One year, I went to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to attend the Easter services there. I knew I would be watching and hearing a Christian Orthodox liturgy—the first one would be in Greek, then Coptic, followed by Syrian and others. These rituals would continue all night; I only planned to stay for the first one. When I arrived at nearly midnight, the old church—some of it dating to the Fourth Century—was so crowded that I had to set aside any spiritual notions I might have hoped to fulfill in the name of survival—this is to say staying on both feet in an upright position. It was hot and stuffy. And worse, there was thinly veiled animosity between some of the groups that had gathered—most obviously between the Russians and Arabs.
At times a group of clerics, robed in black and responsible for crowd control, pounded the pavement sharply with metal staffs to move the crowd back from the area along which the proces- sion would eventually pass. The crowd surged back momentarily, then forward again, accompanied by a lot of grumbling in several languages—not including English. Everyone wanted to be in the “front row” to see the procession up close, but only a few would succeed: there were thousands upon thousands of people shoving and maneuvering their way toward the best view they could get.
Finally the procession began. The Greek Patriarch, Theophilus III, and his various deacons, bishops and other clergy marched by in full regalia, attired in sparkling crowns and lavish robes. They marched around the Sepulcher three times, as is the tradition in the Orthodox Easter liturgy. From where I was standing, I could not see what happened after that. But after some time, the cry filled the church: Christos Anesti! Christ is Risen.
With one voice, the massive crowd responded, Alithos Anesti! Risen Indeed!
All at once, in the most amazingly sudden change of atmosphere I can remember, people began to embrace, strangers kissing strangers, and yes, Arabs and Russians alike sharing loving words and blessings. Small groups began to sing their traditional Easter songs in various languages. Thankfully, by then the competitive edge was gone. Now there was only celebration.
It was as if a tide of joy had washed across the massive church at the sound of the Celebrant’s simple words. Hope had defeated despair. Faith had conquered disbelief. And above all else, in a reaffirmation of Christianity’s most essential message, Life had triumphed over Death. That one message somehow spans denominational chasms and bridges differences of race, nationality and language. It is also reflected in the symbols of every Christian church.
I noticed many Coptic monks on the periphery of the crowd that night, waiting with their small community for the beginning of their own procession. These monastics, who serve beside the Holy Sepulcher itself, are particularly recognizable because of their distinctive black hoods. At the time I didn’t understand the symbolism, but these koulla (Coptic), or qalansuwa (Arabic) hoods are decorated with twelve small crosses and one large one. I’ve since learned that the crosses signify that Coptic monks, like Jesus’ disciples, recognize that they must leave everything earthly behind and look only to God—represented by the large cross. In today’s troubled times, more and more members of the Coptic Christian community in Egypt are facing that very choice.