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Competing Worships

May 17, 2009

Day9-1

Sunday, 8:40 am local time

Anger.

Brace yourselves, I feel a rant coming on.

Today is Sunday, and some of us elected to worship at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher this morning. The church houses some of the most important sites in the Christian narrative, including Golgotha and the Empty Tomb. Pretty holy, right? The church is humongous, too, encompassing at least as much square footage as Princeton’s quad. Thousands of worshipers visit every day; we saw the church yesterday, remember, but we decided to come back early this morning – 7 am – to view some of its sites before we worshiped on our own. Fewer people, more room – good idea.

As we walked in and around to the chapel that commemorates the Empty Tomb and the site of the Resurrection, I noticed a small worship service concluding with communion in front of it. Catholic, I think, based on the way the priests were serving wafers to the worshipers. In the background was organ music, but I immediately noticed a dissonant sound. I turned my head.

Let me define the space for you for a moment. You walk in the front door, and the narthex towers at least three stories above you. The Stone of Unction lies immediately ahead. You walk around the curved wall to the left and come upon a large circular room – at least 100 feet in diameter – in the center of which is a large square chapel, about 50 feet to a side. The chapel dominates the room, and is, in fact, the point of the room.

So there, in front of the entrance to the chapel, which faces east, were the Catholic worshipers taking communion to their organ music, and at the back of the chapel, I found the source of the dissonance – a group of Armenian monks, conducting their own worship service. At the same time. While trying to drown out the Catholics. This first irked me a little; the Armenian chanting would soften for a moment, but then hit a particularly high and loud note – and the Catholic priest would twitch a little, but continue distributing the host – and so for a moment, I sympathized with the Catholics. Until I realized something.

The point of the organ music was the drown the Armenians out.

I don’t think I can explain to you the depths of my furiousness at the moment. How pleasing it is when Christians dwell together in unity! What a joke. Two worship services conducted simultaneously, not to give Christians a range of choices or to join together in harmonious glorification of God, but specifically to compete with each other and drown each other out. After Mass, one of the Catholic monks took the benches on which the worshipers were sitting – all the while, the Armenians were chanting – and stacked them in a corner and chained them up. I saw this stack yesterday, thinking that this was to prevent theft by tourists, but no: it’s to keep any of the other sects occupying the church from taking them!

Lest you think I’m exaggerating the situation in my anger, this is the same place where two groups of monks actually came to violence late last year as one group tried to march through another group during their worship processional. Watch the linked video, you’ll actually get to see a monk hit another monk.

I walked out of the church so angry that I barely listened to Semaj’s wonderful word on hope during our little worship service. This is what Christians in the Holy Land have been reduced to? Fighting over a space the size of my apartment because it’s where Jesus once was? C’mon! He is not here – he is risen! Risen! And this is what Jesus wanted from us, to pray loudly over each other? To pray simultaneously not in unity but in cacophony?

There is no part of this that goes with Christian teaching. Nothing. Dying for Christ, turning the other cheek, all being one in the body of Christ – do they read the Bible? Have they heard the Sermon on the Mount? And the best part about this: Western Christians are so easily critical of the Israel-Palestine conflict, saying that it’s because these two religions just can’t be tolerant of each other, that they put too much focus on the land and not enough focus on the people, and yet here’s a perfect example of Christians that can’t even get along with each other!

Humility. Sacrifice. Understanding. Reconciliation. All things that the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Christ represent to me. None of which are present at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It’s a place that’s driven by fear and intolerance, not love, and we as Christians are nothing if our love cannot stand up to fear and intolerance. I will avoid that place for the remainder of my time in Jerusalem, because it still makes me so angry, just to think about it.

If you’ve got any input, I’m all ears. Ranting is good for the soul, but dialogue is better.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Elisa Owen permalink
    May 25, 2009 7:22 pm

    I hear you. I am not sure what we can do, except the hard work of trying to live ourselves day by day as people who would very much like to be reconciled to God. And, then hope that God would use our sacrifice, when by God’s grace we can actually make it, to attract others to Christ and The Way. To try and demonstrate that Christianity is much for than confession, it is a way of life.

    I am a pastor of a small church in Southern Indiana, and it is no different here. Our elders don’t get along, much less our whole congregation, but, one still sees flashes of the risen Christ, even among my small congregation, and that is what keeps me hopeful, as I hope it keeps my little congregation hopeful and willing to continue to believe that the Savior can transform even us.

    I did read an article in the Emory University magazine, Spring 2009 about Brad Braxton, pastor of Riverside Church in NYC. He says that, when he recently got to Riverside, he felt his congregation needed to do some soul searching. He said that because he attributed their infighting (I assume their was some of that, as there is at most churches) to the fact that they had spent too much time on social outreach and had forgotten that the first congregation they had to appeal to were themselves.

    I’d say so. We Christians perhaps should focus much more on receiving the grace of Christ, allowing him to enter fully into ourselves, on our own conversion, before we work so hard to convert others…… My guess is that the Armenian/Roman Church fight in Jerusalem is the tip of the iceberg. The grace, the amazing grace, is that Christ still chooses to work through his church. He has, and will. I’ve seen it, even here in Southern Indiana……

  2. May 26, 2009 8:47 pm

    “We Christians perhaps should focus much more on receiving the grace of Christ, allowing him to enter fully into ourselves, on our own conversion, before we work so hard to convert others…… My guess is that the Armenian/Roman Church fight in Jerusalem is the tip of the iceberg. The grace, the amazing grace, is that Christ still chooses to work through his church. He has, and will. I’ve seen it, even here in Southern Indiana……”

    Excellent point, Elisa. And may God continue to remind us that not only does conversion begin with the church but it begins with me, and with you, and with you, etc.

    When Daniel, Isaiah, and the other prophets repented on behalf of the people, they carried no delusions that they were clean. “Forgive us”….”WE have sinned…”

    Amen.

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