The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is generally accepted as the historical site of Jesus of Nazareth’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is generally accepted as the historical site of Jesus of Nazareth’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. The place is filled with Old World mystery: the light of candles, the smell of incense, the sound of ancient bells and incantations. Arabs, Armenians, Egyptians, Ethiopians, Greeks, and Romans all share the access to this church and its dark, foreboding interior. On Easter Sunday, following services in Zababdeh, we drove down to this historic place for afternoon services. The Franciscans were first, gathering in their small chapel, clad in simple brown vestments, chanting their prayers in monotone Latin. An international group – including us – joined in. Carrying candles and guidebooks, we processed with them around the church. We stopped to mark symbolically where Jesus was flogged, where he was given the crown of thorns, where he was nailed to the cross, and where he was buried.
In the midst of these somber rounds, we found ourselves drawn to another procession – this one by led by the Armenians. The priest leading them was in a long, flowing blood-red cape with a black hood. He was followed by a thurifer dressed as a king, with golden crown and regal robes. And then came twenty young men in black clerical vestments, all chanting together in Armenian. We did not follow this procession on its full rounds, either, though it was fascinating and beautiful. Instead we went outside, blinking in the late afternoon light, and headed for a night of rest.
The next day we found ourselves at the Protestant-owned Garden Tomb. It is widely rejected as the site of the crucifixion and burial, and it retains none of the Old World mystery of its counterpart in the Old City. Instead, it is a bright and cheerful garden, bursting with blooming flowers. The sounds of singing birds and the smell of roses fill the air here. At the Garden’s center is an ancient tomb, which bears on its door a simple sign:
“He is not here, for he is risen.”
Over the forty days of Lent, and particularly over Holy Week this year, we had drawn our own parallels between the humiliating treatment of the modern Body of Christ in this land and the Via Dolorosa walked by the historical Christ. We hungered to hear what parallel the message of resurrection would mean in this context. Especially at the Garden Tomb, we felt the hope of Easter that we craved, and it was somehow fitting that we found it so far from the city’s historical sites. So many of us mistakenly call this land “holy” a bit of idolatry that has only helped to confuse the issues at the center of its current political crisis. What stands at the heart of the Christian faith is a Lord who rose – who transcended and continues to transcend nation, tribe, place, even death. In so doing, he freed us from their bonds, too.
The struggle of life here continues in the shadow of that empty cross. But following him means proclaiming mercy above revenge. It means forgiveness not blame. It means living together rather than tearing each other apart. It means knowing that our triumph lies in these things and not in the vanquishing of an earthly enemy. But for one brief moment, in the quiet of a discredited “holy site,” we knew what that triumph meant.
Al-Masih Qaam (Christ Is Risen).
Haqan Qaam (He Is Risen Indeed).