The Tomb of Christ

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is brown. Outside and inside the bricks are varying shades of brown, the color of impurity and ruin. The whole atmosphere is messy, anarchic brown. The church reeks of decay and neglect. The walls have been blackened by centuries of candles, the floor stones are uneven, the railings are shaky. The bell tower has been encased in scaffolding for a long, long time. Inside unused ladders lean against the walls. The Holy Sepulcher exposes the miseries of Christians, their petty hatreds and jealousies. A month before I arrived in Jerusalem on a visit, the Greeks and Franciscans got into a brawl during a procession on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross over whether a certain door should be open or shut. The Israeli police had to intervene. The rivalries among the different Christian groups who share the church have been so intense that the keys to the basilica are in the custody of a Muslim family.

One arrives at the church through a maze of alleys and shops. What remains is only a part of what once was. Originally the church was a cruciform basilica with a courtyard and a long nave leading to Calvary and the Holy Sepulcher. The courtyard and the nave were demolished by the Turks. What remains is the head piece. Now the only entrance is a side door that leads almost immediately to the sepulcher itself.


The Tomb of Christ is enclosed in a small, marble-covered shrine surmounted by a canopy. This structure is called the edicule. One enters the tomb through a narrow opening. Four people at a time can fit inside. A Greek Orthodox priest acts as the traffic cop. Facing the ediculenot very large but sited on prime real estateis the Greek choir. Added on to the back of the edicule and including a part of the tomb is a tiny Coptic chapel with space for only one person. According to the story I was told, this chapel was erected during the course of one night, in spite of an injunction forbidding additional construction, by some Ethiopians who had hidden in the church. By Turkish law, any structure built at night could not be demolished. And so it stands, unwanted, obtrusive, a tenuous Coptic presence and a powerful witness in its obstinate humility. In an alcove behind the edicule are the blackened remains of the Syrian chapel, destroyed by fire and never restored, its charred icons still affixed to the walls. Off to one side is the Latin chapel, which really has nothing very special about it at all.

The site of Calvary is reached by a flight of winding stairs. Here too the Greeks have custody of the principal shrine. Under the altar a portion of the rock of Calvary is exposed for the veneration of the faithful. Off to the right is the Latin chapel, almost an annex. The Ethiopian Copts live on the roof in small, one-room dwellings and alongside a chapel dedicated to St. Helena. Their laundry hangs drying in front of their cells.

The misery, physical and moral, of the Holy Sepulcher is real and unhidden. The place resembles no typical churchantiseptic, neat and edifying. The Holy Sepulcher reflects our misery and grandeur in all their coarseness.

The Copts, the Armenians, the Greeks and the Latins who live together and fight over their real or imagined territorial and ceremonial rights might rub one another the wrong way. Yet they also proclaim the diversity within the one body of Christ and the richness of their distinctive traditions. Their essential unity might not be manifest, but it is there, in their Eucharist, whether they like it or not, for the body of Christ cannot be divided. All their childishness cannot negate this chaotic unity.

This unity is most tangible among the pilgrims. In the Tomb of Christ you ask not whether those kneeling beside you are Catholic, Orthodox, Eastern Christian or Protestant. Here we are all united in a common faith and a common love, hoping to share in a common resurrection, when Christ will be all in all. Muslims also come to pray, to honor the greatest of the prophets prior to Mohammed and his mother, Mary, for whom they have a special tenderness. And there are the Jews for Jesus, more numerous and active than I had imagined, who recognize the son of Mary as the promised Messiah (however ambiguous such a recognition might be). It is one of the paradoxes of the Holy Sepulcher that where Christian brokenness is put on display for all to see, there the profound unity of the pious people of God is also manifested as nowhere else.

This place is like no otherbecause of what took place under Pontius Pilate and by reason of the tears and prayers of generations of pilgrims who spent years and endured horrors to be able to kiss the material spectators of their salvation, the rock of the cross and the rock of the tomb. What they have brought in faith, hope and love lingers on and sanctifies the surroundings.

I prayed with the pilgrims who approached the rock of Calvary, who crawled under the altar to touch with their lips and hands the stony witness of their redemption. Some made elaborate prostrations; others approached awkwardly, as did Iwondering whether, with my bum knee, I would be able to get up afterward. A group of young women in front of me softly sang a Paschal hymn as they waited their turn.

It is, however, before the empty tomb that I preferred to linger. As I knelt in the Tomb of Christ, prayer came spontaneously. I left everything there: all those whom I know, have known and will know, asking mercy for us all, giving thanks for all we have received and entrusting all to the power of the Resurrection.

I returned several times. On benches facing the Tomb of Christ, I spent many hours in silence, in the shadows. The recollection and intense emotion of the pilgrims was palpable and penetrating; it embraced me. A group of Orthodox pilgrims gathered around in front of me and began to sing quietly, in English, what I think were the antiphons from Holy Saturday, a peaceful and powerful chant. They sang of the myrrh-bearing women hastening to the tomb, the angels amazed at the burial of their Creator, the Virgin lamenting her only-begotten, as though these mysteries were frozen in time.

At one point the silence was shattered by the blast of an organ, which quickly turned into martial music. A Franciscan monk, greatly agitated, ordered us to evacuate the area, and a procession entered: noblemen and noblewomen, surrounded by Franciscans and dressed in appropriately aristocratic garb. They lined up in two rows facing one another just in front of the edicule and began their devotions.

In contrast, the poor relatives, the Ethiopian Copts, occupy their space on the roof and hang on to their little chapel adjoining the edicule and their tiny basilica of St. Helena, a testimony of poverty and quiet humility. In more ways than one, they seem to be above much of the nonsense going on below, and they appear happier than their more well-heeled and prestigious neighbors. With a certain twinkle in their eyes, they beg unabashedly, joyfully, matter-of-factly.

The morning after my first visit to the Holy Sepulcher, I assisted at a Mass in the Chaldean patriarchate. It struck me that he whose empty tomb I had venerated the previous day at sunset was here present at sunrise in the Eucharist, the sign of his resurrected body. Yet it is precisely because the tomb was empty that Jesus is here. The empty tomb is itself a sign of the eucharistic presenceeven its source. Somehow, out of the obscurity and disarray of the Holy Sepulcher there shines forth the feeble, fragile light that illuminates the ages.

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