Ann George encounters an uplifting celebration
When I left the courtyard that Sunday morning at about 7:30 the sky was a clear pale blue and the air was quite still although fresh on my face. It took me 20 minutes brisk downhill walking to get to the Anglican Cathedral and the 8 o’clock communion service in English: this was my weekly routine. After the service I would amble up The Street of the Prophets, buy some breakfast en route, eat it in the empty staff room at the school, then move over to my office where I caught up with my filing, my e-mails and some lesson preparation, then possibly a bit of piano practice in the Junior Hall next door. Sunday was a working day for the Israeli community, all the shops were open, and people were about the streets, but on the whole it was a relaxing day for me as the school kept an English weekend, with a half-day on Friday in order to get home well before the Jewish Shabbat started.
But this Sunday must have been during the school holidays, because, on coming out of the cathedral, I suddenly decided on a change of routine. I was not going to forgo my breakfast but I was not going into school either. For this one time I would have my Sunday to myself, I thought, as I walked past the Palestinian Pottery on my way to The Street of the Prophets. Half way up this street was a Jewish bakery which made the most amazing bourekas: croissant-shaped ones filled with sweetened cheese, vol-au-vents filled with toasted halva, and, my favourite, sausage-roll-shaped ones filled with spinach. They were cheap and gorgeous, and were my Sunday treat.
Having bought a couple of everything I made my way back down to the Old City walls, and entered through the New Gate into the Christian Quarter. I had a sudden desire to go to the Church of the Resurrection, although I knew that all the various rites were likely to have finished as it was now getting towards 10 o’clock and Sunday services rarely started after 6:30. I passed the lurking Israeli guards at the entrance and started my circumnavigation of the basilica. Yes, everything had finished; there were a few priests and servers moving swiftly to and fro, and some members of their congregations chatting quietly as they made for the door, but the hordes of tourists and pilgrims had yet to arrive. I continued to walk until I came to the Rotunda and the Edicule with its lighted candle, bearing the New Fire.
Now, as all inquisitive pilgrims to Jerusalem know, there is another way to pray at the Tomb of Christ, other than entering it from the front door, so to speak. In the same religio-political power struggle that sent the Ethiopians to the roof, the Egyptian Copts were pushed out of co-ownership of the Edicule itself and so lodged themselves inside a sort of cave-chapel that leads to a hole through which one can touch the Edicule, that is, if one is able to get onto hands and knees and crawl. At the entrance to this little chapel would often be seated a priest-monk who might be sunk in meditation, or alternatively might be on the lookout for an interested punter. He enjoyed theological sparring, and seemed to have an instinct for the right people to encourage to enter his chapel, people who would give as good as they got, and also, of course, be ready both to venerate the Holy Sepulchre from this direction and then put a suitable donation into his basket.
I quickened my pace as I realized that there were still people standing in a big circle around this chapel. The Liturgy had definitely finished, but as I reached the group the fully-robed priest was just emerging from his cave with a wide smile across his face, carrying a small, whole loaf of bread, the antidoron (blessed but unconsecrated bread). I immediately noticed a little girl in the congregation; she was about 7 years old, with her black, curly hair spread loose down her back and her huge eyes sparkling joyfully. She was wearing a ballerina-style rose-pink dress, she had a pink rose in her hair, and I particularly noticed her little pink socks, embellished with pink pom-poms, which set off her sparkly pink sandals. Was it her birthday? She stood out in the sombre surroundings of the ancient church in a gloriously incongruous but deeply satisfying way.
Now, people I have told this story to have been very disbelieving, but I assure you I saw this with my own eyes. The priest stood for a moment in front of his small flock, surveying them genially, then lifted his arm and threw the loaf of bread right up in the air. There was a gasp, then great applause as the little girl ran forward and caught it! She then rushed back to her parents, showing them what she had been given. Her parents gathered her up in her arms and kissed her, while everybody was laughing and clapping, myself included. The girl then went round her circle of well-wishers, showing off her present, and was showered with praise.
I slipped away and made for the courtyard. Auntie was brewing coffee, I could smell it as I climbed the steps, and Uncle was seated in his chair by the door waiting, eyes closed. I considered the bourekas, and decided that there were plenty to share. Then I wondered about the little girl: perhaps it was the first time she had taken her communion since her infant baptism? The first time she had prepared with the proper prayers, confession and fasting? I was never to know, but what I do remember so clearly was the look on her face, the joy when she caught the antidoron thrown by her priest, and then how she showed it to her family and friends. There’s a whole sermon there, a real learning-curve and a challenge for all of us.