Today was the day many of us in the group have been anxiously anticipating, the trip to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. What many consider the holiest sight in Christianity was the only event on the calendar today that was preceded by a lecture to allow us to understand what we were walking into when we got to the Church.
Through much of our time in Jerusalem I have wondered, how would Jesus have felt during his last days? I can imagine he was filled with anxiety at some points, fear at others and maybe even relief. When he was taken to the spot where he was crucified, he definitely didn’t know everything that was about to happen, and I can guarantee you he didn’t have the benefit of a multi-slide PowerPoint presentation beforehand.
When I woke up today, I found myself feeling nervous, anxious even. Worry crept in my mind of what would I think about the church? Would I feel moved? What if I didn’t? What was the right reaction to have seeing this magnificent church?
There is beauty throughout the Sepulchre. The domed ceiling has a marvelous layered fresco and some of the mosaic art is the best we’ve seen. Six different denominations control the church, the most prominent are the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and the Roman Catholic. Despite some squabbles, including a whole church the Greeks built inside the Sepulcher without the others’ permission, they appear to live in harmony. There are tensions, but there are politics in every church, even ones that are a unified denomination.
The inside of the Sepulcher is a cacophony of noise, throngs of people and quite honestly a place where I imagine it would be hard to find any prayer time. In fact, the place where I found the most inner peace was the anointing stone, where it is believed that Jesus’ body was laid to prepare for burial. It was the only place in the church where I didn’t feel like I needed to box someone else out to take a moment. Similarly, the place I found most moving was in the Armenian section of the church, where pilgrims had spent days at a time carving crosses into the stone to pray for loved ones who couldn’t travel with them 1,000 years ago. The process was considered the modern day version of lighting a candle for someone you cared for. There are thousands of these crosses and it has become a living monument to a former peoples’ prayer dedication.
When visiting a place that is 2,000 years old the natural question to ask is “how do they know this is where Jesus died or was buried?” There is no way to definitively answer that question. Our guide has said many times “holy places move around.” As it relates to the Sepulcher, historians are almost certain it’s the right spot, but there is also another Garden Tomb. In the 1800s, others claimed this was the place Jesus was crucified.
It is not important to understand exactly where Jesus was crucified because faith is about having a place to pray and feel a connection, no matter where that is. We were most likely feet from where it happened even if it isn’t the exact spot. I can tell you, though, the connection isn’t with the place it is with finding a place to pay respect to our Lord and to experience your faith. Semantics shouldn’t get in the way of the holy.
Much of this trip has been about shattering the expectations of our faith. Jesus wasn’t white and thin, but most likely looked like a Palestinian. The hill Jesus was crucified on wasn’t covered in grass and flowers. The tomb rock wasn’t two stories high. I tell you this to demonstrate our faith is always a work in progress; it is always evolving. That was highlighted to me by seeing what seems like endless renovation and construction within the Sepulcher. Christianity isn’t a finished product, it’s still evolving, our expectations are still changing, and our understanding is still growing.
Faith continues to grow and change, and today in the form of growing masses and scaffolding, I saw that just as clearly as I saw Calvary Hill.