Friday, 30 April 2021

‘Rejoicing became mourning,
a great light became a deep darkness’


Patrick Comerford

A stampede claimed the lives of at least 44 people, including small children, at a Lag B’Omer festival in Meron in northern Israel last night, and more than 150 people were injured. This is a deeply saddening and horrific loss of life among worshippers.

‘Rejoicing became mourning, a great light became a deep darkness,’ a pilgrim told television news last night.

The pilgrimage was the first large religious gathering of its kind to be held legally since Israel lifted nearly all coronavirus restrictions. It may be one of the worst peacetime tragedies in Israel’s history, with the death toll similar to the number of people killed in a forest fire in 2010.

Lag BaOmer or Lag B’Omer (לַ״ג בָּעוֹמֶר‎) began last night (29 April 2021) and comes to end at sunset this evening (30 April 2021). This is a Jewish religious holiday celebrated on the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer, which occurs on the 18th day of the Hebrew month of Iyar.

It is traditional to observe some customs of mourning during the days between Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot – the days of Sefiras haOmer – and to have a festive day on either the 33rd day of the Omer, which began last night, or for Sephardim on the 34th, which begins tonight (30 April).

This minor holiday – known for bonfires, weddings and haircuts – takes place about a month after Passover. This is a break from the semi-mourning of the Omer, and key aspects of Lag B’omer include holding Jewish weddings – it is the one day during the Omer when Jewish law permits them – lighting bonfires, and the pilgrimage to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in Meron, where the bonfire was part of last night’s tragedy, and which is marked by all-night prayer, mystical songs and dance.

According to some traditions, this day marks the hillula or anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai or ‘the Rashbi,’ a Mishnaic sage and leading disciple of Rabbi Akiva in the 2nd century CE, and the day on which he revealed the deepest secrets of kabbalah in the form of the Zohar (Book of Splendour, literally ‘radiance’), a landmark text of Jewish mysticism.

Historians now suggest, however, that the association of Lag BaOmer with the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai may be based on a printer’s error. Another tradition says Lag BaOmer is a day of celebration recalling the end of a plague that killed Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 disciples.

Some authorities attribute the joy of Lag BaOmer to the belief that the manna that fed the people in the wilderness during the Exodus first appeared on the 18th of Iyar.

Although its origins are uncertain, Lag BaOmer has become a minor holiday. While the Counting of the Omer is a semi-mourning period between Pesach and Shavuot, all restrictions of mourning are lifted on this day. As a result, weddings, parties, listening to music, and haircuts are commonly scheduled to coincide with this day among Ashkenazi Jews.

Families go on picnics and outings; children go out to the fields with their teachers with bows and rubber-tipped arrows – a possible reminder of the war battles of Akiva’s students – and plant trees. It is customary to light bonfires, to symbolise the light Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai brought into the world. And many couples arrange their wedding for this day.

Tachanun, the prayer for special God’s mercy on one’s behalf, is not said on days with a festive character, including Lag BaOmer. It is said that when God is showing one a ‘smiling face,’ so to speak, as he does on holidays, there is no need to ask for special mercy.

Unrelated to Rabbi Shimon, the kabbalists also give a mystical interpretation to the Omer period as a time of spiritual cleansing and preparation for receiving the Torah on Shavuot. The days and weeks of counting, they say, represent various combinations of the sefirot, the divine emanations, whose contemplation ultimately leads to purity of mind and soul. The sombreness of this period reflects the seriousness of its spiritual pursuits.

Sephardic Jews call this holiday Lag LaOmer, which means ‘33rd [day] of the Omer,’ as opposed to Lag BaOmer. The Sephardi custom is to continue mourning practices through the 33rd day of the Omer and celebrate on the 34th day of the Omer, or LaD BaOmer (ל״ד בעומר‎), which falls tomorrow (1 May).

There is a tradition that Jewish boys do not get their first haircut until they are three years old, and some parents wait to time this occasions for their boys on the minor holiday of Lag BaOmer. Perhaps this tradition reflects the Biblical teaching that one may not eat the fruit that grows on a tree for the first three years (see Leviticus 19: 23). But the custom is usually traced back to Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), the 16th-century founder of the Lurianic School of Kabbalah, who assigned special mystical value to the ear-locks.

I have gone without a haircut for many weeks now, due to the pandemic lockdown restrictions. But, in my reflections this Friday evening, rather than dwelling any further on the length of my hair, I am pondering some sayings associated with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who has a particular association with this minor holiday:

‘To deceive anyone by words is worse than cheating him out of money.’

‘He who lets arrogance get the better of him is like the heathen worshipping idols.’

In the Ethics of Our Fathers, he says, ‘There are three crowns: the crown of the Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty; but the crown of a good name excels above them all.’

Shabbat Shalom

Praying in Lent and Easter 2021:
73, Stavropoleos Monastery, Bucharest

The courtyard in Stavropoleos Monastery … a quiet and prayerful corner of Bucharest (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During the Season of Easter this year, I am continuing my theme from Lent, taking some time each morning to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship that has been significant in my spiritual life;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

This week is Holy Week in the Orthodox Church, and today is Good Friday in the Orthodox Calendar. My photographs this morning (30 April 2021) are from the Monastery of Stavropoleos (Mănăstirea Stavropoleos), or Holy Cross Monastery, in the centre of Bucharest.

Stavropoleos Monastery is on the corner of Stavropoleos Street and Postei Street, is close to the central area of Lipscani, and is one of the oldest buildings in the Romanian capital.

From the street outside, this picturesque monastery and its church capture the imagination with their carvings, frescoes, paintings and atrium, in a harmonious combination of Western influences and Byzantine and Ottoman traditions from the Easter. The richly-decorated church has beautiful stone and wood carvings, and the finest carvings can be seen on the main doors.

