This is an amazing time of year to be in Jerusalem, particularly this year as Pesach (Passover) and Easter fall at the same time. And since I am handling the religious affairs portfolio, I have been invited to some of the events.
Today I went to the Ceremony of the Washing of the Feet at St. James Cathedral of the Armenian Patriarchate. The ceremony lasted about an hour and was amazingly beautiful, even if I didn't understand a word of what they were saying!
I went with the DPO (Deputy Principle Officer, or the second in charge at the mission). When we arrive, he said we were with the U.S. Consulate, we were escorted in led by a fairly high-priest and two staff-bearing accollites. The accollites hit the ground with their staffs on every second step in the way that they do when they are leading a high ranking priest around town, so we entered the church to a "thump - thump - thump." We were seated in an area designated for distinguished guest right next to a large raised stage. On the stage, initially concealed by a large tapestry, is the altar and the seating areas for the head priest (who oddly, was NOT the Patriarch), and 12 high priests (presumably to represent Jesus and the 12 Apostles). Each of the high priests wore a black monks robe with the hood pulled up and had wrapped around their shoulders a tan cloak emroidered with pink, green and black. The head priest looked like a Catholic bishop.
Immediately in front of the state, situated between the two sections of dignitary seats, was the area where a group of 13 young men positioned themselves and sang throughout the service. Again, there seemed to be one higher ranking and 12 lower ranking. At first I thought they were sitting, but partway through the service, I noticed that they were actually kneeling! My knees hurt for them, particularly when some started sittting back a bit. I noticed one refused to sit back, remaining on his knees and occassionally bowing his head as if to pray for strength to endure it. I also noticed that as they sang, most of the high priests sat stoically, almost as though they were bored. But one older priest, with a full greying beard, sang along with the young men, his eyes glistening as if he would cry from the emotion of it.
The climax of the service was the washing of the feet, during which the head priest removed his ceremonial garments, knelt and one by one, washed the feet of the high priests. Each priest, after having his right foot washed, bowed and kissed two relics on a small table next to the head priest. Some also kissed the ring of the kigh priest.
The church itself was amazing. According to Father Jerry O'Connor's book "The Holy Land," it was constructed in the 1100s. It is cool and dark inside, with old paintings long since darkened by the smoke of incense and glistening gold icons everywhere.
As we left at the end of the service, we shook hands with some of the priests, including one dressed in the plainest black robe - the Patriarch.