The Rev. Anthony Nelson, pastor of St. Benedict Orthodox Church, 3900 S Jones Blvd., shows a burning candle that was lit with the “holy fire” taken from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. [Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman]
A sacred flame has made its way across thousands of miles from Jesus’ tomb in the Holy Land to the homes and churches of Orthodox Christians across Oklahoma.
From Bixby to Claremore to Stillwater, Oklahoma City and Warr Acres, the ancient tradition known as the holy fire has blazed a path across the state to the delight of Oklahoma’s Orthodox faithful.
Each year, on the Saturday before Easter, Eastern Orthodox clergy enter the Edicule, a small chamber marking the site of Jesus’ tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem.
As part of a ritual dating back at least 1,200 years, thousands of Christians wait outside the chamber until a cleric emerges to reveal candles said to be miraculously lit with the “holy fire.”
The flame is believed to be a message to the faithful from heaven, and the details of its source are a closely guarded secret.
For many years, Orthodox clerics have transported the holy flame from Jerusalem by plane, and it was then flown to churches across Orthodox countries.
When the flame made its way to America this year, it was the first time this tradition has come to the U.S. since the 1960s, said the Rev. Anthony Nelson, pastor of St. Benedict Russian Orthodox Church in Oklahoma City.
Nelson said he was told that a Russian Orthodox priest brought the holy fire to America in a lantern after getting the Federal Aviation Administration’s approval for the unusual transportation of what is essentially a mobile religious shrine. According to Eastern Orthodox news outlets, the first U.S. stop for the holy fire was the Russian Orthodox Church in New York City.
Nelson said the flame was brought to his church at 3900 Jones Blvd. a few days before Mother’s Day, and several candles there currently glow with the holy fire.
The priest said he lit some candles with the holy flame and took them home, and his parishioners were encouraged to do the same.
“We’re very, very blessed to have it. Just to see it every day is a blessing,” he said.
St. Benedict parishioner Brandi Fraysur said she and her husband, Aarron, took candles lit with the sacred flame to be beacons of hope and faith in their Warr Acres home.
“I had just prayed to the Lord that I would like to see the holy fire at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, not even dreaming that it would be in my own home one day,” Brandi Fraysur said, her voice catching with emotion.
“I look and see the holy fire in my living room, and I think ‘God is with me.’ “
Volunteers across the U.S. have been signing up to carefully transport the flame from place to place by candle or lantern.
Pictures and posts on the public page called “Come Receive the Holy Fire” on Facebook indicate that the flame was taken to churches and homes in California, South Carolina and Arizona in the first few days of June.
The Fraysurs said they think social media has helped spread the news of the holy fire, and they love seeing all the different cities pop up on a map on Facebook when the flame arrives there.
“It’s a fire lit by God at the tomb of God, and then it traveled across the world to us. It’s amazing,” Aarron Fraysur said. “For it to come to America and then to our parish and then to our home — it’s kind of hard to put into words.”
St. Nino Equal to the Apostles Orthodox Christian Church in Stillwater, a mission church of St. Benedict’s, received the holy fire on May 7 at the Cottonwood Community Center where the congregation gathers each week.
Scott Neufeld, a St. Nino parishioner, said having the holy flame come to them is the next best thing to traveling to the Old City of Jerusalem to participate in the ancient fire ceremony before Pascha, the Orthodox Easter.
“Taking a pilgrimage to witness the miracle of the holy fire in Jerusalem is something I think all Orthodox Christians want to do at some point in their life, but for many of us, this is not likely to happen,” Neufeld said.
“So to have the holy fire, which I believe to be the very uncreated energies of God, be brought all the way from Jerusalem to our tiny little mission parish in Stillwater, and then to be able to bring it into our home, we are grateful beyond measure.”
Neufeld said he took a picture of his son, Patrick, carrying a candle lit with the holy fire during a worship service at St. Nino.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a major pilgrimage center for Christians around the globe because it is believed to be the place of both of the crucifixion of Jesus and the tomb he was buried in.
Nelson said according to tradition, the Lord lights the flame of the holy fire miraculously each year.
He said the chamber which houses Jesus’ tomb is sealed with wax as part of the ancient religious ritual, and many Christians believe that it is not lit by the hand of any man but through the divine.
This miraculous flame is said to be a reminder or representation of the miracle of Christ’s resurrection, as He brought light into a dark world.
Meanwhile, the Rev. Matthew Floyd is an Orthodox priest who serves as an associate clergy leader at St. Benedict’s and as leader of the St. Nino parish in Stillwater. He said the Stillwater congregation received the holy fire from Holy Apostles Orthodox Church in Bixby.
Floyd said he and his family have the holy fire at their Claremore home with candles designed to burn for at least eight days.
“It encourages us to pray,” he said.
Floyd said they are making an effort to keep the holy flame burning for as long as possible.
“It is an effort. One hundred years ago, people kept live fires all the time, but we’ve kind of lost that. Even using a lantern is kind of a lost art,” he said, referring to societal advances like electricity.
The Fraysurs, of Warr Acres, said not only have they continued to keep the flame alight in their home in several candles and a lantern, they also helped get it to another metro-area church.
Brandi Fraysur said she delivered the holy fire to St. Elijah’s Antiochian Orthodox Church, 15000 N May. She said her family formerly attended worship services at the prominent metro-area church. Fraysur said her attempt to take the fire to Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Norman was unsuccessful because the wind blew the flame out as she was moving it from her vehicle to the church.
The Rev. John Salem, pastor of St. Elijah’s, said he welcomed the holy fire as a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice for humanity.
“Whether we have the fire or not, we do have the light of Christ, we still know that Christ walked this Earth and gave His life for us,” Salem said. “The tradition is that a light comes into the tomb, and then He spreads the light. We try to remember that Christ is the light of the darkened world.”
Brandi Fraysur said she ultimately hopes news of the holy fire stirs up more interest in the Orthodox Church.
“I’m one of many that pray everyday that America would come to know Orthodoxy,” she said.
“It’s such a treasure — America’s best-kept secret.”
CONTRIBUTING: The Associated Press
by Carla Hinton
SOURCE: Daily Oklahoman