Ann George takes a friend on a particularly memorable Old City walk
On the wall above my head as I write this article is hung a framed A4 card, signed by Archbishop Jäffo of the Syrian Orthodox Church, and displaying the Lord’s Prayer, but written in a language I cannot read. I obtained this treasure on my first pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which was led by an elderly priest who knew the archbishop quite well. We were given a guided tour of St Mark’s monastery church by one of the resident Syrian Orthodox priests and then the group had an audience with the archbishop in his imposing palace audience chamber. In the church the priest had spoken the Lord’s Prayer for us: a great event for me, as, for the first time in my life, I heard the language that is now the closest equivalent to the language that Jesus had spoken every day during his ministry: Aramaic. Old Syriac or Western Aramaic is the language still used in the Syrian Orthodox Rite.
When I came to live and work in Jerusalem I retained a fondness for this church, which is a little jewel tucked away inside the Armenian Quarter, hard to find and easily missed, so when a friend from England came to stay with me in September it was on my list of places that I wanted to show her. Julie slept on the sofa in my little white-painted, stone-walled room, which resembled, I always felt, a hobbit-hole, with its curved stone ceiling and its rounded arches on the door and window embrasures. I was working most days, but, because of the Jewish High Holidays, I had pockets of time free; we planned to hire a car to go up the Jordan valley and stay for 4 nights, doing the tour around the Sea of Galilee at our leisure. At other times, Julie had to manage for herself, so on the first day of her visit I took her on an orientating tour: the Church of the Resurrection first, very early in the morning, then the Via Dolorosa and the Mount of Olives, climbing up as far as the church of Dominus Flevit. On the way back, cutting through the Old City at a slight angle, ready for a sit-down, a drink and some lunch (September is still very hot in Jerusalem), we found ourselves in Ararat Street, and I remembered St Mark’s church.
The door was open, but, in contrast to my previous visits, the church was very full of people. Instead of the empty space in front of the Bima (scripture-reading dais) 2 benches had been brought in. Although partially hidden by the milling crowd, we could see, seated on one bench, a motherly lady carefully laying out a full set of baby-boy’s clothes, all white, and on the other, a young woman busily removing all the clothes of a tiny baby while he yelled lustily, thrusting his arms and legs in all directions.
A fully-robed priest looked on benignly, and, when all seemed ready, he roared out a sentence, which was immediately answered by the crowd, who instantly turned into a congregation: the baptism had started!
Well, we thought it had, but we found out afterwards that we had completely missed part 1, where the priest repeatedly prays and anoints the child with holy oils in order to ensure he is totally free of any wicked influences and is well protected before the baptism. Now the naked baby was placed into the priest’s arms by the godfather, and Julie and I watched, with fascination not unmixed with a certain alarm, as, again with much oil, anointing and prayers, the priest twice poured water he had scooped from a small font onto the boy’s head, and then, with a smile and a glance at his congregation, popped the child into the font and gently pushed him down until the water flowed over his face. Everyone laughed and clapped and the little boy came out red-faced and very cross.
As the child, wrapped in a large white towel, was carried over to the older woman, the congregation dissolved again into a crowd, and we could just see, as people moved around us, that she was dressing him tenderly in the little white garments. The priest had disappeared, but the peremptory striking of a bell called the scene to order again, the congregation turned to face the iconostasis and the baby, now fully dressed in dazzling white, and wearing a crown slightly askew on his tiny head, was carried to meet the priest, who had appeared from the sanctuary with a chalice and a long-handled spoon. In a flash, the spoon was in the baby’s mouth and he had made his first communion: Part 3!
Julie and I felt we had eavesdropped enough at this point, so we sidled out. We had been noticed, and someone had kindly tried to give us some idea of what was happening, but I am sure we missed lots of significant things. It was Julie’s first real contact with any orthodox liturgy, and certainly I had never been to an orthodox baptism before. We were fascinated by the blend of homeliness and high ritual we had experienced, and humbled to know that we had been involved, if only in a very minor way, with a community that could trace its lineage back to the church of Antioch, already known to St Luke in Acts, and the place where, for the first time, the disciples of Jesus, Jews and Gentiles alike, were called Christians. We made our way back to the courtyard a good 2 hours later than I had planned upon, and collapsed gently into the white plastic chairs and stared at each other.
‘Well’, I said, ‘time for a late lunch, but I think a drink is in order: cold water first, but after that, red or white? After his eventful day we need to raise our glasses in a toast to the baby.’