In Jerusalem, really in the Old City, really more specifically in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre the term, Status Quo, takes on a whole new meaning. It’s charged with religious, political and sometimes fist-fighting fervor. I was telling a friend, who is an Armenian priest in the Old City, about an incident that I saw when I was taking part in the Solemn Procession of the Latin Patriarch a couple of weeks ago.
Actually I recounted the entire procession to him, like he really needed to know how it works. He’s lived in Jerusalem for 14 years in St. James Monastery in the Armenian Orthodox community of the Armenian Quarter of the Old City. He knows what I’m talking about. He humored me anyway. He was enjoying watching me tell him about the procession. I told him about the stick guys – remember them from one my previous blogs?, and the incense, and the pipe organ, and the procession of monks and nuns that I suddenly found myself encircled, the two hour Solemn Procession.
I was telling him about the part, nearing the end of the procession, where His Beatitude, the Latin Patriarch and the rest of us peons processed around the Edicule of the Holy Sepulchre, not once but three times. The Edicule is the place that everyone, except the Protestants, believes was the tomb of Christ. Around the Edicule is built an imposing edifice with jeweled lit lanterns hanging from the ledges. The Armenian Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholics all have rights to the interior of the Edicule and tomb. (Hold your questions for later!)
You can imagine that, with a larger crowd, the procession was one continuous circle at times. Sometimes His B, the LP and the stick men were in front of me and sometimes behind me. I’d like to think that it all revolves around me, but he had the Magenta vestments on, I didn’t.
Around and in the backside of the edifice is a closet size chapel, very ornate with a beautiful icon. The chapel belongs to the Coptic Christians. The priests, vested in black with golden embroidered skull caps, were standing on the side guarding their chapel and the New Testament hand scribed in Arabic, which was on display for His B, the LP. Of course more hanging lanterns. Each time His B passed the Chapel he and the Coptic priest kissed one another’s cheeks and then he would bow to the New Testament. I thought, oh how nice a wonderful moment of honor and respect for one another’s tradition. Think again.
The third time was different. I know this because, this time around the Edicule, I was only five people behind His B. No sooner had they kissed, and the Coptic priest practically pushed His B forward and the rest of us back. He grabbed the New Testament, turned around and all of the Coptic priests followed. I guess three times around the Edicule was a little too much harmony.
So I was retelling this incident to my friend the Armenian priest, who, at that moment, put his hand to his forehead, looked at me and said, “Status Quo”.
Status Quo has a history, a very long and complicated history just like the rest of this place. In a nutshell, from a non-historian….Constantine I built the Church in 325 CE around the sites that his mother, Helena designated as holy and actual spots of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Those being Golgotha and the tomb. In 614 CE fire damaged the Church when the Persians invaded Jerusalem. In 1009 CE it was completely destroyed by Caliph Al-Hakin. In 1027 restoration was begun by Constantine VIII. Crusaders came in 1099 and they refurnished the place and in 1555 Franciscan Friars also renovated. 1808 brought about another fire and fighting between the Franciscans and Orthodox. In 1767 a firman, a Royal mandate, was decreed by the Ottoman Empire who was in control at the time and the Church was divided among those who were claiming it.
Finally in 1852 another firman was issued. Status Quo. It was the status quo of territorial division inside of the Church, no part of the territory can be rearranged without consent from all of the groups who maintain the inside of the Church – Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Coptic and Ethiopian, and I think also Syriac’s. Since it’s a rare occasion that they all agree, everything stays put. Status Quo. As is. Keep your blasted mitts off!
Fist fights have broken out for simple things; a door left open was seen as a sign of disrespect. A ladder is left on the outside ledge FROM 1852 no less because it is common ground. Just this year, in Bethlehem at the Church of the Nativity who, also shares this Status Quo, a fist fight ensued between two priests the very day after Christmas as they cleaned up.
Protestants believe that the Garden Tomb outside of the Old City is the burial place of Jesus. We stay out of it! And clergy colleagues, if you think you’ve got troubles trying to move Aunt JoJo’s tapestry that she needle pointed for the Church, on her deathbed in 1903, which has never been moved, to another spot in your sanctuary. Think again.