Istanbul is a city of juxtaposition. In one day you can…
…wake up at least 10-15 minutes before sunrise to the first azan of the new day – the traditional call to prayer for the first of five daily Islamic prayers – while, at the same time, read in the newspaper that girls are prohibited by an intentionally secular government from wearing Islamic head coverings to public school.
…discover financial poverty in the Grand Bazaar, haggling to your heart’s content in one of the world’s largest covered markets, or discover spiritual poverty, praying to heart’s content in two of the oldest, most famous religious sites in the world, the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.
…literally walk from Europe to Asia, if you want to brave 1000 meters of traffic on the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge. (Don’t do this. You’ll likely end up flattened or treading water in the Bosphorus.)
You can also see extreme wealth adjacent to extreme poverty, modern architecture standing aside 1500 year old walls, Christianity and Islam living as peaceful neighbors and the West and the East more or less holding hands
This list can go on, but of all the possible pairings, there is one – overlooked, but intentional – that we should especially remember as apostles of Christ.
In a small ruin just outside the ancient city walls is a church-mosque-museum worth a visit. The Chora Church dates to as early as the late 300s and its mosaics to around the 14th Century. These are beautiful mosaics, more akin to those in Ravenna then Istanbul. So beautiful, in fact, that while straining their necks to take in the artistic beauty, Western visitors often miss the story completely.
I can say this from experience. When I walked out of this church-mosque-museum, I remember marveling at the images of the infancy and miracles of Jesus, but feeling a bit alarmed, even agitated, by their juxtaposition with the infancy and miracles of Mary. Was the artist saying Mary’s life was parallel (read: equal) to Jesus’ life? Was he putting Mary on the same theological plain as God incarnate? Confusion, trepidation, perturbation – these are the seeds of learning. Let me tell you what I learned.
It’s not completely our fault to jump to that conclusion. We don’t teach the stories of Joachim, Anne and Mary anymore. We don’t read the Syrian Protoevangelium Gospel of James or its Latin sister, Pseudo Matthew, where the stories are recorded. Why should we? They aren’t in the Bible. Reading non-canonical texts is kind of taboo in our often orthodox-or-else culture, right? And, yet, the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the lives of Joachim and Anne every July 26. To honor them tomorrow, let us place ourselves in the Chora Church and revisit their mythology, learning from its architecture stories of our faith.
The entrance of the Chora Church has an exonarthex (outer entry) and an esonarthex (inner entry). Both are small, arched hallways. This is not a large church. The sixteen exonarthex mosaics, packed on the walls, domes and pendentives, tell you the expected stories – Jesus’ birth and early ministry. The spiritual tremors come when you enter the inner narthex, a chamber running parallel to the first. Sixteen more mosaics are found here, but this time they’re of the birth and early life Mary. The “Annunciation of St. Anne”, “Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple”, “The Virgin Receiving the Skein of Purple Wool – the Bible contains no such stories. We have no reason to believe they’re historical, written some 150 years after Jesus’s birth. Yet these stories were a living dynamic of Christianity for at least 1200 years. They grew the Christian imagination. They inspired faith. They announced the coming of Jesus. We should not dismiss them so easily.
Tomorrow, on the Feast of Saints Joachim and Anne, consider taking some time to view the mosaics of this ancient church-mosque-museum, read the legends of Mary’s early life, and ponder the great wonder of God’s interaction in our lives.
Mark Bartholet is the Pastoral Associate for Faith Formation at St. Peter Catholic Church in Charlotte, NC.