ATHENS – ‘Pascha ton Ellinon – Pascha of the Hellenes!’ is a part of the Easter services of the Orthodox Church and of the life of Greeks everywhere. Indeed, Diaspora and Homeland are filled with “Once a Year” Orthodox Christians and that one 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 that lead the faithful to the glorious midnight service that 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 evolved over time, major spiritual impulses originated in the Holy Land, in Jerusalem, conveyed for centuries by pilgrims throughout the Mediterranean basin. And while they reached their climax in the Great Church of Aghia Sophia – Divine Wisdom in Constantinople, they radiated outward from perhaps the greatest of all Christian Churches, notwithstanding that the most sublime is on the Bosphoros and the grandest is in Rome.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre marks the very spot where Jesus rose from the dead and while I leave the Theology of that moment in the history of humanity and the universe to theologians, this is a good time to touch upon the story 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 on an almost daily basis walks past the Sacred Rock of the Acropolis and its magnificent museum and sees both the remains of a catastrophic explosion and the consequences of an outrageous theft.
“Mother, I have a Job for You”
After Constantine the Great’s conversion to Christianity, he sent his mother, St. 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 assisted her in the search. Natives brought them to a tomb and after digging, three crosses were found. The mystery of which was the true cross was solved when one of them caused a dead man to return to life. After more digging, a rock-cut tomb was found that they understood to be the tomb of Christ. A magnificent shrine was built – probably in the form of a late Roman rotunda – enclosing the tomb. Next to the shrine a church was constructed in the form of a basilica, the style that predominated in the Eastern Roman Empire until Justinian the Great built the Aghia Sophia. That church had its apse and altar in 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 commenced, along with an extensive program of church building throughout the Holy Land.
The Persians Sacked Not Only Athens, But Jerusalem Also
The history books are filled with the story of the rivalry between the Greeks and Persians, but what is less well known is that the conflict was inherited by the Romans and continued for more than half a millennium. By 614 AD, the Roman Empire had become christianized, and when the Sassanian King of Persia Chosroes II sacked Jerusalem in 614 AD, his prime target was the Holy Sepulchre, which was damaged severely in a fire. He also carried off the True Cross to his capital of Ctesiphon in Iraq.
The Roman Emperor Heraclius then launched the first and only real ‘crusade’, an expedition to recover the True Cross, shattering the Sassanid Empire along the way. He then repaired the Rotunda and the Church, but neither the people nor the emperors were able to enjoy peace for long. The centuries-long war so exhausted the Roman and Sassanian empires that the rising power of the Arabs burst out of the dessert and overran the entirety of the Sassanian state, and the richest eastern portions of the Roman Empire: North Africa including Egypt and the Queen City of Alexandria, all of Syria – and, even more tragically, the Holy Land.
Fortunately, the early Moslem leaders respected the Holy Sepulchre and other sites. The Caliph Umar, made sure it was not converted to a mosque – but the building suffered damage from earthquakes and fires through subsequent 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 barely understood motives, 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 very foundations and the Basilica was destroyed – until recently, it was believed that the entire rock-cut tomb was destroyed, but repairs in recent years discovered evidence of the very stone where the crucified Christ was lain.
Caliph Ali az-Zahir, Al-Hakim’s son and successor, made peace and permitted the restoration of the site, completed in 1048 at a huge cost by Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos and Patriarch Nicephorus of Constantinople in 1048, but they lacked the financial resources to rebuild it completely. The complex was rebuilt in a different form. The church became incorporated into the rotunda, so that the Anastasis Rotunda became what we now know as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Violence in the Holy Land soon took on new forms. The Crusades were launched by Western Christians to belatedly avenge the destruction of the Holy Sepulchre which shocked all Christendom, and when the western knights were finally expelled, Islamic rivalries caused Jerusalem to change hands several times, finally falling under the power of the Ottoman Turks.
Religious Authority an Oxymoron on the Spot Where Love Should Reign
The Turks were on the losing side of WWI, so Jerusalem passed through a British, Jordanian, and now an Israeli period, but the Christian sites are still governed by what is known as ‘The Status Quo,’ an understanding that was brokered by Ottoman authorities between religious communities in 1757. The agreement dictates which parts of the Church and the surrounding structures are controlled by the various denominations and on what days and times some of them are shared – Eastern and Western Christians from Europe, Armenia, Ethiopia, etc. Every once in a while, anger, even violence would break out over things as seemingly trivial as the movement of a piece of furniture or the sweeping of a floor because groups felt precedent setting encroachments had occurred.
Scandalous as this is for the followers of the Prince of Peace, somehow, the communities make it possible for their pilgrims and tourists to visit the holiest spot on Earth, and they even agreed to much needed repairs and renovations in recent decades.
The highlight of every year is the Holy Fire ceremony led by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem – mysteriously, the Resurrection Candle only lights for him when he enters the tomb during the Resurrection service that still evokes awe, wonder, and especially this year, hopes for peace on Earth and good will everywhere.