Sepulchre
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The Sepulchre  
April 21, 2006 - Post No. 60

Great Friday in Jerusalem begins and ends in serenity, but there's a good deal of confusion and agitation to work through in the middle of the day! After the long service ending near midnight yesterday, all is quiet this morning in the Armenian Quarter of Old Jerusalem. The monks enjoy a "grasse matine" (sleeping in and taking it easy). All is quiet and I have time to complete yesterday's internet report and post it on the web from the internet caf near Jaffa Gate.

After lunch we gather at the main entrance to the Monastery compound -- I'm told there are four gateways, but I've only managed to find two of these thus far. Today the community, at least the younger members thereof, make the short trek to the great Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which the Orthodox know by another and more suitable name, the Church of the Resurrection about 10 minutes away.
(For information on the foundation of this church, click here.)

Leading this, the first of many processions over the days ahead, a team of "beaters". They walk at the head of the procession, pounding their staffs against the pavement. This makes a rhythmic banging noise (on wood) and a sharp thud on pavement and stone. There are several teams like this one, working for the various Orthodox denominations keeping Easter at the Church of the Resurrection this weekend.

In addition to the beaters, the Israeli police are at the monastery entrance to escort our small procession, stopping the traffic on the street outside the monastery and eventually clearing a path for us through the confusion at the entrance to the great basilica.

We climb up a couple flights of stairs to the "Armenian Gallery" overlooking the famous Aedicule, a church within a church, marking the place where Jesus was entombed, the sepulchre. The view from the gallery is remarkable giving new meaning to the expression "far above the maddening crowd." A kind of organized chaos reigns below with the Greeks gathered at the entrance to the Aedicule (pictured here to the right) and the Copts squeezed to the side and rear, picture front and left.

The Coptic Archbishop and his entourage, pictured below, along a sizeable group of Egyptian pilgrims are keeping the same office as the Armenians, reading through the passion narrative, the story of the trial, execution and burial of the Lord Jesus. (N.B. I learn later that this is part of the status quo arrangement for the Holy Sepulchre. For an explanation of how this works consult the later posting "Status Quo at the Virgin's Tomb.")

The Armenian Gallery is relatively calm when compared to all the confusion below, but the cacophony of chants and sounds in the basilica rises to meet us here and it is not easy to follow the Armenian liturgy and the telling the story of the trial, scourging and crucifixion of Jesus.

Here is a sound bite to give you an idea of the noise, the bells come from some other liturgy going on elsewhere in the basilica, and even though I placed the microphone close to the Armenian monks, the groan rising from the crowds of pilgrims below all but drowns out the singing.

The Armenian Gallery is the smaller and more recent of the two Armenian chapels in the Church of the Resurrection, and there a few other Armenian shrines and monuments here as well. The larger and older chapel is below the main floor of the basilica, is dedicated to St. Gregory the Illuminator, patron of Armenia, and is used on the feasts of St. Gregory throughout the year.

There is one Greek Orthodox monk having a challenging "day at the office." Here is a short film (12MB) of him hard at work. I gather he and another monk have the job of regulating the flow of pilgrims into the tiny Aedicule, assisting where necessary, as depicted in the film. Usually, a specific denomination has its own timeslot, so the  job also means warding off encroaching pilgrims from unscheduled traditions, even clergy if need be. One  ecumenical brother is apparently so insistent (below, right) that it takes the Israeli police to settle the matter.

And yet, despite the confusion, there is a sense of spiritual power quite evident in the basilica this Great Friday afternoon of Orthodox Holy Week. It seems a question of finding peace in this place where calm and quiet are as scarce as water in the desert. One of the Armenian monks seems successful in this effort, pictured here (below).

Another monk from another tradition, Greek or Russian Orthodox, stands on the first landing of the stairway leading to the Armenian Gallery and focuses his reflections on a painting of Christ's lifeless body being brought down from the cross.

For the many pilgrims, after squeezing in and out of the Aedicule, this time between liturgies provides an opportunity to take a break, finding places to rest and relax where ever they may, even in front of the basilica's great iconostasis (or wall of gilded icons) guarding the entrance to the basilica's Byzantine sanctuary.

Later on Great Friday afternoon, it is once again time for the funeral liturgy for Jesus, this time celebrated at the Cathedral of SS. James, Jerusalem.

This is basically the same liturgy that was celebrated a week earlier in Antelias, marking the final events in the story of the crucifixion: the lowering of the lifeless body of our Saviour from the cross, and taking Him for burial in the tomb.

The ancient SS. James Cathedral is bejewelled with hundreds of fire lights for the liturgy, and a catafalque has been erected in the centre of the Tas (chancel) to serve as the focus of the liturgy this evening.

Mesrop Serpazan, the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul (pictured centre below) arrived this afternoon to participate in the liturgies of Holy Week, joining a large group of pilgrims from Istanbul, including a very fine and large mixed voice choir.

Early on in the liturgy, the visiting Patriarch sets the example for us all, as he kneels before the catafalque to acknowledge the great sacrifice of the Cross and our sense of collective and personal responsibility for this travesty. One of the monks sings the hymn attributed to Joseph of Arimathea lamenting the death of the Saviour. 

Then, following a small procession around the church, the monks come forward to pay their respects, venerating the Gospel book and a cross, as they knell before the catafalque designed to evoke the reality of the tomb. As the liturgy concludes, the faithful come forward in turn, to pay their respects at the tomb, and to venerate the Gospel book and a polished brass cross.

Following the service, I return to my rooms in the monastery, crossing the open courtyard paved with cobblestone. The cathedral is to the left of the photo, and the back of the monastic kitchen is on the right -- note the Armenian flag laying title to the real estate in the Armenian quarter!

The entrance to the monastic enclosure is to the right of the area in the photo above. Ahead of me some of the monks are making their way to the dinning hall for the evening meal.

Here we see Fr. Khoren from Armenian entering the living quarters of the monks. He is visiting Jerusalem for the first time and his very fine tenor voice has earned him the privilege of celebrating the first Easter Badarak on Saturday evening with the choir from Istanbul providing the service music.

My quarters are located at the beginning of a long corridor, once open but now enclosed. The first two doors are for my own rooms, No. 12, and Hayr (Father) Norayr, in charge of the Monastery's library and its collection of 100,000 books, has his rooms just next door -- I tell him he is a good man to know!

I change into more casual wear for my first walk in Jerusalem, exploring Jaffa street shopping district of West Jerusalem. I walk against the flow of steady stream of locals, heading for the Western (wailing) Wall, for the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. The shops along the way are all closed, with signs suggesting that they will be open tomorrow, Saturday, for several hours, but only after sunset, of course!

Shortly after my return to the monastery, I hear the sound of pipers and a marching band, and venture out into the courtyard to find two youth bands, one pipes, the other horns and both with accompanying drums.

I learn that these two groups, as would seem to be the case for the Syrian drum corps I caught rehearsing last night, are preparing for the Procession of the Light, following the ceremony of the Holy Fire at the Church of the Resurrection tomorrow, when the bands will accompany the priest bringing the new Light of Christ from the Holy Fire back to the Armenian Cathedral tomorrow, Great Saturday, afternoon.