Saint Nikolaos comes back (1)
We had a wonderful celebration of the feast of Saint Nikolaos in the Rum Orthodox Monastery of Jerusalem located in the Old City, opposite the Saint Benediktos Clinic. As this is the rule for all Greek Orthodox monasteries, the place is governed by a higumen, in particular Fr. Aristovoulos who is the regent/conductor of the choirs of the Greek Orthodox choirs at the Holy Sepulcher and exercises different acitivities within the Patriarchate. Over the past seven months, he has carried out, mainly alone to begin with and then assisted by some Arabs and Russian workers, but again mainly alone and this had to be like that for specific reasons I do not want to discuss. After seven months of intense work, especially when I came back to Jerusalem, the church compound that is composed of three chapels dedicated to Saint Barbara, Saint Antonios and Saint Nikolaos of Myra of Lycia has almost been totally reframed, rebuild, repaired. There is still a lot of work that needs to be conducted and it is evident that the higumen will convey it.
In the week that preceded the eve and the day of the Feast of the Saint in accordance to the Julian calendar on December 18-19 last, he organized three evenings dedicated to praying and receiving the Sacraments of the Oil for the Sickבמיכת השמן as it is usual in the Oriental tradition. Over the months of repair, I could see that he went through hardships on different sides. Among the different higumens that I have dealt with, I must say he is the one that is quiet, definitely a man of faith and prayer. This is certainly due to the fact that he sings conducts the prayer during the Services and the Divine Liturgies and has been doing that for years, in particular at the Holy Sepulcher. In this way, he has also been in contact with the Franciscan group of Music and choir. I recently assisted with much interest and friendship to a conference that he gave about monasteries in Jerusalem at an interfaith (Jewish-Christian) group. Describing his background, he spoke of his grand-father who was a Greek Orthodox Priest from Turkey and suffered from the general genocide/mass murder committed in 1922 against the Greeks following the large extermination of the Armenians and the Syrian-Orthodox, many of whom came to Jerusalem as the consequence of the killings in 1915 committed by the Turks.
it is quite amazing at times how discussions can be harsh inside of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, I usually do not care. It is important to take good note of what is going on, because it is a part of a developing scheme that may not be obvious. The Greeks in the Holy Land have been embattled in many ways throughout history and far much more over the past decade.
Just before I could celebrate in last June at the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission of the Patriarchate of Moscow with the blessing of Patriarch Theophilos III and the consent of the local Higumen Archimandrite Isidor, Patriarch Theophilos had been a bit at pains to explain that I should temporarily leave the church and serve for some time in another place because of the repair that would take much time and place at the Mar Nikolaos Monastery. He had indeed confirmed that, thereafter, I would return to the place. The faithful were not that sure of that. When I came back in Fall to Jerusalem, the Patriarch repeated to me that I would soon return to serve inside of the church of Saint Nikolaos. All of us have our “preventions”. And indeed, Fr. Aristovoulos had confirmed to the Patriarch and the responsible persons of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem that I do serve according to the strict and usual rite of the Eastern Orthodox Church, in Hebrew and that my prayers were not taken from the Jewish Siddur (prayerbook)… say that I was (again and again…) a true Orthodox priest. The thing has been known for now almost 15 years, but it requires strict and at times very insulting confirmation both from the clergy and some of the local faithful. We are all so “slow to believe”… all of us.
Upon my return to Jerusalem after having lectured in Europe and Moscow among other things, I heard that I was a Jew (Rus/Ukr.: “Zhyd = Yike” but far more vulgar and insulting), damned to the Catholics, my wife being openly Catholic and that I was a full heretic that should be kicked out from the Church and the country. Though this year, one woman had the common sense to say that I might be really canonical because it would have been rather easy to remove me years ago if I were not…This is in fact my daily bread here.
By the way, people would be very astounded that I did heard the same crazy stuff in the West uttered by people who at that time were so busy “in creating and building the Church via and with faith”… In the case of the way I arrived to the church of Saint Nikolaos on the First of May 2004 (considered as a amusing date by the faithful because it is the day par excellence for the victory of the Proleterians in the former Soviet Union), In 2004, I published in my blogs in different places the referred document that the faithful had also given to the Israeli Government at that time, considering that Israeli citizens, also Christian Orthodox were fully entitled to be given a church and not to be persecuted in times of dire troubles at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem (cf. “Hagios Haralambos Greek Orthodox Patriarchate “Committee”, shorter version for the Synod and information, for June 7th, 2004).
Things were not that clear when I had left Jerusalem for Europe after the great celebrations we had at the Russian Moscow compound and in the Russian Jerusalem Cathedral both in Hebrew and Russian in honor of the fact that is rather ignored by all parties concerned that the first Divine Liturgy in Hebrew with an officially recognized text blessed by the then Synod of the Church of Moscow in 1841. Patriarch Theophilos has given his blessing for any celebration in the future at the Russian Moscow Mission in Hebrew and other tongues. This had been the agreement for which we started by the commemoration of the 170th (!!!) anniversary of praying in Hebrew precisely at the Russian Mission while the Israeli authorities were en route to celebrate the 150th anniversaries in different ways of Theodore Herzl, Eliezer Ben Yehudah and Schalom Aleichem…
I take the liberty to come back to this that happened in June because, to begin with, the faithful would hardly consider themselves as “Israeli” but rather “Russian”, although they are mainly “Former Soviets” and often behave as such, both as citizens and/or “Church people and faithful”.
