A fire is burning in the “unsleeping lamp” at St. George Orthodox Christian Cathedral in Wichita, a fire that Orthodox Christians believe is tied to a miracle and the resurrection of Christ.
It’s the first time the Holy Fire has made its way to Wichita – and the first confirmed time that the flame, believed to have originated in Jesus’ tomb, has made it from Jerusalem to the United States.
Carried from Jerusalem to New York in a private plane, the Holy Fire is now being taken to Orthodox churches across the United States by priests and parishioners.
For Wichitan Matthew Ash, bringing the fire from Stillwater, Oklahoma, to St. George meant surrounding four candles with potting soil in a large stock pot – then driving carefully, trying not to slosh wax over the flames.
“It’s like a mini pilgrimage,” Ash said. “It’s a prayerful time in the car when you’re with the Holy Fire driving hundreds of miles. For me that’s something I’ll always carry with me. It’s a pilgrimage for the people who are delivering it, it’s a pilgrimage for the people who are coming to see the Holy Fire.”
Ash, like other Orthodox Christians, believes the fire he carried from Stillwater to Wichita originated in a miracle in Christ’s tomb.
Every year, the patriarch of Jerusalem, one of the leaders of the Eastern Orthodox Church, goes into the tomb on the day before Easter. According to church tradition, fire rises out of the stone on which Jesus’ body laid. At first, the fire is said to be cool enough to touch, although it later acts like ordinary flame.
The patriarch lights candles, then returns outside the tomb where the fire is used to light other candles and lanterns.
Ash brought the fire from Stillwater to Wichita on May 7. It had reached Stillwater from Independence, Missouri.
Since the fire landed in New York in April, it has been taken to all but a handful of states. Orthodox Christians coordinate via Facebook and a Google map to arrange meet-ups to light their candles and lanterns. Some carry candles in car cup-holders or buckets of sand. There’s a plan for the fire to reach San Francisco by June 10; churches in Alaska and in Cuba have also requested the flame.
While the fire is usually taken across Eurasia by pilgrims, this is the first year that a group called St. Andrew the First-Called Foundation has chartered a private plane to bring it to the United States and London. The Moscow-based organization has flown the fire from Israel to Russia since 2003, according to USA Today.
When Ash finally reached St. George in Wichita, it was shortly before the cathedral’s Sunday service ended. He had to park far from the church on a windy day.
The first candle he tried to carry to the church was snuffed out by the wind. He took it back to the car and relit it – only to have it snuffed out a second time. On his third trip, Ash made it into the church with the candle of Holy Fire and was able to light the lamps in the church.
On his way home, all four candles in his car went out.
“I took it as God saving me from being too prideful of having the Holy Fire in my home,” Ash said.
For the Rev. Paul O’Callaghan, dean of St. George, having the sanctuary lamp burning with the Holy Fire provides a “sense of connectedness to the physical site of the resurrection of Christ.”
The church also has water from the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized, that is mixed with other water for baptisms. It has wine from the town of Cana in Galilee, the site of Jesus’ first miracle, that is mixed into the cup of wine given at weddings.
Although O’Callaghan thinks the Holy Fire could possibly have made it to the United States before, he’s never heard of it coming to this area. This year there seems to be a greater passion for spreading it from believer to believer than in the past, he said.
“It’s not something in itself that’s holy or that has some mystical power or anything of that nature,” O’Callaghan said. “It’s a phenomenon that symbolizes our faith in Christ’s resurrection, the light of the empty tomb and our unity throughout the orthodox world in confessing Christ’s resurrection.”