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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Resurrection Comes to New Jerusalem

Istra, Moscow Region -- About 100 Orthodox Christians came on Good Friday with lighted candles to the Golgotha to take Christ down from the cross and bury him in anticipation of his resurrection on Easter Sunday - the height of the liturgical year and a popular holiday even for those who rarely attend church.

A choir sang as three monks led the procession with the shroud representing Christ's dead body down the steps from the Golgotha and around the Lord's Tomb and laid it on the Stone of Anointment for veneration.

This was not happening in Jerusalem, however, but about 60 kilometers northwest of Moscow in New Jerusalem, where a replica of the Holy Sepulcher, Christianity's "holy of holies," sits on a hill.

The Resurrection Cathedral, founded in 1656 by church reformer Patriarch Nikon, is decorated differently from the cathedral in Jerusalem, but it is strikingly identical in size and in design, down to the positioning of its 29 chapels, some of which are elevated above the earth and others dug into crypts. An artificial rise was built for Golgotha, the place where Jesus was crucified.

Death and resurrection, which are at the heart of Christian belief and liturgies at any church, big or small, are felt with a special strength here because of the monastery's and its famous founder's own trials and tribulations, and eventual rebirth, over the centuries.

"Easter is understanding that we live on earth only for a time," said Merkury Kuznetsov, a retired army morale officer who today works in the monastery. "All of us are sinful, but God gave us a chance to walk the narrow path and redeem our sins, through his sacrifice, in the hope of a future life."

Kuznetsov, who used to be part of the Communist Party's apparatus within the army, is one of millions of Russians who have become church members during the past decade both through personal revelation and through believing Orthodoxy has a central role in building Russia as a nation. "The state will not be able to arise again without Orthodoxy," Kuznetsov said.

Christian universalism and Russian statism are intricately interwoven in the history of New Jerusalem, which has lived through several deaths and resurrections over the past three and a half centuries.

The Resurrection Monastery was built as the center of "Russian Palestine," surrounded by a Garden of Gethsemane, Mount of Olives and Nazareth. The local section of the Istra River was renamed the Jordan.

Nikon, who reformed church practices to conform with the Greek Orthodox Church and thus led the Russian Orthodox Church out of its national isolation at the cost of a painful schism, once held power and wealth greater than Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich. He later fell into disgrace and was exiled, but was buried here after he was fully rehabilitated posthumously.

The monastery, which was inhabited by as many as 500 monks at its height, was closed down by the Bolsheviks in 1919, although it was luckier than others because it was turned into a historical and arts museum - one of the richest in the country. But the retreating German army blew it up in 1941, and its restoration, begun in the 1950s, is still unfinished.

Religious life returned here in 1994, and today the father superior, Archimandrite Nikita Latushko, leads a community of three monks and several novices. They share the monastery grounds with the museum.

Natalya Dobrokhodova, who is in charge of receiving pilgrims at the monastery, used to work at the museum. She said that initially relations between the church and museum were very tense, as elsewhere in the country; many disputes have erupted as the government has returned church property over the past decade. Recently, she said, relations have improved.

"Easter is the brightest holiday," Dobrokhodova said. "It is always connected with childhood and with one's entire life. Although we lived at a time when pe ople were estranged from God, Easter has nonetheless always lived among the people."

Although services in any church these days play out the events that took place in Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago, Dobrokhodova is proud of her church, where the liturgies and processions around the Lord's Tomb are exactly the same as in the Holy Sepulcher.

Last winter, the scaffolding was finally removed inside the gigantic rotunda and towering roof, which took decades to rebuild. Inside, though, a replica of the Lord's Tomb is still just bare stones, far from its pre-revolutionary baroque extravagance. Its reconstruction is the monastery's next main project, which it says will cost more than 1 million rubles ($35,000).

Earlier this year, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexy II, who also is archabbot of the New Jerusalem monastery, blessed Archimandrite Nikita to begin a collection for the project. The first 50,000 rubles were donated over the past several weeks by companies and individuals in the town of Istra, Kuznetsov said.

On Easter night, he said, the cathedral, which attracts several hundred people on an ordinary Sunday, will be full of joyous people. On Good Friday, however, the mood in the church was somber and penitent.

"Let us leave aside all our cares today," the archimandrite told his congregation as they knelt to venerate the shroud covered with roseleaves. "Let us come to the Lord and repent, because each of us is guilty for His death on the cross and it is for each of us that He suffered."