On the other hand, while the Moscow Patriarchate might consider normal spiritual assistance to the faithful and development as they do in the Palestinian Territories at the present, the situation is a bit more complicated in Israel for different reasons. As anywhere else in the world, the Russian Moscow Patriarchate is developing wide programs of assistance to the faithful throughout the world. Moreover, it does consider that her renewal and rising up from the tragedy of atheism and therefore from “apostasy” gives her the authority among the Orthodox Churches that raise somehow with difficulty from the time of the communists, to take some sort of a lead. The Moscow Church is claiming everywhere in the world for the land, properties, houses, churches and religious bodies that had belonged to the Russian Church before the Revolution.
At this point, this is carried out with the diplomatic services of the Federation of Russia, which is a very important point that could avoid, in the (improbable at this point) of a new Bolshevik Revolution that properties and church belongings could be captured by different groups. It is more than important, in the present situation, to carefully read the history of the Patriarchate of Moscow. it always had to fight and be humiliated in its rights. In this field of new conquest, Moscow deploys its missionary activities worldwide in a way that lines with the general Russian way and also showed its capacities under the communists. it is not necessary to speak of any “Third Rome” system. Most orthodox countries showed up from the time of the communists with any power, helpless. This is the case for Georgia, former Yugoslavia. More questionable about Romania that always has been active. The Russians have traditionally been present in the Holy Land and Jerusalem over many centuries and helped to save the Greek presence at the Holy Sepulcher during the War in Crimea.
All the Churches are busy at the moment at studying maps, historic archives and authenticity of the properties or documents.
Saint Nikolaos is much in vogue in the whole Slavic world. The move brings crowds of pilgrims from the Russian Federation, the Eastern Orthodox countries and now from Ukraine (without entry visa from Jan. 1/2011 in Israel). It shows how immense the spiritual task is in assisting these visitors. They cannot simply run from the Holy Sepulcher to Bethlehem and then eventually to the Western Wall via the shuk/bazaar! They are often without real spiritual assistance and I do see that on a daily basis. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem has the task to assist the faithful and the visitors coming from all over the world to Jerusalem. The Night Liturgies at the Holy Sepulcher gather a lot of Slavic faithful, both Israeli citizens, residents or foreign tourists on their route to God.
The church of Saint Nikolaos is the place where the Saint has lived during his short sojourn in the Holy City. It is accounted that he lived on the site where today there is a Greek Orthodox compound that used to be a monastery. Nowadays, flats and houses are rented by the Patriarchate to the Arabs who are mostly Orthodox, There are a few Greek people and some Syrian-Orthodox families. The church is now beautiful and shall be improved. This requires a lot of time and money.
When I serve on Saturdays, I always have many Ukrainian faithful, but Saint Nikolaos also drives along many Russian, Ukrainian, Romanian, Serbian, Georgian and the many Eastern Orthodox that want to pray there. Last Saturday, during the Divine Liturgy I served before the Vigils of the Saint, many Russian pilgrims who were given the name of the Saint came along and wanted to pray there where he had lived and served as a priest in the Holy Land. This gives much price and honor to serve in this church dedicated to this Saint and Wondermaker, and his name does mean in Greek “Victory of the people” (sounds a bit “democratic” if not that much “proleterian” as the faithful had said in 2004. This church (also dedicated to two other major Saints venerated in the Holy Land) has a specific spiritual and strategical function inside of the Old City of Jerusalem.
This is why the feast has also been extraordinary. Usually, the Jerusalem tradition does not give the local higumen to serve on the patronal feast of the church. Instead, a bishop used to come, accompanied by different archimandrites, some Arab clergy also in this place. They would serve the Vespers and the Divine Liturgy, mainly in Greek, then some Arabic and eventually the reading of the Gospel in Russian and Romanian.
Last Saturday, when I arrived for the Vespers, we were three priests from the Patriarchate: the higumen, Fr. Aristovoulos and the previous higumen, Fr. Porphirios. I joined them and then came a Russian priest that brought a big group of pilgrims from Russia. And this was brand new. The church was so wonderfully lit with nice oil candles. The people arrived, some Russians I had been knowing for years, Romanians but also the local Greek and some Arabs. There was no Arab priest.
On the other hand, we sang together nicely and from the very beginning the Service was conducted in many tongues. This also meant something old and now, renewed as it was a rule many years ago and left to the appreciation of the higumen, which is also rare. We sang and prayed slowly, taking time and it was very decent. In many tongues that also included Arabic, Russian, Romanian, Hebrew and Serbian. This showed a big change. We prayed and did not serve ritually and systematically. One metropolitan showed lately (Met. Hesychios) and sang in the choir and he has a beautiful voice. The whole celebration suggested that something new was taking place and had been taking place over the years in different ways. I had steadfastly been serving this same way and in many tongues over the years. But now there is something new that obliges us to face the spiritual needs: the number of visitors and time passes, covering decades of hardships.
On that very day, the Church of Jerusalem commemorated the tenth anniversary of the passing over of late Patriarch Diodoros. The ten years of tremendous changes and difficulties are definitely not over, but we could think that on that day we turn a page and come to something traditional and new. and this is the major part of the thing. A lady who is a renown member of the Patriarchate and did not show that often lately said that she would come back for such celebrations that should continue.
Changes require much patience and the Old City knows how times and delays have nothing to do with our plans or projects.
December 21/7, 2011-7519 – 14 Tevet 5771 – 14 MuHarram 1432