Amid the crush of thousands of Jewish families celebrating Sukkoth, as well as police activity associated with reported political demonstrations, an advance guard of St. Mark’s pilgrims found an oasis of calm Tuesday afternoon at the Armenian Cathedral of the Two St. James in the Old City of Jerusalem. Open to visitors only during services, the church and attached seminary holds a vespers service each afternoon at 3 pm, which gave the pilgrims a chance to experience the 11th century structure and get a glimpse of the spiritual life of the Armenian community.
Except for a tour group that stayed only briefly, the pilgrims were among just a handful of visitors to the service, which brought together 50 or more black robed seminarians and a smaller number of hooded priests or monks. The service was held in mid-afternoon to take advantage of natural light from windows in the domed ceiling, thus avoiding the trouble and expense of lighting the hundreds of oil lamps that hung from the ceiling.
The short service would have been familiar to Western Christians in its outlines, other than obviously being in in Armenian. It began with a reading from the Bible, followed by prayers and chants that highlighted the impressively deep and masculine voices of the seminarians and priests or monks. Once the half-hour service was over, the participants filed out quickly, leaving behind a bit of the aura and mystery of a religious tradition stretching back to the early 4th century.
As the St. Mark’s group was leaving, a priest kindly reached out to offer a brief history of the church. He noted that the bodies of the two St. James were buried beneath the church, while acknowledging that at least part of the remains of St. James the Apostle had found their way to northwestern Spain. He also took pains to make clear that the other St. James, called the brother of Jesus, was not really the brother of the Savior, but perhaps a child of Joseph’s first marriage.
Over all, the visit offered a powerful experience of both the unity and diversity of world Christianity in all its variety.