Orthodox Easter in Jerusalem

The Orthodox Easter in Jerusalem

Bob Traer from the United States




In Jerusalem Easter comes twice a year, as the Orthodox Churches have a different calendar than the Catholic and Protestant Churches. So, once again I had an opportunity to experience the Easter season, but this time in liturgies celebrated by the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Church, and the Coptic Church.

At the same time, Jews were completing their celebration of Pesach (Passover). Visits to the Old City this week offered a great variety of activities, and men, women, and children in all sorts of dress.

Good Friday

On Friday afternoon, when I went into the Old City, there were pilgrims walking the Via Dolorosa. Someone in the lead would be carrying a cross, and they would process from the first station near the Ecce Homo arch (about two blocks into the Old City from the Lion or St. Stephen's Gate, heading west), up through the middle of the Old City, and then north to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Once inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre there were people everywhere, lighting candles, saying prayers at side altars, and kneeling before the stone just inside the entrance. Although this stone is no older than the 18th century, legend has it that Jesus walked on it. So, pilgrims were touching it, laying their foreheads on it, and pouring water over it while also using some item of clothing, such as a scarf, to wipe up the water. The damp scarf would then be pressed to faces, or held tightly in clasped hands.

Good Friday is the day for processing, for confessing sins, and for experiencing the gravity of God's judgment, both on the world and on the Church. Although it was hard to know what people were thinking, as they slowly made their way through the city to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the mood was somber.

At the Western Wall, hundreds of Jews in all sorts of dress were praying. There were Haredim men with side curls hanging from their temples, some with round black hats and others with round fur hats. Settlers, the men with vests or wearing bright shirts with kippas on their heads, and women in long skirts, with scarves covering their hair, were also there. Lubivitcher Jewish men wearing black suits, white shirts, ties (usually loose and askew), and black hats with wide-brims that remind me of the kind of hat my father had in the fifties joined the crowds.

As I walked through the Jewish Quarter to the Western Wall, none of the restaurants or shops were open. But families were having picnics and children were everywhere. In contrast to the mournful pilgrimages along the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which were winding their way through the Muslim and Christian Quarters, there was a quiet but festive atmosphere throughout the Jewish Quarter.

Easter Celebrations

Both the Greek Orthodox Church and the Armenian Church have a major celebration on the Saturday before Easter, which involves receiving the gift of fire in the crypt of the tomb inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The miraculous giving of fire was scheduled for 2 p.m., but when I entered the Old City at 1:30 it was too late to get anywhere near the Church.

There are only two entrances to the courtyard in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. One comes from the northwest side, and the other from the southeast. Each of these entrances is connected to alleys that lead in two directions, so there are four ways of getting to the two gates that lead into the courtyard in front of the Church. I tried three of these, but the crowd was backed up so far in each alley that I knew it would be impossible to make it inside the Church for the ceremony. So, this part of the Orthodox Easter, I left to the Orthodox.

Instead of attending the fire ceremony in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I walked to the Western Wall to see if it was again crowded with Jews. But there was hardly anyone there, or in the plaza that I crossed in order to make my way to a staircase above the Western Wall, which offers a good view of the Wall. The absence of Jews on the last day of Pesach reminded me that it was the Sabbath as well, so travel was limited for Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews to walking. Thus, almost all the Jews in the Old City were those who live in it, or at least nearby.

At 5 in the afternoon I went to the St. James Cathedral, the main sanctuary of the Armenian Church. It is an old building in the middle of the Armenian Quarter, which is located inside the Armenian monastery. Romanesque in style, such as St. Anne's, the old Crusader church located just inside the Lion Gate, it has none of the lightness of the latter. The walls are blackened with soot from candles and oil lamps, and the latter hang from the ceiling all over the main sanctuary.

There are four main square pillars holding up the ceiling vaults, and each of these has large paintings on all sides. But the colors of these paintings are so darkened from the soot, that the images are unclear. With almost no artificial light in the sanctuary, the atmosphere is old, dark, and uninspiring. Once the curtain was opened for the service, candles in front of the golden icons on the iconostasis added a warm glow to the front of the sanctuary. But the people standing in the sanctuary were largely shrouded in darkness.

But what a delight to discover at St. James Armenian liturgical music. A large choir made up of lay men and women sang the service, with priests also singing solo vocal parts. The music was powerful, poignant, and compelling. Both women and men sang solos, and an organ of much less quality than the voices accompanied the choir.

I had a second opportunity on Sunday morning to hear this 50-member Armenian choir, for the Armenians had an early morning service in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There was no organ in this setting, and the larger space made the sound a little less vibrant. But I could see the choir, as it sung, and I saw tears running from the eyes of both men and women. And at one point I, too, was so moved by the music that I could feel tears welling up in my eyes.

The lay people attending the service were quietly repeating the words, as the choir sang, so I realized that this was the annual liturgy. It is known by them as many of us know the words and music to Handel's “Messiah.” Looking over the shoulder of one member of the choir I could see that the score varied from three-part to four-part harmony, with solos interspersed like arias among choral parts. Much of what I saw was in 8/4 time. The melody often moved in quarter note progressions, as one or more voices held long notes, sometimes staying on one note, and other times moving much more slowly than the melody line. Also the bases at times sang more than an octave below the tenors, which gave the music an unusual range and depth.

As I listened, I could hear the suffering of the Armenian people, who like the Jews and the Palestinians are a Diaspora people. Posters of the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks are pasted up along the main entrance to the Armenian Quarter, and it seems that remembering this tragedy has helped the Armenian people maintain their identity. So, I could understand that celebrating the new life of the Church in the resurrection of Christ was, for many Armenians, also a way of celebrating their own continuing life after their “holocaust.”

New Life

There were very few Jews in the Old City on Sunday. The work week for them began that morning. Also, on Sunday morning the markets in the Muslim Quarter were open for business, and on Monday the Christians from all the various churches will also be back at work. Life is quickly returning to normal.

Is there any hope here that religious devotion will contribute to a new life together among the diverse people who make up the Old City of Jerusalem? Generally, the different religious beliefs are considered part of the conflict, not as offering hope for a new life together. But nonetheless, the Old City is a place where people from all the religious backgrounds mix. And that, I believe, is a sign that living together is possible.

If you were to walk into the Old City, as I have this week, you would have seen Muslims, Jews, and Christians, walking the streets, selling and buying in the shops, as well as worshipping in their own places at their own times. Jerusalem, the city of peace, offers not only a history of conflict, but also parables of peaceful coexistence.

One of these parables has to do with St. Anne's Church. I visited there on Good Friday and was reminded by the Arabic inscription over the main door that Saladin, when he defeated the Crusaders and took control of Jerusalem, converted this Romanesque, Crusader church into a madrassa, a Muslim school.

Not all churches fared so well under Muslim rule over Jerusalem, and even St. Anne's fell on hard times under the Ottoman Turks. But St. Anne's was preserved and used as a madrassa, because Anne was the mother of Mary, the mother of Jesus. And Muslims revere Mary, for she is prominent in the Qur'an, and is the mother of Jesus. Because St. Anne's Church stands next to the Lion Gate, Muslims have traditionally called this Mary's Gate.

Muslims also revere Jesus, who in the Qur'an is called “the son of Mary,” and both Christians as well as Jews recognize that Jesus was a wise and prophetic Jew. Of course, Jews, Christians, and Muslims have different beliefs about Jesus. Yet, we may hope that faithful participants in all three of these traditions will also discover what they share.


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