I had been keenly looking forward to seeing the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, maybe more keen to see it than to see any thing else on my whole trip. It is arguably the most important church in Christendom. Within the walls of this church is the site where Jesus was crucified, as well as the site where Jesus was buried. And, of course, the site from which Jesus rose from the dead!
It is dark, cramped and noisy. It is in places dirty with years of soot from candles and oil lamps. It is not what it once was. It bears the signs of controversy and argument between its tenets. Nevertheless, it is a marvel to behold. In the pictures, it is the church with the two steel grey domes. Now crammed in amongst all the other churches and mosques in the Christian quarter of the Old City.
I stopped in briefly one Wednesday since it is mere blocks away from the hotel where I am staying, but even with my 20 minute tour, I came away feeling that the whole trip would have been worth it just to see this place. This place being the place that Jesus was crucified, buried, and rose from the grave, attended to by centuries of devotion, conflict, war, history, mystery, but at the root of it all, essentially the place where Jesus rose from the dead.
As I sat looking at the chapel where Jesus’ dead body was laid to rest (there are many, many chapels within the church), it dawned on me that the place where I was standing looking in was very close to where his first disciples stood looking in, the place where Mary stood looking in. Peter and John in fear and confusion, Mary in despair and grief. But quite unexpectedly, quite wonderfully, quite miraculously they were about to be reunited with Jesus! The Master was alive, bursting forth from the tomb.
In Christ Alone – The Newsboys
There in the ground His body lay
Light of the World by darkness slain
Then bursting forth in glorious Day
Up from the grave He rose again
And as He stands in victory
Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me
For I am His and He is mine
Bought with the precious blood of Christ.
I went back to the Holy Sepulcher very early the next day, to see a Muslim man open the door to the church. Since six different churches share the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and since they sometimes fought over ownership and rights (one commentator referred to it as “fierce disputes, lasting centuries”!), the Ottoman rulers decreed in 1852 that a Muslim family should be entrusted with the keys and with the responsibility of opening the door each day! And so I went there this morning at 4:45 am, but by the time I got there, the doors were open and the liturgy had begun with candles, incense and glorious chanting. I sat there in the almost empty church (usually jam packed with pilgrims and tours from all over the world) in the holy ambience of the early morning, reading the story of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection from the Gospel of John.
The space inside the church is immense, the columns colossal, the icons exquisite. It is not nearly so big as it used to be, and it has suffered much violence and damage and change. Nevertheless, it is holy space, made holy by the redemptive, transformative, miraculous action of God in our midst, and by the humble reception and embrace of such an act by the holy and devout response of his people.
I love the fact that although Hadrian set up a statue to Jupiter on the spot where Jesus was crucified, nevertheless, the church lives on, in truth, in grace, in beauty. The world asserts itself against but will never prevail. Love wins out over hate, humility over pride.
Signing off – Father Wismer