St. James Cathedral of the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem is one of the oldest Christian churches in Jerusalem. I had been there three times, twice with permission from Bishop Sevon to photograph.
St. James is not open to tourists during the day. The Church is open only for masses; morning, afternoon, special occasion: it is consecrated.
After morning mass, Bishop Sevon held my hand and griped my arm to lead me toward and in front of the St. James alter, giving me a lesson on consecration through the story of James.
He told me about consecration in a round about way using the Virgin Mary as a vehicle to explain why James was not the blood brother of Jesus the Messiah, but only a “brother” in terms of association, like in a fraternity, or an order, or a nationality, as the Jews welcome one another in such a way once it is determined you are Jewish upon meeting – like Christians too – brotherhood in the embodiment, but not by direct generational blood ancestry.
Bishop Sevon made the analogy thus: one would not take a Holy Chalice and fill it with common drink, or a plate that was consecrated and use it for every day common meals, so too with Mary, the vessel that held the divine through whom He entered this world.
Here is the dictionary definition: (verb)
1. to make or declare sacred; set apart or dedicate to the service of a deity: to consecrate a new church building.
2. to make (something) an object of honor or veneration; hallow: a custom consecrated by time.
3. to devote or dedicate to some purpose: a life consecrated to science.
4. to admit or ordain to a sacred office, esp. to the episcopate.
5. to change (bread and wine) into the Eucharist.
St. James is a consecrated space. The place itself is used for holy purpose and hence closed to tourists (though people are allowed in during mass to observe, though the Cathedral closes promptly with 10 minutes of mass ending).
As I observed three masses I noticed the rich and specialized singing, prayer, ritual that enacted and prepared the Holy Eucharist, the attention given everything showed intention of consecration and veneration. Respect to these things is taken serious. They are taken serious not because they are things, but because what these things represent in the Holy.
Much as icons serve as doorways through which one enters divine space by contemplation or simply through substitution, so too are these actions, this place, the art and things within – not because the ritual or objects need to be respected and obeyed, but because they are representative to something bigger and beyond. Something which the ordinary cannot quite express.
Likewise, the ordinary is kept from the consecrated in order not to lessen it, or, contaminate what was set aside for holy purpose.
The Jews keep the law, I was told, as a means to gratefully obey God to delight God – as one Jew put it, “We get to do Mitzvahs” as a joy to one’s lover, as a kiss to the Holy One, knowing it is pleasing and delightful to God.
Christians may not accept this idea since they feel they are set free from the law (which was also explained by my Jewish friends to mean “instruction” rather than legal), yet they are constantly wanting to please God in their actions, wanting to obey Him based on what they read in scripture. It in the act of baptism.
The act of taking something and consecrating it is much like taking ones life and giving it over to God. We make our life set aside for divine purpose. It is an act of intention. And by making it such, it becomes such.
Jesus said to “be in the world but not of it” and now I am thinking that a consecrated thing can be in the world but is no longer of it. Nor can it contain the world’s ways with out being corrupted. So the rituals I am seeing are a purification to enter again into the holy as vessels being cleaned with proper mind and heart. Like the Jews say of mitzvahs, we get to be purified so we can be with our lover.
Some friends of mine in Evangelical circles might scoff at all this orthodox theology, but in a different fashion, worship music in Evangelical churches do this to “get the heart prepared to receive the message”.
The mass at St. James will continue to resonate with me through the images I captured as I reflect on Bishop Sevon’s words at the alter.