minds. The Holy Fire is itself 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 many 
thousands of people.

The ceremony of the Holy Fire on Holy and Great Saturday is not an isolated ritual. It is set firmly in the
liturgical celebrations of the day. It is part of the service of Mattins (or Morning Prayer), and it is 
followed immediately by the Divine Liturgy in the Catholicon (or main church of the Church of the Holy 
Sepulchre) - the usual pattern of Orthodox worship.

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 the celebration 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 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 l 3:5), 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 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 in 
which we share in the Body and Blood of Christ.

So this day is not a day of desolation for us; it is a day of hopeful expectation, as we wait for the resurrection of our
Lord Jesus Christ from the dead on Easter Day