Lazare Veni Foras: Whitterings, April 2009

Lazare Veni Foras

On the last day of the diocesan pilgrimage to the Holy Land we had a free day in Jerusalem. Although I was suffering from pneumonia I was determined to make the most of it. It turned out to be one of the better days of my life.

I rose at three in the morning and made my way through the darkened streets of the Muslim Quarter of the old city to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to be there when it opened at four when the different Christian communities begin their morning services. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was first built in the year 363 and is the traditional site of the death, burial, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The holiest parts of the church are the rock of Golgotha and the Tomb of the Resurrection. The ‘Status Quo” refers to the agreement of the various ancient Christian faiths that share custody of the Church: The Armenian Orthodox (under the Patriarch and Catholicos of Armenia); the Ethiopian Orthodox (under the Patriarch of Alexandria); the Coptic Orthodox (under the Patriarch of Alexandria); The Greek Orthodox (under the Patriarch of Constantinople); the Syrian Orthodox (under the Patriarch of Antioch); and the Roman Catholic Church (under the Patriarch ‘Pope” of Rome). These ancient Churches, along with the Assyrian Orthodox (Chaldeans) and the Malankara Orthodox (Thomists), represent the oldest continuing representatives of Christianity in the world. Except for the Roman Catholic Church, we in the West tend to know very little about these ancient churches. This is a shame not only because it shields us from the realisation that Christianity is an oriental (eastern) religion with its culture and origins in the Middle East, but also because it blinds us to the massive persecution of these fellow Christians in the modern world.

The various traditions and languages of these churches blend together in the Holy Sepulchre every morning when the different traditions begin to sing their morning services. The first to begin are the Copts chanting the morning Mass in Arabic. The eerie echoing strains of this ancient chant sound to an unattuned ear just like the Arabic chanting from Mosques. Then the Greek Orthodox chanting begins, blending its rich cadences with that of the ancient Arabic. The Armenian Orthodox chant in Armenian while the Syrians chant in Aramaic, the language of Christ Himself. Midway through the early morning hours the Franciscan friars file into their chapel to begin the chanting of Mattins in Latin to the beautiful strains of Gregorian Chant. The rise and fall of these different languages and musical chants echoing from various locations throughout the church is one of the most haunting and moving things I have ever heard.

Except for the various priests and monks and friars performing the services I was alone in the Church with only four nuns and a Sister of the Community founded by Mother Teresa. I positioned myself outside of the Tomb of Christ looking into the place of the Resurrection. I was unable to go inside as various priests and their servers say Mass continually inside until seven in the morning. I stood in silence listening, almost hypnotised, to the various strains of praise to the Resurrected Christ. Yet, although the beauty was overwhelming, I still felt alone, isolated. I could not participate in any of the services and although I had come so close, I could not enter into the ‘Holiest of Holies’. Then a young Roman Catholic priest passed by with his server heading inside to the tomb to say Mass and as he passed he suddenly reached out and took the hand of the Sister of the Missionaries of Charity and with his other hand grabbed mine and drew both of us along with him into the tomb. He did not ask - he simply acted. One moment I was outside looking in and in the next, through an act of generosity and grace from another Christian, I was inside the tomb kneeling at the very centre of the world. The four of us were cramped together so tightly there was no room to turn around and when kneeling one had to lean on the tomb of Christ itself. When it came time for the Epistle the priest handed me the book and just nodded at me. The reading was from the third chapter of the Letter of Paul to the Colossians:
“So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

The feeling of isolation that had existed only moments before being replaced by total inclusion, the smallness of the tomb, and the sense of the overwhelming vastness of the faith that centres here made the last words of the Epistle reverberate in my heart as I read them. I am not ashamed to say that tears came to my eyes. How simple it is to be a vehicle for the grace of God and yet how seldom it occurs.

By seven in the morning I had joined the Armenians in their great Cathedral of St James (only open during the morning and evening offices) and had the honour of standing next to the Tombs of St James the Great, Brother of the Lord, and St James the Less, the first Bishop of Jerusalem who called the Council of Jerusalem recorded in the Book of Acts, as the sun rose and illuminated the gloom of the interior previously lit only by hundreds of hanging oil lamps. At eight I joined the Syrian Orthodox in their Cathedral for a third service of Mattins. After breakfast in the Jewish Quarter and praying at the Western Wall, I went to the very top of the Mount of Olives to the Mosque of the Ascension. As the ancient traditional spot of the Ascension is in Muslim hands, very few Christian Pilgrims ever visit it. I spent the next hour with a handful of Muslims lighting candles and venerating the last place on earth that Jesus had stood. After visiting the Church of the Lord’s Prayer, I continued down the Mount of Olives stopping at the Church of Dominus Flevit (Jesus Wept) and attending a Greek Orthodox Mass in the subterranean church of the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary and visiting the Cave of the Betrayal of Christ at the bottom of the hill.

