MARONITE CHURCH – We spent today in the Old City beginning at the Maronite Church. The Maronites are a little confusing. Their liturgy is Eastern Orthodox and has always been in Syriac; never Latin, but they are part of the Roman Catholic authority structure. Their origins could be said to go all the way back to the Church in Antioch in the Apostolic Era, but their name goes back to Maron, a 4th Century monk in the Desert Fathers tradition. After he died, his disciples built a monastery and the Maronite Church grew out of it.
The Eastern and Western Church divided during the same general era as the Crusades. There were other theological issues, but when the Western Crusaders sacked Constantinople, that did not help church unity. The Maronites who had been living under Muslim rule, on the other hand, welcomed the Crusaders. So relations between Rome and the Maronites, who are mostly in Lebanon, have always been cordial. Hence, the formal connection to Rome despite the different language and ritual.
The Church was covered with icons. I have been in a lot of Orthodox Churches and am accustomed to lots of icons. But this place didn’t have a bare spot. Sitting in the Church was an experience of being totally immersed in the narrative the icons told.
LUTHERAN CHURCH OF THE REDEEMER – From the image rich Maronite Church, we went to the Lutheran Church with elegant stone arches and bare wall, a study in simplicity. It was a different kind of holiness. But there was one icon and it was unusual. It was the moment of God’s Covenant with Noah, sealed by the rainbow. I had been praying the Loving Kindness Mediation – “May I be filled with Loving Kindness. May I be well. May I be peaceful and at ease. May I be happy” – then praying those prayers as intercessions for others. Somehow having that prayer rolling through my head while looking at the rainbow icon fit perfectly.
ST. HELENA’S CISTERN – Next stop: The Greek Orthodox Church, adjacent to – almost part of -- the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. There is such a network of caves and caverns under Jerusalem, I expect the whole place to sink someday. One such deep place is St. Helena’s Cistern, a pool of water in a deep underground cavern under the Church. We bent double to climb down the narrow twisting stone stairway to the pool of dark water. I kept expecting Golem to pop up form the black surface. This cistern was found in the same excavation that led to the discovery of the tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and was the water supply for the church.
ST. MARK’S SYRIAN CHURCH – We were allowed inside St. Mark's thanks to our guide Bishara’s friendship with the holy old priest. St. Mark’s makes several bold claims: to be the site of the Last Supper, to be the oldest Christian Church, to be the home of Mary Magdalene and John Mark, to be the place the disciples waited and prayed while Peter was in jail.
Let’s start with the Last Supper. The Church building is not that old. It is Crusader era. But it is built over the ruins of older churches. There is stone basement where a meal could have been shared. “But wait,” you are thinking, “wasn’t the Last Supper in the ‘Upper’ Room?” Yes, but that may not mean it was upstairs. It may mean it was in the “upper” part of Jerusalem, which is where the first Christians are believed to have lived.
Tradition holds that Mary Magdalene and her son, John Mark (a protégé of Paul and possibly the author of the Gospel of Mark) lived in a house at this location. Feminist theologian Elizabeth Schuessler-Fiorenza makes a plausible argument that Mary Magdalene would have been one of the first Eucharistic celebrants and this is where she would have done it.
I bought a card of the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic written by the white bearded old Syrian priest and received a blessing from him.
ARMENIAN VESPERS – From the Syrian Church we went to the Armenian Church for Vespers sung by the Armenian Seminarians. Armenia became the first Christian nation when St. Gregory the Illuminator converted King Tiridates III in 301 C.E., several years before Constantine’s victory at the Milvian Bridge turned the tide for worldwide Christianity. But tradition holds that Christianity had a rockier start first century Armenia. St. Bartholomew is said to have been skinned alive and crucified upside down for his efforts to share the gospel there. But that’s legend. Gregory and Tiridates are history.
Following yesterday’s visit to the Holocaust Museum, it seemed fitting to be in an Armenian Church today. Beginning in 1915, the Ottoman Empire initiated the first modern genocide against the Armenians. Armenia, situated in modern Turkey, had been part of the Empire for centuries. Armenians as well as Greeks had been treated quite badly by the Turks. As the Ottoman Empire began to crumble with World War I dealing it the final blow, they blamed the Armenians and killed 1.5 million of them. I mention this because yesterday’s blog post told the story of genocide committed against Jews, and expressed concern over anti-Islamic prejudice in Europe and the United States. This is a case of a genocide committed against Christians by Muslims. The slaughter of Muslims by Christians in the Crusades was a study in barbarity. It is important to remember that the potential to be either a victim or a perpetrator is there for us all.
The Armenian Church was dark. Turkish carpets covered the floor. Hundreds of lamps hung from the ceilings. I was told that the lamps represented villages wiped out in the Armenian Holocaust. The priests wore long pointed black hoods. The seminarians wore black cassocks. Some of them were deacons and wore stoles hanging straight (not crossed diagonally) over their left shoulders, Mike Margerum style. (I am sure they got it from him.) As they chanted a skillful thurifer, swinging a thurible with bells, filled the church with smoke. It was all quite holy and mysterious. I kept thinking, "they sure didn’t do it this way back in Bowie County, Texas." I am a long way from home.
Now one more day: The Road to Emmaus, Closing Eucharist, farewell dinner, then rise and shine at 1:30 a.m. to catch a plane to Nevada! It’s been great, but I cannot wait to get home.