One afternoon last week, a wave of profound sadness came over me, prompted by a video I had viewed. A fairly new documentary on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, also known as the Church of the Resurrection (or Anastasis), was released to me and fellow scholars as part of a webinar panel discussion on this holiest of Christian sites and the strong claims made to it by the six major Christian denominations.
While much of the footage I have seen before in other documentaries and many of the problems and challenges I was already familiar with, the film did its utmost to reinforce them, and did so even more intensely when placed against the backdrop of the current Coronavirus pandemic. I will explain.
A major focus in the film was avowedly the contentiousness and strained symbiosis between the six major Christian families that have laid claims to the Anastasis since its construction in the fourth century AD: the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox, the Syrian Orthodox, the Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox, and the Roman Catholic. Among the six groups, at least today and for centuries, the Greeks have exercised the greatest control and influence over the holy sites in Jerusalem, generally speaking, and the Holy Sepulchre is no exception.
Let me be clear: the groups do get along at the holy site out of necessity—in order to “survive” within the confines and comforts of their own cultural and ecclesiastical cocoon. However, one can only wonder about the inner disposition of each Christian. Do they get along out of a simple desire to do so, in order to promote authentic Christian brotherhood and mutual support? The monks and clergy take turns for services and have time slots assigned to celebrate liturgies in the main church and in the Tomb of Christ, as part of their daily vigil. When not serving in these major areas, they are confined to their own chapels on the campus of the Holy Sepulchre, with the Ethiopian community, once the largest and most ancient of the denominations, relegated to the roof of the main church.
They all serve their liturgies with dignity, devotion, and piety. Sadly, however, they all keep to themselves; no one group attends the services of the others. Their only common assembly is in the common area near the slab, or shrine where the body of the crucified Lord was laid, or when a heated disagreement between them arises and they call the Israeli police to mediate. And of course, they come together for Pascha, on Holy and Great Saturday, for the Miracle of the Holy Fire, vying to be among the first to receive the light of the resurrection from the 33 candles wielded in each hand by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, who emerges from the Tomb.
The principal narrator in this documentary, himself an Armenian church prelate and resident within the compound, acknowledges the ethnic affiliations of the five Orthodox groups—the Greeks, the Armenians, the Syrians, the Ethiopians, and the Copts. And somehow it seems abundantly clear that the divisions among them run along ethnic lines, in which the ethnological factor is bolstered, even romanticized all the more with the passage of history. Not once is anyone called “Orthodox” in the film, although the term “Christian” is applied to everyone, and even then halfheartedly.
What is there truly to be contentious about? Christ is the common denominator for each church and it is this recognition alone that should unify and not divide men and women of common faith. Yet, the civilized man of history remains cradle bound like an infant that has yet to mature, preferring to scatter and disperse in his tantrums and whims what another has gathered and built. Another point: the pilgrims flock to their respective jurisdictional areas in the Church, inevitably rubbing shoulders with other brother and sister Christians. They tolerate one another’s breathing space and learn to co-exist, even for just a few minutes or hours. The clergy are the problem here though, and dolefully, they do not always set the right example for their flocks to follow. Someone to whom I spoke likened the scenario like a turf war among separate branches of the same mafia family or several mafia families. Yet, the “Eternal Boss” in our case strictly forbids such turf wars and violence, at least last time I checked.
In a world rocked daily by an unseen viral enemy that is claiming millions of lives and incapacitating countless men, women, and children—along with the senseless violence and irreparable damage between people who disagree politically and ideologically—here we see people, Christians, who have no reason to remain divided the moment that they are bound by the most powerful unitive force the cosmos has ever known, God Himself. Tolerance and compassion cannot not be exercised in these days by those whose Founder is the embodiment of all goodness and mercy. If man has foolishly remade God in his own image, after his own likeness, he is gravely mistaken, for the image is fallen, distorted, and putrid. It is easy to follow the Christ we want; it is quite another thing to follow the Christ that God wants. In this chasm, many persons fall in, but unfortunately, they refuse to dispose therein their own egotism and selfishness.
Allow me to add that the well-regarded Pauline injunction in Galatians 3:28, about how the prioritization of unity in Christ renders national, social status, and gender distinctions insignificant (or, at the very least, of secondary or tertiary importance), is entirely congruous with the whole Christian notion behind the Holy Fire. The Holy Fire, the Sepulchre’s centuries-long miracle, is meant to burn away division among peoples, especially those who hold to a common Faith, and to unite all Christians throughout the world with the common purpose of sharing the Gospel of love and tolerance with all. In fact, I am emboldened to state that the ethnic and cultural expressions of Christianity can be most appreciable only when they convey Truth in a manner at once responsible, creative, and intelligible—and not replace it.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and its current conditions, built on centuries of uneasy coexistence, is a microcosm of a greater reality that spans the globe. “We get along because we need to” is simply not good enough in my books. I would like to hear—sometime, somewhere—“We get along because we want to.” We need not feel uncomfortable with others but with the inadequacy of our own lukewarm approach to how committed we are to the rudimentary dictates of our Christian Faith.
These are my thoughts, both as a committed academic and faithful priest of the Church.
Fr. Stelyios Muksuris, Ph.D., Th.D. is Professor and Chair of Liturgical Theology and Languages at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary in Pittsburgh and Adjunct Professor of Liturgy and Sacramental Theology in the Masters in Ecumenical Theology Program (MOET) of the International Hellenic University of Thessaloniki, Greece.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.