Ann George experiences a roof-top Easter
A visitor entering our school would step into the foyer of the old mission hospital, and be immediately confronted by a lectern on which there was fastened an abbreviated form of the 10 Commandments in Hebrew written in gold lettering on a dark wooden board, and under that, they would encounter Harat.
Harat was our receptionist, a small but redoubtable, good-looking young woman. She was adept at weeding out the true enquirer and politely stalling those who had just come to snoop about. She was married and had a teenage son, who studied in our high school, and she belonged to one of the smallest, but one of the most interesting and secretive, of the ethnic communities permanently resident in Jerusalem: she was an Ethiopian Christian.
Harat was married to a priest. In the Ethiopian Church priests in minor orders may marry. Her family had lived in Jerusalem since at least the 19th Century, but she might be considered a bit of a newcomer, as the Ethiopian Church claims a presence in Jerusalem of about 1,500 years. The jostling for precedence in the Church of the Resurrection has resulted in their monastery being on the roof, and I’m sure that many ND readers have ventured up the countless stairways and along corridors when on pilgrimage to visit the monastic community there. In the little chapel at the bottom of the exit staircase, however, is usually a monk who will take offerings, and the on-dit is that the monastery does very well from the collection, as pilgrims feel sorry for the community, perched out of the way. However, as their eyrie is situated around the lantern directly above the actual Edicule, I suspect that, on the whole, they are reasonably content with their lot.
Ethiopian churches are most usually circular, consisting of 3 concentric circles: the outer one for the congregation, the middle one where one can receive communion if properly prepared, and the centre one where the priests officiate at the altar. If you have the opportunity to visit an Ethiopian Church, take it, because they are usually locked and only open at unspecified times, but make sure you take your shoes off before entering!
In Jerusalem, regular services for the lay people generally happened at their monastery church in Ethiopia Street in West Jerusalem, but of course the greatest celebration of the year was centred on the Church of the Resurrection. In my last year at the school, about 2 or 3 weeks after our own Easter festival, Harat asked both Chris and myself, the two deputy principals, if we would like to attend part of the Ethiopian Church’s Easter celebrations on the roof.
I say ‘part’ because Harat said it; she guessed that 2 English Anglicans would not be able to manage the whole thing, which lasts more or less all night, and for the Faithful comes after 55 days (the Fastica) of abstinence – keeping to a vegan diet, and practising chastity – and finishes, thankfully, with a feast. It was a great honour to be asked, as on the whole the Ethiopian Christian community kept itself to itself, and also there was not much space up there on the roof, even for their own people. Herat suggested that we went to a particular door at one side of the Church of the Resurrection any time between 11:30 pm and midnight and that we could leave whenever we felt we had experienced enough.
Chris and I duly presented ourselves to the monk on duty at about 11:30 and were escorted higher and higher through the dimly-lit Church of the Resurrection until we found ourselves out on the roof under the light of moon and stars. There were lots of people there, dressed in their best traditional clothes, all pressed quite tightly against the walls protecting us from falling off the roof. A lot of processions were going on, and also a lot of music: sistra (rows of small bells on poles) and pipes were well in evidence. Harat came to greet us, wearing a beautiful full-length, full-skirted white cotton dress embroidered with crosses formed from diamond shapes. Over this she wore a large, fine cotton shawl which covered her head and shoulders. Harat explained that the Liturgy would start around 3 a.m., but the earlier rites would be more interesting to us. At this point her son appeared at her elbow, and assured us he would escort us down to the entrance when we wanted to go.
The couple of hours we spent on the roof are blurred in my memory: so much movement, music and sudden declamations. Icons were carried; I think at one point the Tabernacle circled the lantern, and then the music started again, slow and stately, at first, as, one by one, the men started to dance around and around, turning and turning, gently urged on by the music, faster and faster, until they were whirling around the lantern, which is directly above the Edicule.
We stayed until about 2:30 a.m. The men were still dancing and the women were watching them. I made my way back to the courtyard using moonlight and starlight, very bright in the Jerusalem sky. People were about the streets as they always are in Jerusalem, going about their own affairs. As I turned into Armenian Patriarchate Road, I fell in behind a party of Hasidic Jews, presumably on their way to the Western Wall. I was tired; it had been a long night. I considered Harat, breaking her fast probably in about 4 hours’ time, and I concluded that for me the famous and often derided Anglican moderation really did have a lot going for it.
Ann George is a member of the Editorial Board of
New Directions, and the Council of Forward in Faith