Attending church services in historic cathedrals or places of worship provides something special that is incredibly tangible yet difficult to describe or quantify. The shared religious experience spanning centuries of history and thousands of anonymous, forgotten worshipers from a plethora of ethnic, linguistic and denominational backgrounds stirs something at the core of my being that is rarely awakened. I had the privilege of adding another one of those experiences to my repertoire by attending an Epiphany service in the 18th Century Armenian Church in Old Dhaka last night.
As I stood in the aging Armenian Church singing Epiphany hymns, listening to Epiphany scripture and reading Epiphany prayers, I thought about the hundreds of worshipers who had previously poured their hearts out in fervent prayer and confession at the altar. As I sang Christmas carols, I contemplated the voices from the past that sang hymns that reverberated off the same crumbling walls. I wondered how many other people throughout history felt the same sweetly pungent smell of incense burn their nostrils as they sat quietly in the same creaking wooden chairs.
Thinking about this sort of stuff is always humbling because it sets me firmly into my historical context and forces me to realize the uncomfortable fact that I am finite. My life is “like a morning mist that soon vanishes” as the Bible says and someday, long after the memory of my small, seemingly insignificant life has faded from memory, another twenty something year old sitting in the exact same pew might marvel about the same thoughts I pondered last night. And the cycle goes on.
Anyways…enough of the awkward “grand questions of life” narrative. The Epiphany service had several other notable aspects as well.
Moths. The church service ostensibly began at 5:00pm (This, of course, actually means the service starts at 5:30. This is Bangladesh after all!) and it was soon dark outside. The building was lit by archaic electric lights that looked like they belonged in a WWII bomb shelter rather than a church building and, when combined with the fact that the windows and doors were left wide open, a few large moths began to flutter around, happily swooping down on unsuspecting hymn-singers. I am honestly unsure why this sticks out in my memory. It just does.
Battle of the Religions. As we were singing the first hymn of the service, the call to prayer from the neighboring mosque started blaring from the loudspeakers. The organ and our voices singing “Oh come let us adore him” competed with repetitious chants of “Allahu ahkbar” as the muezzin chanted the ahdan. For some reason, the competition struck me as hilarious and I was glad when the organist played a bit harder as the din conveniently covered up my laughter.
I met briefly Mikhail Hopcef Martirossian, the elderly caretaker of the church, and, although I didn’t realize it until after I traveled home, he has an amazingly interesting story as the last Armenian in Bangladesh. If you’re interested to learn more, check out this archived BBC article: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/2645617.stm
I had a great time at the Epiphany service. It wasn't my first time visiting this historic church, but it was the first time I attended a service there. I almost didn't go out of laziness (and the fact that, with the ridiculous traffic, it was an approximately two hour journey each way) but I feel fortunate that I got off my butt and avoided the TV trap. Hopefully I'll manage to make it to another one of the (rarely held) services for Easter!