One day several years ago, before my own trip to the Holy Land, I asked a parishioner who had been there how he had liked the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during his visit to Jerusalem. “Grand,” he replied. “Confusing, but grand.” Having been there myself, I now quite understand what he meant by “confusing”. The church there is confusing because it is the heir (some would say “the victim”) of a multitude of changes over the past two thousand years, and each of these changes has left it mark.
Visitors first encountering the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are sometimes put off by their first impressions of the church, especially if they come from a Protestant background and have done no research into what the church now looks like. Hymns from their distant childhood have told them “There is a green hill far away, outside a city wall where the dear Lord was crucified to died to save us all”, and they perhaps come to the church looking for vestiges of “the old rugged cross”. It must be a bit disconcerting for them to enter the church which is now distinctly inside the city wall and find nothing at all rugged. Old, yes; rugged, no. Instead of ruggedness atop a hill, upon entering they find a slab of marble, which seems to ooze myrrh, and people prostrating themselves before it, kissing it, and soaking up the myrrh with various cloths. (When I was there, I spread my priest’s stole upon it.) To the right of the slab, they find not a hill, but winding stairs, with a Latin inscription over its entrance, leading up to two altars (one Roman Catholic, one Orthodox), the altars separated by an encased Roman Catholic statue of the Mother of God with a sword piercing her heart, and giving a whole new meaning to the word “kitsch”. Then there are the crowds. One lines up to venerate the ground under the Orthodox altar atop Golgotha. One lines up to enter the “edicule”, the small building built over the place of the Lord’s tomb, and in neither place is one allowed to linger for more than a few moments. Some people find it all too much for their Protestant devotional piety to bear, and they make a bee-line for “the Garden Tomb”, which although having absolutely no historical claim to be the garden tomb in which our Lord was buried, at least looks unspoiled and untouched and unbyzantine.
Even Orthodox visitors to the church whose piety is well-prepared for Byzantine adornment might be a little confused when first entering. Every other church is entered from the west, and upon entering the narthex, one proceeds directly ahead to enter the nave, at the front of which is the altar. In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre one seems to enter through the side door, with the narthex and nave nowhere to be found. That is why tour guides usually arm their tourists with maps of the church, or at least geographical explanations.
Historical explanations would be even more helpful in dispersing the confusion. In the days of Jesus, the whole site where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now stands was indeed just outside the city wall, outside the Gannath Gate. There was a little crag or promontory which survived the mining of the place, probably because it had a crack at its base which made it unsuitable for building use. It was atop this crag, reached by a gentle incline, that Christ was crucified. At the base of the crag were tombs, one of which was owned by Joseph of Arimathea and into which the dead Christ was placed for burial. After the time of Jesus, Jerusalem continued to grow and expand, and a wall was constructed north of it in around 44 A.D. so that the site was then contained within the city and not outside it as formerly. The city was thoroughly razed by the Romans in 70 A.D. who again assaulted the Jewish population in 135. Around this time the Roman emperor Hadrian built a pagan shrine over the whole thing, and it remained in this state until Constantine came in the early fourth century.
To continue reading, please click here.