Jerusalem: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

One day several years ago, before my own trip to the Holy Land, I asked a parishioner who had been there how he had liked the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during his visit to Jerusalem. “Grand,” he replied. “Confusing, but grand.” Having been there myself, I now quite understand what he meant by “confusing.” The church there is confusing because it is the heir (some would say “the victim”) of a multitude of changes over the past two thousand years, and each of these changes has left its mark.

Visitors first encountering the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are sometimes put off by their first impressions of the church, especially if they come from a Protestant background and have done no research into what the church now looks like. Hymns from their distant childhood have told them “There is a green hill far away, outside a city wall where the dear Lord was crucified to died to save us all,” and they perhaps come to the church looking for vestiges of “the old rugged cross.” It must be a bit disconcerting for them to enter the church which is now distinctly inside the city wall and find nothing at all rugged. Old, yes; rugged, no. Instead of ruggedness atop a hill, upon entering they find a slab of marble, which seems to ooze myrrh, and people prostrating themselves before it, kissing it, and soaking up the myrrh with various cloths. (When I was there, I spread my priest’s stole upon it.) To the right of the slab, they find not a hill, but winding stairs, with a Latin inscription over its entrance, leading up to two altars (one Roman Catholic, one Orthodox), the altars separated by an encased Roman Catholic statue of the Mother of God with a sword piercing her heart, and giving a whole new meaning to the word “kitsch.”

Then there are the crowds. One lines up to venerate the ground under the Orthodox altar atop Golgotha. One lines up to enter the “edicule,” the small building built over the place of the Lord’s tomb, and in neither place is one allowed to linger for more than a few moments. Some people find it all too much for their Protestant devotional piety to bear, and they make a bee-line for “the Garden Tomb,” which, although having absolutely no historical claim to be the garden tomb in which our Lord was buried, at least looks unspoiled and untouched and un-Byzantine.

Even Orthodox visitors to the church whose piety is well-prepared for Byzantine adornment might be a little confused when first entering. Every other church is entered from the west, and upon entering the narthex, one proceeds directly ahead to enter the nave, at the front of which is the altar. In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one seems to enter through the side door, with the narthex and nave nowhere to be found. That is why tour guides usually arm their tourists with maps of the church, or at least geographical explanations.

Historical explanations would be even more helpful in dispersing the confusion. In the days of Jesus, the whole site where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now stands was indeed just outside the city wall, outside the Gannath Gate. There was a little crag or promontory which survived the mining of the place, probably because it had a crack at its base which made it unsuitable for building use. It was atop this crag, reached by a gentle incline, that Christ was crucified. At the base of the crag were tombs, one of which was owned by Joseph of Arimathea and into which the dead Christ was placed for burial. After the time of Jesus, Jerusalem continued to grow and expand, and a wall was constructed north of it in around 44 A.D. so that the site was then contained within the city and not outside it as formerly. The city was thoroughly razed by the Romans in 70 A.D. who again assaulted the Jewish population in 135. Around this time, the Roman emperor Hadrian built a pagan shrine over the whole thing, and it remained in this state until Constantine came in the early fourth century.

Constantine (or “St. Constantine, equal-to-the-apostles”; let’s give him his historical due) undertook an ambitious series of building projects in Palestine to honour the places sanctified by our Lord’s presence. Foremost among them was the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem, as the place was called prior to the Crusades. His engineers cleared away the pagan site and dug down through the debris. They built a huge splendid basilica over the entire site, and this basilica did indeed look like any other basilica, in that it was entered at the back through the narthex, which led to the nave, at the front of which was the altar. The original crag of Golgotha was cut down somewhat in size to allow it to be contained within the new building complex, and this crag stood just outside the altar area of the church, in a court of its own. Nearby was a rotunda containing the tomb, over which Constantine had built a beautiful marble shrine. This building complex stood there for centuries, serving not just as the parish church for the Christians who lived in Jerusalem, but also as a center of international pilgrimage for Christians living far away.

Then came the destruction by the Persians in the seventh century, and then the total demolition of the whole site by the Egyptian Caliph Hakim in 1009. The church was later rebuilt by the emperor Monomachos, though not to its original size or plan. The emperor restored the rotunda and added an apse to the east of it so that it could be used as a church. Later, the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem and altered the church still further. The present building is essentially what the Crusaders built, and this accounts for its present confusing configuration. And, of course, succeeding generations did their best to adorn the holy places to their best of their Byzantine ability, adding ever more chapels, altars, lamps, and icons. In the days of St. Cyril of Jerusalem in the fourth century, all the Christians worshiped before the one altar in the front of the nave. Now that the church is not so much the parish church for the local Christian population (which has grown increasingly sparse) as a center of pilgrimage for various visitors, people worship at one of a multitude of altars and chapels. Like the man said, grand, but confusing.

Fortunately, confusion need not interfere with piety and devotion. By whatever route one finds the summit of Golgotha and the Tomb, and however they presently appear, these are the actual places where our Lord died and was buried and from which He rose from the dead. Long line-ups, shoving crowds, and short times for lingering cannot alter this blessed historical fact. It is true that two milennia of changes swirling around those places have changed them almost beyond first-century recognition. It is also true that imagination and piety can withstand those changes. One comes to the Holy Land not to pass through a time machine and find everything unaltered, with donkeys crowding the streets instead of cars. One travels those long miles to visit the holy places as they are now, and to let our trembling hands and venerating lips connect with places which have survived the swirling changes of the past. And the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is itself a kind of architectural embodiment of the Christian population of Palestine itself: the fact that it remains at all is a kind of miracle. It has been altered and adorned, privileged and persecuted, battered, destroyed, and rebuilt. It continues now under a kind of siege. Its glory days may be long past. But it remains upright and unbowed. And yes, grand.

Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network.  You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+.

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Fr. Lawrence was formerly an Anglican priest, graduating from Wycliffe…
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