A Tale of Three Churches: Part 2
Nearly eighteen hundred years ago, a famous man sardonically asked: "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" Orthodox Christians know that there is an answer and that answer is "Very much!" In the same way, we have seen that New York City has much to do with Jerusalem – as the world's two most famous cenotaphs are located in each. Part 1 dealt with the first two of the three Churches in our tale; now to include that third House of the Lord, and to behold how all three are intertwined in the work of salvation and history.
The Saint Nicholas Church at Ground Zero draws its most fundamental inspiration from the Church that for more than a thousand years, was not only the largest church structure in the world, but was among the largest structures of any kind, Hagia Sophia, which was recently and forcibly converted into a mosque. But unlike the pyramids of the pharaohs, Hagia Sophia was a living, breathing building – the Cathedral of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople for nearly one thousand years.
Hagia Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom, was named in honor of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Wisdom (Sophia) of God, and the Word (Logos) of God. Through the centuries after its completion (when Justinian is said to exclaimed, "Solomon, I have outdone thee!"), many other churches were inspired by it, but none equaled it. Thus, it came to be known as the "Great Church of Christ," an epithet worthily used to this day for the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
Santiago Calatrava's design for the Saint Nicholas Church at Ground Zero was inspired by Hagia Sophia. The forty ribs in the dome of the original will be mirrored in forty ribs in the dome of Saint Nicholas. The dedication to filling the space with ethereal light is the same in each. Obviously, there can be no comparison of physical size, but there can be notice of worldwide significance. Hagia Sophia was built as an act of love and worship for our Creator, Who loved us first and so much that He gave His Only-Begotten Son for us. Saint Nicholas was destroyed in a senseless act of violence and hatred, but is being rebuilt as a witness to love and worship, and as a sign that true religion and faith is creative and produces love, mercy and hope.
Where Saint Nicholas and Hagia Sophia intersect with history comes through the Anastasis, the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. As is well known, when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Muslims on May 29, 1453 – after three days of pillaging and murder – the Great Church was forcibly converted into a mosque. This remained true until 1935, when Hagia Sophia became a museum in the wake of the secularization of the Turkish State, but I has once again been converted into a mosque in July of 2020.
What a different course happened for the Anastasis in Jerusalem. After the Siege of Jerusalem in 637 by Muslim armies pouring out of the Arabian Peninsula, the sainted Patriarch Sophronios agreed to surrender the Holy City only to the Caliph, Omar. Omar traveled to Jerusalem and was received by the Patriarch, who showed him the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where he invited Omar to pray. Omar respectfully declined saying that if he did, his men would seize the Church for themselves. Instead he prayed across the courtyard, and to this day, the mosque there is called "the Mosque of Omar."
The irony of the present day is unfortunate and painful. What happened to the site of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, Hagia Sophia in Nicea (modern Iznik,) and the 12th century Hagia Sophia, a masterpiece of Byzantine architecture in Trebizond (modern Trapzoun), has happened to both Hagia Sophia hand the Monastery of Chora as well.
Add to this the contrast the stance of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese toward the so-called "Mosque at Ground Zero" the Park 51 Islamic Center and Mosque just two blocks away from Ground Zero. During the controversy about whether the mosque had the legal right to be so close to the World Trade Center site, the Archdiocese affirmed the constitutional right of the mosque to be in this location, even when some government authorities were attempting to derail the rebuilding of Saint Nicholas at Ground Zero! While we questioned the wisdom and the appropriateness of the decision of the mosque to locate so close to the open wound of 9/11, we nevertheless affirmed our values of freedom of religion and mutual respect.
The Church stood on principle then. And it stands on principle now. For the Church is built on the Rock, and that Rock is Christ.
Even as religious chauvinism prevails in the world today, Saint Nicholas at Ground Zero will be a beacon of religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue, open to all who come in peace and respect. The rebuilding of this Greek Orthodox Church, destroyed by religious hatred, is an act of redemption, and act creation, and ultimately an act of love for all the peoples of the world.