We're Churchin' it Up

on the Barry Gibb talk show

Here are the details of our nerdulous date this weekend. Previously in the week I visited some sites with a friend and we learned that the St. James Cathedral in the Armenian Quarter was 1) very cool and 2) hardly ever open. They told us that it would be open the next day between 3:00-3:30, so I thought I’d bring Max…for a date.

We got to the church at about 3:10 and it’s a good thing because they closed the door not 5 minutes after we arrived. Actually, they told everyone that they had to leave the church and that it was closed, but I noticed a group of tourists huddled around a black robed priest in the corner. They didn’t appear to be going anywhere and with this priests blessing, so we sneaked over and tried to fade into the small group. I only got nervous once when I looked back an saw the giant wooden doors were closed shut behind us. Whether or not we had intended to, we had become committed to this group and this mini-tour. I scoured the group looking for a tour guide looking person who would certainly turn around when the priest was done and ask us for a lot of money. (He would be the one who looked sweaty and bored with the giant flag tucked into his backpack for tourists to see in the crowd.) Turns out there was no such order to the group, and after an almost whispered explanation of the church history we were let out of the medieval church into the sunny courtyard.

But the church! It was really something. Armenia was the first nation to officially accept Christianity and they did what every Christian group of old did, they went to Jerusalem and claimed them a holy spot. The church is said to reside on the tombs of both St. James the brother of Jesus and St. James the Apostle. Two James’ – what a coincidence! It existed in various states starting in the 5th century, but the current edifice dates to the 12th century with 18th century additions. It is a great cavernous, lamp lit cave of a church and quite stunning. There are, of course, several gaudy alters and golden d├ęcor covering most of them; but the floors are covered with blue and white tiles and simple rugs fill the nave instead of benches. The ceilings are draped with medieval oil lamps called “ganteghs”. Pictures aren’t allowed (nor is putting your hands in your pockets or crossing your legs – I was told to “sit properly” by a surly young priest) but I found a few on the internets.

After our short time in the St. James Cathedral we hurried through the quarter to the Church of St. Marks. I have mentioned this church before, but what I didn’t tell you (or Max for that matter) was that nice Justina told me that they hold services every Friday night at 5:00 in Aramaic, the language that Jesus most likely spoke in his daily life. I covered up my head and wore long sleeves at the behest of Justina who motioned to my bare arms below the elbow and told me to dress a little nicer next time.

The service was really something. I have actually never been to another church’s service, and an ancient Syrian service claiming to date back to the 1st century isn’t a bad way to start. The entire ceremony, save a few scripture recitations, was sung in Aramaic. I imagine it was exhausting for the participants because I had a hard time stranding for the better part of an hour without even singing! There were two older men who helped officiate, four teenage boys, two very young boys (4 and 5 maybe) and a priest in a very shiny cape and tall hat. There was a lot of call and response, incense ball swinging, curtain opening and closing, and did I mention singing? A lot of that. About two thirds of the way through the ceremony the youngest little boy fell asleep with his mouth wide open, head sunk down on the back of the pew. His father, in the service, discreetly plucked him from the bench and brought him to a room behind the alter. It was adorable.

After the ceremony the teenage boys put on their shiny Middle Eastern shirts and left to go about their business.  It was quite a contrast from their previous attire - during the service they wear very serious white robes with little vesty things .

The whole thing was very cool. But then we were starving. The last surprise of the night for Max was a fine meal at one of the very few non-kosher restaurants that is open on Shabbat. I know! We shared a delicious steak with blue cheese crust. …Think about it…steak…blue cheese…meat….dairy - on the same dish! It was wonderful. (Jews don’t ever mix Meat and Dairy in the same meal, and some don’t even mix it in the same day so they don’t touch in their stomachs. That’s part of what “Kosher” means)

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful nerdy little wife you are. I bet Max loved it. It sounds super cool.