The power of the Church may be dispersed, but Christ’s love for humanity radiates from his rock and his cave
ATHENS – ‘Pascha ton Ellinon – Pascha of the Hellenes!’ is part of the Easter services of the Orthodox Church and the life of Greeks everywhere. Indeed, the Diaspora and Homeland are filled with Orthodox Christians “once a year” and that time is usually Holy Week – and for many just Easter Sunday – but what does the average Orthodox Christian know about the origins of the beautiful services who lead the faithful to the glorious midnight office which celebrates the Resurrection of Christ, their God?
The English-language history of the magnificent and moving services remains to be written, and while it is known that they have evolved over time, major spiritual impulses have been born in the Holy Land, in Jerusalem, conveyed for centuries by the pilgrims throughout the Mediterranean basin. And as they culminated in the Great Church of Aghia Sophia – Divine Wisdom in Constantinople, they radiated perhaps the greatest of all Christian Churches, though the most sublime is on the Bosphorus and the most great in Rome.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher marks the very spot where Jesus rose from the dead and while I leave the theology of this moment in the history of mankind and the universe to theologians, it is a good time to address the history of the building, itself is among the most fascinating in the world, a tale filled with miracle, mystery, authority and architectural tragedy – that last word is not uttered lightly by this Hellene who passes the Sacred Rock of the Acropolis and its magnificent museum almost daily and sees both the remains of a catastrophic explosion and the aftermath of a scandalous theft.
“Mom, I have a job for you”
After Constantine the Great converted to Christianity, he sent his mother, Saint Helena, to Jerusalem to search for the True Cross. Orthodox Christians learn in Sunday school that Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea and Bishop Makarios of Jerusalem helped her in the search. The natives brought them to a grave and after digging three crosses were found. The mystery of who the true cross was was solved when one of them brought a dead man back to life. After further excavations, a rock-cut tomb was discovered, which they understood to be the tomb of Christ. A magnificent sanctuary was built – probably in the form of a late Roman rotunda – surrounding the tomb. Next to the sanctuary, a church was built in the form of a basilica, the style that predominated in the Eastern Roman Empire until Justinian the Great built the Aghia Sophia. This church had its apse and altar to the east, unique in the Orthodox Christian world.
After the discovery of the True Cross and the construction of the Anastasis Rotunda, which was consecrated on September 13, 335, pilgrimages to Jerusalem from all over the Roman Empire and beyond began, along with an extensive building program of churches throughout the Holy Land.
The Persians sacked not only Athens, but also Jerusalem
History books are replete with the story of the rivalry between the Greeks and Persians, but what is less known is that the conflict was inherited from the Romans and continued for more than half a millennium. By 614 AD, the Roman Empire had become Christianized, and when the Sasanian king of Persia Chosroes II sacked Jerusalem in 614 AD, his primary target was the Holy Sepulchre, which was badly damaged by fire. He also took the True Cross to his capital of Ctesiphon in Iraq.
The Roman Emperor Heraclius then launched the first and only true “crusade”, an expedition to recover the True Cross, shattering the Sasanian Empire along the way. He then repairs the rotunda and the church, but neither the people nor the emperors can enjoy peace for long. The centuries-long war so exhausted the Roman and Sasanian empires that the rising power of the Arabs broke out of the desert and overran the entirety of the Sasanian state and the wealthier eastern parts of the Roman Empire: the North Africa, including Egypt and the Queen City of Alexandria, all of Syria – and, even more tragically, the Holy Land.
Fortunately, early Muslim rulers respected the Holy Sepulcher and other sites. Caliph Umar ensured that it was not converted into a mosque – but the building suffered damage from earthquakes and fires over the following centuries.
You don’t know the mad caliph’s name but you know his bitter fruits
At the turn of the first millennium after the birth of Christ, things took a shocking, even bizarre turn. With motives barely understood, the Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, who was based in Cairo, launched a campaign against Christian places of worship in Palestine and Egypt and on October 19, 1009, he ordered the complete destruction of the Anastasis rotunda and the tomb of Christ.
The Anastasis rotunda was razed to its foundations and the basilica destroyed – until recently it was believed that the entire rock-cut tomb had been destroyed, but repairs in recent years have uncovered evidence of the the very stone where the crucified Christ lay.
Caliph Ali az-Zahir, son and successor of Al-Hakim, made peace and allowed the restoration of the site, completed in 1048 at enormous cost by Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos and Patriarch Nicephorus of Constantinople in 1048, but they lacked the financial resources to completely rebuild it. The complex was rebuilt in a different form. The church was incorporated into the Rotunda, so the Anastasis Rotunda became what we now know as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The violence in the Holy Land quickly took on new forms. The Crusades were launched by Western Christians as a belated revenge for the destruction of the Holy Sepulcher which shocked all of Christendom, and when the Western knights were finally expelled, Islamic rivalries caused Jerusalem to change hands several times, eventually falling under the power of the Ottoman Turks.
Religious authority an oxymoron to where love should reign
The Turks were on the losing side of World War I, so Jerusalem went through a British, Jordanian and now Israeli period, but Christian sites are still governed by what is known as “the status quo”, an agreement brokered by the Ottomans. authorities between the religious communities in 1757. The agreement dictates which parts of the Church and surrounding structures are controlled by the different denominations and on what days and times some of them are shared – Eastern and Western Christians from Europe, Armenia, Ethiopia, etc. Occasionally, anger, even violence, would erupt over such trivial things as moving furniture or sweeping floors because groups felt encroachments had set a precedent.
As outrageous as it may seem to followers of the Prince of Peace, communities allow their pilgrims and tourists to visit Earth’s holiest place, and they have even agreed to much-needed repairs and renovations in recent decades. .
The highlight of each year is the sacred fire ceremony led by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem – mysteriously the resurrection candle is only lit for him when he enters the tomb during the resurrection service which evokes again fear, wonder and, especially this year, hope. for peace on Earth and goodwill everywhere.