Through the glass darkly

Egeria’s travels

Part four

The last leg of Egeria’s travels brought her to Constantinople (now Istanbul ), the eastern capital of the Roman Empire, founded by Constantine in 325 and completed an astonishing six years later in 330.

The Emperor chose well. Not only did the city occupy the land route from Europe to the Middle East, but it was protected on three sides by the Golden Horn, the Bosporus, and the Marmara Sea, and on the landward side by massive walls begun by Constantine and added to throughout its thousand year existence, making it an impregnable fortress.

Within its walls lay palaces, civic buildings, an enormous hippodrome for chariot races, and churches, the greatest of which were The Church of the Holy Apostles, where Constantine, along with many of his successors, was buried, and Hagia Sophia, or the Church of the Holy Wisdom, first erected in 325 and restored many times over the centuries. A Russian 14th-century traveller, Stephen of Novgorod, wrote, "As for St Sophia, the human mind can neither tell it nor make description of it."

Egeria took ship from Chalcedon, and, “crossing the sea, I arrived at Constantinople …From which place, ladies, light of my eyes, I send these [letters] to your affection”.

After looking around the city, built only 60 years earlier, and now ruled by Theodosius I (379 – 395 ), Egeria settled down to describe the worship practices she had seen in Jerusalem, especially those of Holy Week. Indeed, to her detailed account historians owe much of what they know of the liturgical ceremonies of the early Christian Church. During Egeria’s stay in Jerusalem, the Patriarch was Cyril (ca313-386 ), a distinguished theologian of the early Church, and he figures largely in her account of Holy Week.

In the following extract, Egeria describes the Good Friday ceremonies, most of which took place in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which contained the rock of Golgotha, the site of the crucifixion, and the Anastasis (Gr Resurrection ), a small round building believed to enclose Christ’s tomb.

“Good Friday: Service at daybreak. And when they arrive … the daylight is already growing bright. There the passage from the Gospel is read where the Lord is brought before Pilate, with everything that is written concerning that which Pilate spoke to the Lord or to the Jews; the whole is read.

“Afterwards the bishop addresses the people: ‘Go now, each one of you, to your houses … and [return] here just before the second hour of the day, that from that hour to the sixth you may be able to behold the holy wood of the Cross’.

“Now is the veneration of the Cross. A chair is placed for the bishop in Golgotha … [and after he] takes his seat … a table covered with a linen cloth is placed before him … and a silver-gilt casket is brought in which is the holy wood of the Cross. The casket is opened and the wood of the cross is taken out and placed upon the table.

“When it has been put upon the table, the bishop, as he sits, holds the extremities of the sacred wood firmly in his hands … the custom is that the people … come one by one and, bowing down at the table, kiss the sacred wood and pass through.

“And as all the people pass by one by one, all bowing themselves, they touch the Cross … first with their foreheads and then with their eyes; then they kiss the Cross and pass through. The people pass through up to the sixth hour, entering by one door and going out by another.

“When the sixth hour has come, all the people again assemble at the Anastasis …and from the sixth to the ninth hour [is] the reading of lessons: first from the psalms wherever the Passion is spoken of, then from the Apostle, either from the Epistles of the Apostles or from their Acts, wherever they have spoken of the Lord's Passion; then the passages from the Gospels, where He suffered, are read. Then the readings from the prophets where they foretold that the Lord should suffer, then from the Gospels where He mentions His Passion.

“The emotion shown and the mourning by all the people at every lesson and prayer is wonderful; for there is none, either great or small, who, on that day during those three hours, does not lament more than can be conceived, that the Lord had suffered those things for us. Afterwards, at the beginning of the ninth hour, there is read that passage from the Gospel according to John where He gave up the ghost. This read, prayer and the dismissal follow.

“Christos Anesti: Alithos Anesti.”

Barnaby ffrench

 

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