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Christianity’s Holiest Shrine

The faithful have revered this site since the earliest days of the Church.

Pilgrims who come to Jerusalem with scriptural images of Golgotha as an imposing hill outside the walls of the city and of an empty tomb in a verdant garden will surely be puzzled and disappointed. The Gospel of John (19:17-18) says Jesus carried His cross “out of the city” to the place of the crucifixion. Today the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is well within the old city walls. Since Jesus’ day, they have moved west as the city grew.

The site of Jesus’ crucifixion and His tomb are found in a medieval church amid the old city’s narrow, crowded streets. Modern archaeology and other scholarship have verified these sites.

The earliest followers of Christ revered these sites. Yet political events helped mark them for future generations. When the Roman emperor Hadrian sought to suppress Jewish insurrection in the year A.D. 135 by destroying all native culture, he inadvertently marked the Christian shrines by building a pagan temple over them. Two centuries later, when Constantine converted to Christianity, he replaced the temple of Venus with a great basilica honoring Calvary and the tomb.

In his zeal for building a magnificent shrine, Constantine changed the natural landscape. He cut away the entire rock hill of Calvary and left only a slender column of stone about forty feet high. Then he dug into the hillside of the tomb to remove a great circle of stone and leave the tomb free to be incorporated into a new rotunda, the Anastasis. The pillar of stone from Calvary was a short distance to the east, in an open atrium. A little farther to the east he constructed a rectangular basilica called the Martyrion for devotion.

When Constantine finished, there were two lavish buildings: the Rotunda, containing the tomb, and the Martyrion. Between them was an open atrium with the stone column of Calvary. For the next two hundred years, Christian pilgrims found the two sites enshrined in this imperial splendor.

From the invasion of the Persians in 614 until the capture of Jerusalem by the First Crusade, the Basilica of Constantine suffered severe damage from various hands as well as from the great earthquake of 810. About 1030, repair was begun on the Rotunda, but the Martyrion was lost forever. After the fall of Jerusalem in 1099 to the combined Christian armies and the establishment of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, further restoration created much of today’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre. When completed, what was left of Calvary and the tomb were under one roof for the first time, much to the confusion of subsequent generations of pilgrims.

The present Church of the Holy Sepulchre may appear confusing and unimpressive on first sight, crowded as it is in the middle of the old city. Still, it is a treasure house of history and a place which inspires deep reverence and devotion.

One enters the building from the courtyard on the south side. In the constant gloom of the interior, the pilgrim finds the Stone of Unction directly ahead. It is a marble slab raised somewhat and surrounded by three sets of large candlesticks. Here, between Calvary and the tomb, Jesus’ body was prepared for burial.

Directly to the right, a steep stairway climbs to an upper level on the remaining stone of Calvary. Here, along the far wall, ornate altars commemorate the three Stations of the Cross on Calvary (XI-XIII).

The large Greek Byzantine altar on the far left is the place of the Crucifixion. Underneath the altar is a niche where one may kneel and place a hand through a circular opening. Feeling carefully to the side of the mounds of wax drippings from countless candles, one may touch the top of the column of rock left when Constantine cut away the surrounding terrain when he built his basilica. Here is the actual place of the Crucifixion, the very rock of infamy and glory.

The tomb is found down on the main floor, beyond the Stone of Unction, in the middle of the great Rotunda. The entry and facade are nearly obscured by dozens of large candles and hanging oil lamps. The two small rooms which comprise the tomb are enclosed in a marble chapel-like edifice called the edicule. Its anteroom, the Room of the Angel, contains a piece of rock believed to be part of the original closing stone. Through a low doorway is the final chamber – the place of burial. Illuminated by the flickering glow of wax tapers is a niche running along the right wall. Covered with a marble slab, it is the place where Jesus’ body was laid.

The changes of nearly 2000 years can easily obstruct the approach of devout pilgrims to the holiest of Christian shrines. Even though the empty tomb may create a welter of emotion on a first visit, the good news of the angel who greeted the first visitors to the empty tomb speak to us across the centuries: “He is not here. He is risen.”

Generations of dispute within the Church made these sacred sites objects of competitions and jealousy among various rites. Meanwhile, necessary maintenance of the church’s structure was neglected. In the 1930s, it nearly collapsed from neglect. Fortunately, the British administration in Palestine shored up the Rotunda with external steel columns, saving the building until the many rotted supporting columns could be replaced. The outer supports were removed in the early 1970s. Since then, ancient rivalries are being put aside as the Christian community comes together to develop a coordinated plan of renovation. Much work remains to be done.

In spite of wars, jealousies, and neglect, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre still stands as witness to the spot where the history of the world changed forever. Perhaps someday all Christians will join in a joyous ecumenical effort to restore this ancient shrine to the structural soundness and aesthetic beauty that it deserves.

Dr. William J. Doyle is a Knight Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, an order originally founded to protect and defend the Holy Sepulchre, but which is now a major support group for the poor Christians in the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

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