Left: Lucia touching the slab believed to be the spot Jesus was laid on after he was removed from the cross. Center: Visitors praying at the altar. Right: Jim touching the spot where Jesus was believed to have been anointed for burial.
As our Muslim guide led us to one of the holiest sites in Christianity, the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s walled Old City, we felt a sense of anticipation. Just a week before Holy Week, we jostled with enormous crowds to see what we could see.
Christians have been making pilgrimages here since at least the fourth century when the Roman emperor Constantine legalized Christianity.
Before that, in the second century, the Roman emperor Hadrian, in order to oppress Christians’ worshipping at this site, built a temple to the goddess Venus on top of the cave or tomb where Jesus was buried.
In Christian tradition, Constantine’s mother, St. Helena visited this site and discovered the True Cross, remnants of which are believed by many Christians to remain in the Church of Holy Sepulchre. Helena also was believed to take parts of the True Cross back to Rome with her, where she persuaded Constantine to convert to Christianity and adopt it as the official religion of the Roman Empire.
And yet as holy as this site is, what probably struck me most was the fallenness of humans. Lucia was in a prayerful moment when an Italian man interrupted and pushed her out of the way so he could take a picture to presumably show people back home how close to true holiness he was. A cranky monk communicated to me in no uncertain terms moments after we entered the church that I was being disrespectful by wearing a hat in this holiest of holy places. In the chaos of maneuvering with the crowds, I had simply forgotten.
I was appalled to watch video clips of a fight that broke out among jostling Greek and Armenian Christian sects here in 2008.
Jerusalem is “the cosmopolitan home of many sects, each of which believes the city belongs to them alone,” wrote Simon Sebag Montefiore in “Jerusalem: A Biography.” The various Christian sects got into such violent fights over “ownership” of the Church of Holy Sepulchre during the Ottoman Empire, Muslims served as mediators and appointed certain families to hold the keys to the church and open it each morning at sunrise so the Christians wouldn’t fight so bitterly.
“Jerusalem has a way of disappointing and tormenting both conquerors and visitors,” Montefiore wrote. “The contrast between the real and heavenly cities is so excruciating that a hundred patients a year are committed to the city’s asylums, suffering from the Jerusalem Syndrome, a madness of anticipation, disappointment and delusion.”
I found the Garden Tomb, a 15-minute walk from Holy Sepulchre and just above the East Jerusalem bus station, to be a more contemplative spot to feel close to the spirit of Jesus. While the archaeological evidence isn’t as strong that the Garden Tomb is the actual spot of Golgotha (Scull Hill) where Jesus was crucified and entombed, many believers, especially Protestants, prefer it as a place of quiet meditation.
It was probably in this place that Jesus prayed, where Judas found him, and where the disciples slept the night before his crucifixion. Scholars aren’t actually certain that this is the precise location mentioned in the Gospels. What is known is that the olive trees are some of the oldest known to science, about 900 years old, and are the seedlings of a parent plant that would have “witnessed” Jesus and his disciples. Quietly meditating here, the Gospel account of Jesus’ betrayal and anguish seem more real. “His sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground,.” Luke wrote.
Friends have asked if the trip to Jerusalem strengthened my faith. My sense of religious history was certainly strengthened. In terms of faith, I was perhaps most moved by seeing the shifted plates — evidence of the earthquake that occurred at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion or resurrection.
So, yes, in spite of the jostling crowds, some of them behaving rudely, and my encounter with the attempted pickpocket, I’d say my faith was strengthened. But the sectarian squabbling in Jerusalem makes me think, “don’t sweat the details” and embrace more ecumenical if not universalist beliefs.
- Slide Show of Church of Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem
- Church of Holy Sepulchre (Wikipedia)
- Jerusalem’s walled Old City (Wikipedia)
- St. Helena
- True Cross
- Details on brawl at Church of Holy Sepulchre.
- Jerusalem Syndrome
- Garden Tomb
- Garden of Gethsemene,
- Mount of Olives.