It’s been 11 days since I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, located in Jerusalem, Israel. I’ve wanted to write about the experience since we wrapped up our tour of the Old City that evening. However, I haven’t been able to really process everything I saw, experienced, and felt yet. Traveling with two friends from the U.S., Craig and I have been moving quickly from site to site in Israel over the past two weeks, trying to fit in as much of the Holy Land with our friends as we possibly can. While we had a great time and our days were different from our usual, slower style of travel, the days were also so jam-packed that there was little time for much thought and reflection on what we were seeing and doing. However, while it’s fresh on my mind, I want to share with you my experience of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre…
For me, it was a day of raw emotion.
We had walked the Via Dolorosa (also known as the Way of Grief, Way of Sorrows, or Painful Way) earlier in the day. This is the path that Jesus is said to have walked through Jerusalem, carrying the cross to his crucifixion. Stopping at stations along the way, we traced Jesus’ final steps through the city. As we navigated through shopkeepers and tour groups, we shuffled between the chapels commemorating Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate, the location of where he fell to the ground under the weight of the cross, and several other places that eventually led to the site of his death and burial in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
A culmination of several hours of following behind other pilgrims visiting religious sites in the city, we arrived to the somber and dark Church of the Holy Sepulchre ready to find the end of the Via Dolorosa. As we climbed the stairs to Calvary, I was overwhelmed by the lack of reverence for such a holy site. Loud tour groups pushed and shoved toward the said location of the crucifixion. People holding regular conversations continued chatting while snapping a few pictures of the intricate religious art that adorned the site. Priests yelled and banged on the side of the shrine, urging people to move faster through some of the most important religious sites they would see in their whole lives.
The atmosphere got to me. Tears filled my eyes. Here I stood, looking death in the face, and no one cared. People carried on as if they were at just another tourist attraction, just there to snap a photo and move on.
My husband looked at me and asked what was the matter. I gave him a “look” and, in frustration with all that was happening around me, told him that I didn’t think this was the appropriate place for singing silly songs and laughing. I was waiting in a line to see the place where the cross was planted in the ground and where Jesus died. It was a moment for me to be quiet and remember that I too am on the way to the cross…a very sobering feeling.
Craig said that this was a time for rejoicing, it was victory over the grave. But, for me, we weren’t there yet. The empty tomb was downstairs in the church. Here, we were face-to-face with death. We were face-to-face with those who condemned Jesus to die. If I were there, would I stand for him or would I be like the disciples and run away in fear? How would I handle the death of God if it happened in front of my eyes?
As I waited to put my hand on the bedrock of Calvary in the location where the cross is said to have stood, my emotions took over. Tears trickled down my face. I saw what we had done to Jesus and was so sad. Sad for those who had taken part in his crucifixion and the crucifixion of thousands of others. Sad that, as the disciples did, I would probably also run in fear, abandoning Jesus on the cross to die alone.
As I approached Calvary, I touched the rock and looked into the face of Jesus (as depicted in a painting where you kneel to pray) and asked God to find me. Find me here in the midst of this irreverent environment. Find me in the midst of my sadness. Find me in the midst of my flight from the cross. At one of the holiest Christian sites in the world, I asked to be found.
As I rose and headed downstairs to the tomb, my somber mood continued. I joined the line of others waiting to enter the shrine that is said to be where the tomb of Jesus was located. It was here that I expected to find joy in an empty tomb. While Jesus was killed, I yearned to find his triumph over the grave in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
However, as I finally entered the tomb, I heard yelling and banging. A priest in charge of managing the line of who is to go in and go out of the tomb was shouting for people to keep moving and everyone to get out. I had just entered the tomb and planned to kneel and say a quick prayer before moving on. However, a large hand hit my arm, an angry face yelled “do you not understand!”, and I was dragged out of the tomb of Jesus by an orthodox priest.
Tears streamed down my face as I turned away from the tomb of Jesus. But, not the type of tears you would suspect. I wasn’t crying because I had been moved by my experience visiting the place where Jesus’ body lay after his crucifixion, I was crying because a priest had grabbed me and dragged me out of the tomb by my arm yelling at me to get out as I tried to say a prayer at the tomb of Christ… Was this Christianity? Was this what the faith I grew up with had become? I was in pain. How could this be? If this is how we treat the faithful, imagine how we treat the sinner. If this is how we treat those who come to worship and pray, imagine how we treat the outsider and the stranger. This was not the faith I knew and not the faith I wanted to be a part of.
Upset by my experience in the tomb, I blindly wandered outside the tomb, crying at what had happened. Craig found me and tried to comfort me. However, I felt that my entire Holy Land experience was being tainted by this horrible experience in the tomb of Jesus.
Craig noted that the priest who had been upset with me was standing outside the tomb, continuing to yell at pilgrims who had spent their savings to travel here, to this place. Still upset and overwhelmed, I had to say something to the priest. If I was kicked out of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, so be it. But, I couldn’t go on without confronting the priest at the entrance to the tomb.
As I approached, I called to the priest, and he instantly recognized me. I told him that he couldn’t grab people like he had and that it wasn’t appropriate for him to yell and pull people out of the tomb as he did to me. I just wanted to go in and pray. He didn’t have to treat me the way he did. My arm still hurt from our encounter. He responded angrily at my complaints and told me that people have to keep moving and that I should have listened and left when he told me to. I responded that all I had wanted to do was say a quick prayer (and exit the tomb on my own free will). He was having none of my complaints, so I began to walk away.
Then, he responded – fine, come, come inside. He stopped the whole line of people coming in and made them wait outside the tomb. He escorted me inside, and I knelt for a quick prayer (one of the quickest of my life!). As I stood to exit the tomb, something changed. The priest saw me as a person rather than one of the thousands of faceless pilgrims who come in and out of the tomb each day. Standing alone inside the tomb with the priest, he apologized, and I forgave. He told me that he was so tired. Every day, thousands of people come during the day, and, at night, he stays up praying. His days are long with little sleep. He tries to do the best he can to let everyone see the tomb. He reached up to the bouquet of flowers over the tomb and plucked out a yellow flower and presented it to me. He asked me my name, and I asked his. He asked where I was from. For a brief moment, we stood in the place where the body of Jesus was laid after his crucifixion and was then found empty, and the priest and I saw each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. When I told him that I was from just outside of Washington, D.C., he cupped my face. As we exchanged thanks to each other, he pulled me into a hug.
Standing in the tomb of Jesus, I encountered God in an unexpected way. At Calvary, I had prayed that Jesus find me in the midst of the craziness of Jerusalem and life, in general. At the tomb, I found myself hurt and even more lost. However, upon returning to the tomb with the priest, I found God in a way that I never expected. I found God in the repentance of an orthodox priest, I found God in the forgiveness that filled my heart. I found God in the hug that greeted me from my husband once I finally emerged from the tomb. I found God in the friendship of my friends who had traveled half way across the world to share this experience with me. In the midst of it all, God was there.
It was a day of real, raw emotion. It was a day of joy and sorrow, elation and anger, smiles and tears. It was a day that I found God somewhere I never expected — in forgiveness and reconciliation with a priest at the tomb of Jesus.