Inside, on entering the courtyard, with its candles and cloistered style, there is an atmosphere of prayer and meditation. The small courtyard, with its many columns and gravestones, was built in 1899 by Ion Mincu, one of the most important Romanian architects.

The courtyard is enclosed by three stoas, on the east, west and south sides. Scattered around are plaques and crosses from graves, and surviving pieces from the monastery’s earlier building phases and from churches in Bucharest that have been demolished. Some tombstones, dating from the 18th century, are being restored by skilled craftsmen.

The monastery today is home to a community of six nuns, and their priest confessor, Father Iustin Marchiş. Life in the monastery is divided between prayer, work and study. The work includes restoring old books, icons and vestments, writing and publishing, and major projects on Byzantine and Orthodox church music.

The church is dedicated to the archangels Saint Michael and Saint Gabriel. However, the name Stavropoleos is a Romanian version of the Greek Σταυρούπολις (Stavroúpolis), ‘The City of the Cross.’

The church was built in 1724, during the reign of Nickolaos Mavrocordatos (Nicolae Mavrocordat), the Phanariot or Greek-speaking Prince of Wallachia (1715-1730). Mavrocordatos came from an old Byzantine royal family, and introduced Greek manners, the Greek language and Greek culture to Bucharest, where he set up a splendid court modelled on the Byzantine court.

The founder of the monastery was a Greek monk, Archimandrite Ioannikios Stratonikea, known in Romanian as Ioanichie Stratonikeas, who came from Ostanitsa, in the area of Pogoni – now known as Aedonohori Konitsas – 66 km north of Ioannina, in Epirus.

Father Ioannikios became a monk in the Monastery of the Archangels at Goura near Ostanitsa and was sent to the Epirote monastery in Romania to collect funds for the restoration of his home monastery. By 1722, he was running a han or inn in Bucharest, a lucrative business in a crossroads city in the 18th century. Two years later, in 1724, he founded the monastery that would become known as Stavropoleos. The link between the han and the monastery was designed to provide financial support from the inn for the new monastery.

In 1726, Father Ioannikios was appointed by the Ecumenical Patriarch as Metropolitan of Stavropoleos and Exarch of Caria. This is ancient Aphrodisias (Ἀφροδισιάς) in western Anatolia, east of Kusadasi and north of Fethiye. The classical city was renamed Stavropolis in the early seventh century.

Bishop Ioannikios died on 7 February 1743 at the age of 61, and was buried in the narthex of the church. Ever since, the main church of the monastery he founded in Bucharest has been known as the Stavropoleos.

The monastery church is built in the Brâncovenesc style, also known as Wallachian Renaissance or Romanian Renaissance, a style that evolved in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, during the reign of Prince Constantin Brâncoveanu. One of his best known churches in this style in central Bucharest is Cretulescu Church (Biserica Crețulescu) on Calea Victoriei, on the corner of Revolution Square, beside the former Royal Palace.

The inn and the monastery’s annexes were demolished in the late 19th century, and in the decades that followed the church was damaged further by earthquakes and the dome collapsed.

The dome and its frescoes were restored at the beginning of the 20th century. But all that remains of the original monastery today is the church, alongside an early 20th century building that houses a library, a conference room and a collection of early 18th century icons and liturgical items, as well as pieces of frescoes recovered from churches demolished under the communist regime.

The dome and its frescoes were restored at the beginning of the 20th century. But all that remains of the original monastery today is the church, alongside an early 20th century building that houses a library, a conference room and a collection of early 18th century icons and liturgical items, as well as pieces of frescoes recovered from churches demolished under the communist regime.

The monastery is engaged in a virtual library project, digitalising its old books. The monastery library has over 10,000 books of theology, Byzantine music, arts and history. Some of the books are from the personal library of the Romanian art historian Vasile Drăguț, former rector of the Bucharest University of Arts.

There are patristic, biblical, dogmatic, liturgical, historical, homiletic, catechetical books, dictionaries of classic languages and textbooks, studies on Byzantine art and Orthodox iconography, and works on 18th century Romanian history and culture. There are old books in Romanian, Greek, and Church Slavonic, and the collection of books on Byzantine music, which is the largest in Romania, includes books donated by two Romanian Byzantine scholars, Sebastian Barbu-Bucur, and Titus Moisescu. The monastery is engaged in a virtual library project, digitalising its old books.

Stavropoleos is known throughout the Orthodox world and beyond for its conservation of Byzantine music. The choir has an international reputation, with many recordings, and the monastery also has the largest collection of Byzantine music books in Romania.

The Stavropoleos Byzantine Choir was created in 1994, and is led by Archdeacon Gabriel Constantin Oprea, chants at the Stavropoleos Church and teaches Byzantine music at the National University of Music in Bucharest. The group has performed in Romania and abroad, and is recording on CDs.

The church choir sings Byzantine and neo-Byzantine music, much of it based on the works of 19th century Romanian psalmodists – Macarie the Hieromonk, Nectarie the Hermit, Anton Pann and Dimitrie Suceveanu – and Greek chants translated into Romanian, or modern compositions.

A cross in the courtyard in Stavropoleos with the inscription: ‘Remember Lord your servant Themelis Zaphyris from Ioannina, 2 November 1743’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 14: 1-6 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 1 ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ 5 Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ 6 Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’

The church and the monastery of Stavropoleos are richly decorated (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (30 April 2021) invites us to pray:

We pray for the work of the Tanzania Nursing and Midwifery Council, which regulates and trains nurses and midwives in Tanzania.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Stavropoleos Monastery in Bucharest is known throughout the Orthodox world for its Byzantine library and music (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The courtyard in Stavropoleos, with its columns and cloisters, has an atmosphere of prayer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)