“He is Not Here!”
This post is originally from May 2010
You need a lot of faith to visit holy sites in the Holy Land. The “upper room” where the Jerusalem tourist office tells you the Last Supper took place was built by crusaders in 1099. The gate the tour guide tells you Jesus entered on Palm Sunday was built by Suleiman the Magnificent in the 1500s. There are three sites in the Holy Land that claim to be Jesus’ baptism site. There are at least two Mt. Sinai’s. And so it is with the crucifixion and resurrection. There are two sites claiming that honor in Jerusalem.
You see a real contradiction in styles when you visit those two sites. The most commonly recognized site is at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. When Constantine converted the Roman Empire to Christianity his mother, St. Helena, traveled to the Holy Land to identify the sites of major events. Through snooping, excavations and visions seen in dreams she identified several sacred sites, including those of the birth, death and resurrection of Christ. Who knows? She could have been right. Right or wrong Constantine believed his mother and ordered churches erected on those sites. Currently the Holy Sepulcher church is in holy disrepair because bits of it are controlled by the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Coptic, Armenian and Ethiopian churches who can’t agree on the simplest things, like who’s responsible for maintenance of common property like the roof.
The second death and resurrection site is the “Garden Tomb.” It was championed by General Charles “Chinese” Gordon, who was killed when his army was wiped out in Khartoum a few years after he served in Jerusalem. It includes a hill that, in the right light, looks like a skull, Golgotha. It also has a garden with an ancient cistern and a stone wine press. This might well have been the type of garden a rich man like Joseph of Arimathea would own. The garden has a tomb hewn from rock with a channel that was designed to hold a large stone to seal its entry. The site is currently owned by the Episcopalians who, along with assorted other Protestants, hold this to be the place.
The mood of these two different sites of death and resurrection couldn’t be more different. You approach the Church of the Holy Sepulcher along the Via Dolorosa, street of sorrows. For a while we followed a group of Catholics, led by Franciscans, carrying their crosses, and singing laments. They were following the “Stations of the Cross.” The two most popular “stations” were the “exact spot” (according to St. Helena) where the cross was set into the rock (now enclosed in a church with an alter sitting on top of it.) Pilgrims stand on line to get on their knees and crawl under the altar to kiss the spot. In a way it reminded me of kissing the Blarney Stone. The other popular station is the “stone of unction” where Christ was anointed before being placed in the tomb. The stone was placed there in 1810. It is a scene of weeping and sorrow. The Lonely Planet guide admits that the church is run down but says that 16 centuries of pilgrims’ “tears, laments and prayers have done much to sanctify it.”
While the Sepulcher Church has the pall of gilt edged death hanging over it (the gilt is to reflect, I suppose, the glory of the resurrection.) Watching the pilgrims’ behavior there is little of resurrection in the place. In contrast the Garden Tomb is all about life. Lovely flowers reinforce the positive tone of the place. You walk to an overlook to see “skull hill” which towers over a busy bus station (the brochure says that Roman executions were always held in well-traveled places to set an example for those thinking of wrongdoing.) Then you walk back through the garden, past clearings with park benches where church groups on pilgrimage hold services, toward the tomb, with its sign saying “he is not here.”
Walking through the garden I heard local pastors talking to their traveling flocks while on church sponsored pilgrimage excursions. One had his geography a bit wrong, saying that Mt. Moriah was another name for Calvary. (Mt. Moriah is the Temple Mount.) But the emphasis was on resurrection, new life. We could hear different groups singing the Peace Hymn. The pilgrims were not all English or American. We saw a Taiwanese group and some Koreans. A retired Southern Baptist Pastor is one of the volunteer guides. I asked him if this was really “the place?” He said “how can we know, it’s enough that people can come here, be reminded of their faith and leave refreshed.”
These pictures are from April and May 2010.