Today is the birthday of my father’s little sister, Marian. It is also the anniversary of my grandfather’s death in 1990 and the day the ancient orthodox Armenian Church observes Christmas — except in Jerusalem, where the Brotherhood at the Monastery of St. James follows an older calendar and Christmas falls on a later date.
In the dimly lit, incense-laden sanctuary of St. James itself, there is a nook where the head of St. James is said to be buried beneath the floor. In the Old City of Jerusalem, of course, such marvels are commonplace. Not far inside the massive cathedral of the Holy Sepulchre, the place of the Crucifixion, the place where Mary fainted, the place where the body of Jesus lay for a time after being taken down from the cross, and the sepulchre itself are all within a few feet of each other. The place where Mary fainted is protected by a round narrow cage large enough for one person. To reach Golgotha, pilgrims must climb a number of steps to something that resembles a loft. This area, if I remember correctly, is under the custodianship of the Greek Orthodox Church. Other places of importance are assigned to the Copts, Armenians, Roman Catholics, and a few other ancient sects, all of which jealously guard their rights, occasionally to the point of violence. Over the centuries, many have been the scuffles and the brawls upon the wax-bespattered floor, many the voices raised in anger.
A small number of people also sleep in the cathedral each night. At the appointed time, they rise from their malodorous beds to conduct a service appropriate to their church, their custom, the date, and a given holy site. In the distance, black-clad acolytes pass like shadows; their candles flicker; their chanting and singing echo in the dark.
Altars are scattered everywhere. There are many small churches and chapels, niches, alcoves, passageways, and stone steps. Here and there, an excavation is under way.
Meanwhile, out in the precious, glorious sunlight, there are narrow winding streets, church and mosque domes, and the competitive din of bells. Men sit in front of tiny shops, playing backgammon. Butchered animals hang in windows. A thousand scents combine in the air and become one scent.
A thousand voices.
A thousand fears.
A thousand animosities.
A thousand hopes.
A thousand thorns.
A thousand crosses.
Love is a weed, struggling in stone crevices. Ugliness dances with beauty, grace with distress, spirit with pain. Hatred, condemned to a life of jealousy and loneliness, watches everything. War rages on. Somewhere, an old man dies and a baby girl is born. A flower grows. The miracle is, it thrives.
Songs and Letters, January 6, 2007
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Categories: Songs and Letters
Tags: Ancient Cathedrals, Auntie Marian, Backgammon, Bells, Birth, Birthdays, Calendars, Candles, Christmas, Death, Family History, Flowers, Golgotha, Hate, Incense, Jerusalem, Jesus, Love, Mary, Memory, Miracles, My Father, My Grandfather, Pilgrims, Religion, Rituals, Stones, The Holy Sepulchre, The Monastery of St. James, Violence, War