While drinking thick Turkish coffee in a small cafe outside the Garden of Gethsemane, I was seized by a sudden desire to visit the Tomb of Lazarus. A few years ago it would have been a half hours walk from the top of the Mount of Olives. Now Bethany is in occupied territory on the West Bank and a great wall now separates the Mount of Olives from the home of Jesus’ friends Mary and Martha and Lazarus. After some negotiating with local Palestinians I found a guide who was willing to drive me the thirty miles around the hill to take me to the tomb. When we finally arrived at the church, the Friday services at the Mosques were in full flow and all around the town one could hear the echoes of the Imams’ sermons, broadcast by loudspeaker, interlaced with Muslim chant. My guide told me he needed to go to the Mosque to pray and that if I finished in the church before he finished at the Mosque I should just wait in the car for him. He then casually handed me the key to his car, his livelihood, and sauntered off. The Palestinian priest at the church of Mary and Martha told me the church compound was being closed for the middle of the day but that I should feel free to take my time inside, told me how to get out by a back gate which would self lock behind me, and then locked me into the compound by myself. This left me an hour to stroll around the beautiful gardens and the remains of the fourth and sixth century church and pray in the modern Roman Catholic Church before exiting to find the Tomb of Lazarus.

In the sixteenth century the Muslims built a Mosque directly over the Tomb of Lazarus blocking the traditional access to the Tomb from the church. To get to the tomb now one must walk up the hill to the small entrance the Franciscans carved into the rock some five hundred years ago. This meant my walking through crowds of Muslims gathered outside of the Mosque who guided me to the entrance where a severely handicapped Palestinian keeps the key. After telling me to be careful on the roughly carved steps he shut the door behind me and locked me in, again all alone. Access to the Tomb of Lazarus is via an immensely long, worn flight of steps that descends from the top of the hill into the very bowels of the earth. Every time I thought I must be getting to the bottom the stairway would wind around a corner and continue down into the gloom. As I descended further and further into the earth the sounds of the Imam’s sermon and the chant of Muslim prayer from the Mosque above me grew fainter and fainter. Just when I thought that the stairs would go on forever I reached the atrium outside of the tomb – the place where Jesus would have stood looking down into the tomb to call out to Lazarus “Lazarus Come Forth!”.

To get into the place where Lazarus had lain, I had to walk down another few steps, get on my hands and knees and crawl through a dark tunnel into the tomb where I could see a votive candle burning in the gloom. When I emerged into the tomb itself, it felt as though I were in the heart of the earth. I turned around in the gloom of this place of death and looked up and out to the lighted place where Jesus had stood. In the gloom inside the tomb I read the lines over the door:
“O Grave Where is Thy Victory!
O Death Where is Thy Sting!”

There kneeling in the grave of Lazarus I was overcome with emotion. I understood why the Orthodox chant throughout Holy Week the great Anthem:
“By Raiding Lazarus from the Tomb,
Before thy Passion,
Thou didst Proclaim
The Universal Resurrection of Christ – God.”

The last time I wrote this column I shared with you the fact that I could not grieve for the several friends I have recently lost. When I read those words my heart opened to my loss. The grief was not only for my losing them but equally for my own wretchedness, my own lacklustre life, the death in which I already live in my weakness and sin. Staring up and out of the place of death to the hope of Resurrection my heart longed for the mercy and love of God in a terrible way. I prayed, not consciously or deliberately but with genuine expression, that I too may hear the words “Come Forth!” I prayed that He would also be able to give me new life. I remembered the words of the Anglican priest and poet George Herbert from his poem The Flower:

“Who would have thought my shriveled heart
could have recovered greenness? It was gone
quite under ground; as flowers depart
to see their mother-root, when they have blown;
where they together
all the hard weather,
dead to the world, keep house unknown.

And now in age I bud again,
after so many deaths I live and write;
I once more smell the dew and rain,
and relish versing: O my only light,
it cannot be
that I am he
on whom thy tempests fell all night.”

It really was one of the most extraordinary days of my life.