A Man Had Two Sons

Envy is as old as humanity itself. In the first utterance of the word sin in Scripture, a man had two sons; two brothers who come to grief over, of all things, an offering given to God. “Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground. Abel brought the firstborn of his flock and their fat portions. The LORD looked with favor on Abel, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry.” He killed his brother.

At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, one of at least two possible sites for Jesus’ empty tomb, competing branches of Christianity vie for control of a grave that is still empty, fighting over, of all things, the worship of Jesus. The Greek Orthodox control the empty tomb proper, filling it up with all manner of iconography and liturgical folderol, smells and bells. The Armenian Apostolic church has their ornate chapel off to one side, with the Roman Catholics off to another, candles and music and prayer chiming in each. The Ethiopian Orthodox have been relegated to one of the entry ways, with their own dimly lit protocols, and the Syriac Orthodox theirs. And then tacked on to the main shrine with a separate entrance, like some sort of add-on Ikea closet, sits this odd little Coptic Christian chapel staking out its territory. Inside when we walked by was a lone monk reading his newspaper by candlelight, his sole responsibility being to swat intrusive tourists trying to take pictures.

On a hot summer day in 2002, a Coptic monk moved his chair from its agreed spot into a cooler part of the church. This was interpreted as a hostile move by the Ethiopians, and eleven were hospitalized after the resulting brawl. In 2004, the Greek Orthodox monk left a Roman Catholic door open which was taken as a sign of disrespect leading to another melee. Then on Palm Sunday in 2008, a fight broke out over some other perceived liturgical slights requiring the Jewish police to come in and break it up. It’s been this way for centuries. Pious Christian brothers preaching the love of Jesus can’t stand each other. Their silliness is symbolized in an immovable ladder that leans against an upper window of the church for no reason. Somebody leaned it there a couple of hundred years ago, and there is remains since to move it would represent an infringement against one of the religious orders though nobody knows which one. Still, that ladder might be mine. When it rots every hundred years or so, the groups all chip in to replace it, just in case. Tension floats in the air like so much religious incense. Incensed being an appropriate word to describe the smoldering emotions. It’d be funny if it wasn’t so pathetic. All I can say is that’s it’s a good thing the Protestants never became involved or things might really have gotten ugly. Ironically, or perhaps providentially, a Muslim family owns the keys to the church’s front door.


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