Impressions of the Holy Sepulchre

I have only one thing on my bucket list, and through the kindness of a friend I was able recently to cross it off the list.  That is, I have fulfilled my life-long dream to see Jerusalem and venerate the holy places.  My friend and I spent a wonderful and breathless week or so there.  We visited many holy sites such as Nazareth and Bethlehem, but were drawn back time and again to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

This church had been described to me as “grand and confusing,” so I spent much time beforehand researching its history, and how having been built by Saints Constantine and Helen, it underwent many and dramatic changes throughout the years, including being destroyed by the “mad Caliph” Hakim in 1009 and by fire later.  It was always rebuilt, though not to its original scale.  People entering the church for the first time with no sense of history and perhaps expecting to see something like the Garden Tomb have said that they were disappointed by it.  They were expecting to find a quiet place, a place reflecting the silence and peace of that first Paschal morning, hoping to find echoes of its pristine first century serenity.  Instead they found a noisy, bustling place, teeming with people looking around and taking photos, a place of many chapels and altars.  I have to confess that when I myself first saw the church I had no idea what they were talking about.  To me it was wonderful.

Admittedly this was not the way it was in the days of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem in the fourth century.  Even in his day there were many pilgrim visitors, but Cyril was the pastor of a busy and functioning parish church.  There was a schedule of services attended by his parishioners, and there were catechumens to instruct and then baptize.  There was pastoral work to be done among a more or less stable community.  Like the churches in Rome, Alexandria and Constantinople, the episcopal shepherd in Jerusalem knew the names and needs of his local flock.

Today this is much altered.  The Patriarch still serves there, of course, but most traces of a single, unified, and stable community have vanished.  (It is significant in this regard that I could not find a baptistery, the sign of a stable and growing community.)  Today the people in that church are a continually changing group of visitors, some tourists, some devout, but all of them only there for a short time (hence all those cameras).  I mingled with crowds of people speaking many languages, coming from places far away.  It was as if a chunk of the United Nations had been transported from New York to Jerusalem, and plunked down together in this place of history and prayer.  And here’s the point, and the reason I think that the teeming and noisy bustle is beautiful:  all were welcome.  There were no metal detectors through which one had to pass, and no one searching you for hidden weapons when you passed through the doors.  People of all races, colors, and religions were free to come and pray and weep and find peace at the foot of the Cross and at the empty Tomb.

To appreciate this, one needs to visit the two other places in Jerusalem that are sacred to the two other religions there—the “Wailing Wall” (sacred to the Jews), and the Dome of the Rock (sacred to the Muslims).  At both places, outsiders could draw near, but not enter.  At the Wailing Wall non-Jews could stand at a distance, but not come right up to pray at the wall.  A sign said so, and the prohibition was enforced.  (Near to the Wall was another sign that read, doubtless with unintended irony, “My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples,” Isaiah 56:7.)  At the Dome of the Rock, non-Muslims could wander about and look at the exterior, but could not enter. It was only at the Christian holy sites, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, that one at last found the “house of prayer for all peoples.”  Its noise and bustle, its confusion and multiplicity of altars and services, witness to its open and universal embrace.  More than that, it witnesses to the embrace of God, Who in love reaches out to all His children.  It was that love that took our Lord to His cross.  It was that love that raised Him again, and left us an empty tomb.  The Church of the Holy Sepulchre remains as an enduring sign of that love.