Walk the Land: Jesus Steps into Eternity
- Friday, March 18, 2005
Editor's Note: Follow Jesus' final footsteps with Crosswalk writer Rebekah Montgomery as your guide to historical and traditional sites in Jerusalem. We conclude our three-part Easter series as Jesus steps into eternity.
To the eyes of a western evangelical Christian, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher might seem over-embellished, creepy, and in need of a good housecleaning. Oil lamps and religious-looking do-dads hang everywhere and the air is filled with incense. Some of the black-garbed priests look a little austere - certainly a far cry from a smiling pastor glad-handing you at the door. And imagine the janitorial problems in a centuries' old stone building visited by hordes of candle-burning pilgrims.
But there is a solemn holiness about the spot. Even people with little or no spiritual inklings know something profound occurred there. While many sites surrounding the crucifixion are somebody's guess or wishful thinking, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is probably authentic, according to Dr. Paul Wright of Jerusalem University College. Historical facts, archeology, and tradition conspire together to point to this place as the spot where Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected - much to the discomfort of those who find the Garden Tomb, also in Jerusalem, to look more like they expect Jesus' tomb to look.
But go the Holy Sepulcher and admire the art and antiquity. Then ask the Holy Spirit to reveal Jesus to you and you might be surprised at what you experience.
Up steps steep enough to put one in cardiac arrest is the summit of Calvary covered with marble. But if you kneel and crawl under the altar, you can reach through a hole in the floor and feel the naked limestone. After almost 2,000 years of reverent touching by pilgrims, it is still rough.
Since the days of King Agrippa, the spot covered by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher has been located in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem. But in Jesus' time, the hill now encased in the building was outside the perimeter and handily located within eyeshot of a major road leading into the city from the northwest. Since Rome considered public crucifixion an effective deterrent, not only because it executed their prisoners, but also because it did so in a fashion that was horrifyingly brutal and humiliating, the Place of the Skull was an ideal spot for crucifixion.
Standing before the altar, the carvings and ancient artwork fall away and one is confronted with the enormity of His sacrifice. Betrayed, tortured, mocked, and naked, Jesus willingly allowed Himself to be subjected to this form of punishment: for the good, for the bad, for the indifferent, for you, for me.
But the centerpiece of the church is the empty tomb. It stands in the central nave bathed by a shaft of sunlight originating from the top of the domed roof and reflected by a golden sunburst surrounded by twinkling gilt stars. Here pilgrims from all over the world stand in line to see the marble-covered slab embellishing the place where the Lord was laid.
The Greek orthodox priest at the tomb door allows four worshippers to enter at a time. He clearly wants to keep the line moving, but he is respectful and allows them all the time they need. It doesn't take long for them to see what they have come to behold. In the burial chamber, candlelit faces of the devout shine with awe. As they leave the tomb, their faces still glow. Like the women who came to this spot on Easter morning, they are witnesses: The tomb is empty!
As with Golgotha, the area surrounding the Calvary's hill is also encased in the Church. In Jesus' day, this landscape was a newly active graveyard containing many, many tombs hollowed out of stone and sealed with flat, rolling stones. Carved in this distinct First Century style, they are known as loci and many tombs of this sort honeycomb the area. One tomb was distinctly set-aside by worshippers as the tomb of Jesus.
In 135 AD, as Hadrian sought to retool Jerusalem into an ideal Roman city and stamp out Judaism, he found the tomb and Golgotha established as the place where Jesus died and was buried. To him, Christians were as much trouble as the Jews, so he built temples to Jupiter and Venus atop these venerated spots.
In 400 AD, when Queen Helena came to Israel searching for holy sites, it was still remembered that the tomb and Calvary were under the temples. The good queen demolished them, removed all of the bedrock surrounding the summit and the grave and had two separate churches built from it to cover the sites. We would say she defaced them. Helena would say she preserved them.
About 600 years later, the Crusaders repaired and expanded Queen Helena's basilica. Today, most of the building that you see is nearly 1,000 years old. Here and there throughout the vaulted passageways are hidden chapels and bits and pieces of pillars and bric-a-brac, some ornate, some simple, but all ancient, priceless artifacts.
Older and more valuable still is the passion to which they bear witness: God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son...
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