After winding our way through the narrow streets of the Old City, we were excited to finally catch our first glimpse of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I’m not really sure what I expected, but it was different nonetheless. From the outside, the church is rather plain and unadorned; some might even describe it as unattractive. Yet such an unassuming exterior belies the exquisite treasures contained within: both the hill of Calvary and the tomb of Christ.
We mounted a narrow set of stone stairs to reach the spot where Jesus died. Of course, it looks nothing like it did in those days. The back of the holy site is covered with ornately decorated images of the Crucifixion, with Mary and John on either side of Jesus. Below a Greek Orthodox altar built over the spot, you can kneel and reach your hand down to touch the actual rock of Calvary – an incredibly moving experience. Not far away, in the centre of the church, is the tomb where Jesus’ body was laid.
The Holy Sepulchre Church boasts a rich and interesting history. In the second century, the tomb of Christ had been covered over by Hadrian’s Temple of Venus. It had been built on that spot in order to discourage Christians from coming there to pray and visit. But when Constantine came to power in the fourth century, he legalized Christianity and destroyed the temple. This led to the discovery of the Tomb, along with the True Cross and other relics of our Lord’s death.1 He and his mother, St. Helena, are credited with building a magnificent structure to enclose and protect the sites of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection. For this reason, the hill of Calvary and the Tomb are no longer outside, but are enshrined within the walls of the church.
Today, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the product of centuries of destruction and rebuilding, from invasions to accidental fires. The present day church is shared among various Christian churches – the Latin, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic, and Syrian Orthodox. Sadly, this hasn’t always been an easy or agreeable relationship, and a policy called “status quo” means that nothing can be done in the church without the consensus of everyone. This helps explain why the church is not particularly clean and is also badly in need of repair, or why a ladder that was placed near an upper floor window years ago can’t be removed.
Again and again, the word that kept coming to mind on our visit was “Ancient of Days,” for to be in this place was to somehow encounter God himself. The vast, dimly lit interior; the scents of wax and incense mingling with layers of dust and grit; and the constant chanting of monks at prayer all give it an atmosphere of profound holiness. For the remainder of our stay in Jerusalem, we took every possible opportunity to visit the church, drawn back time and time again to this spot that felt to me like the centre of the universe. For though it’s been over 2000 years since the Death and Resurrection of our Lord and much has changed, nothing can diminish Jesus’ powerful presence and His all-encompassing love.
– Kelley Holy
1 The tomb was discovered around the year 326.