Experienced travellers are probably aware that the more venerated a shrine in the mind of the pilgrim, the more disconcerting the reality can be.’ Thus said my guide book at the start of its paragraph on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the church which traditionally is considered to stand over the tomb in which the body of Jesus was laid.
We had reached the church by the traditional route, the Via Dolorosa with its fourteen Stations of the Cross. The route is through the narrow streets of the old city and one has to push one’s way through the throngs of people, both locals doing their shopping and tourists pausing to look in the windows of souvenir shops. Many of the Stations are in wayside churches squeezed in between shops with only their doors visible, others no more than a board nailed to a wall, but we said a prayer at each before moving on. Eventually the final church is reached, hemmed in by buildings so that its size cannot be appreciated from outside. Inside it is solid with people and one can hardly move..The queue to visit the Sepulchre has reached back to the 2 hour marker. We join a shorter queue for the rock which marks the top of the hill of Calvary and one by one crouch down to touch the rock itself. One is allowed three seconds before being tapped on the shoulder and told to move on. Lighting a candle is almost as hurried. We abandoned hope of achieving the main objective and are promised that we might try again the following evening when it might be quieter. Later, pondering the day, it was hard to discern any spiritual uplift from the visit to the Church; the writer of the guide book was right.
The following morning was spent at the Holocaust Museum, spacious, well set out and very moving. The afternoon was free and I walked a stretch of the City Walls as far as the Damascus Gate, where I was ushered off by an official who at 4.30 wanted to start locking up for the night. I cut back towards our hotel through the network of narrow streets and passageways that make up the old city, but somehow I seemed to be pulled away from my objective and found myself outside Holy Sepulchre once more. I stepped in. It was quiet and much less crowded than on the previous day. A service was in progress in the Orthodox Chapel and the singing leaked out into the main church. Soon it was replaced by more familiar music from the Catholic Chapel. There was no queue for the Calvary Rock and the staff who the previous day were pushing one in and pulling one out had disappeared. One could linger and think and light a candle at leisure.
I saw three more of our group there. We passed each other with a nod, not wishing to break the silent magic that surrounded us. Were we really so close to the place where Jesus’ body been laid for those three days? Was it at this very place that the unique miracle of the resurrection occurred? It was an amazing thought. Whether well intentioned believers of many hundreds of years ago had marked the right spot or found the right tomb was actually irrelevant. So too was the grandeur of the richly decorated building on which no expenditure had been spared. Even the denominational divides in the shared building hardly disturbed one. All that mattered was the truth of the Easter story.
Perhaps that half hour was a deeper spiritual experience than even our return two hours later to join the final queue of the day to peer into the Sepulchre itself; the empty Sepulchre. For that is what Easter Day is about, the Risen Lord. The journey along the Via Dolorosa is behind us, the terrible death upon the Cross is over and Jesus is risen to reign evermore in our hearts.
the Church of the Holy Sepulchre ….
traditionally considered to stand over the tomb in which the body of Jesus was laid.