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Posts Tagged ‘Church of the Holy Sepulchre

It’s Sunday again, and we got an early start to worship at the holiest pilgrimage site in Christianity—the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We were led by Hana Bendcowsky, who is Director of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, which handles relationships between Jews and Christians right here in Jerusalem. Although she is Jewish, she is the foremost expert on the Church, and the chief appreciator of the Christian worship that takes place in it. The history of the church is one of inter-Christian conflict, as churches vie for every inch of space they can claim in this holy place.

In the course of two hours, we made a progressive worship journey through six different services, all taking place within the various chapels of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, right on top of one another. There was a seventh service also happening, but it was a Roman Catholic Mass, which all of us have attended before (although maybe not in Latin). As a group of Protestant pastors, all the various orthodox forms of worship were completely foreign to us, as were the languages in which they were performed. Yet we found ways to connect with each of them in different ways. (There are no photographs from these worship services, because I attended to worship, not to tour, and it felt inappropriate to take pictures. The photos are from the visit we made on Saturday, or on Sunday after worship was completed.)

We began with the tiny Ethiopian Orthodox chapel on the roof outside the church itself. The Ethiopian Orthodox used to have a place in the church, but they did not have enough money to pay their taxes, so they were kicked out. They forcibly occupied their current chapel less than 50 years ago, and the local authorities have ruled that they can stay. We entered toward the conclusion of the service, as the bishop was offering the blessing. Even though the service was in a foreign language, with foreign customs, we all recognized immediately what was going on, as each member of the small congregation (less than 25 people) removed his or her shoes to enter the altar area, and then approached the bishop. They kissed his cross, and he blessed them. While the custom and power of the bishop is foreign to Protestants, the act of blessing at the end of worship is just like home.

The tiny chapel of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church

From there we moved on to the Coptic Christians, who have permission to use the very back side of the structure above the tomb, but only until 8:45 a.m., when they have to be out of the way so the next service can begin. This service was right out in the center of things, where tourists were beginning to roam, but the faithful gathered around carefully. They were very welcoming to us, once they realized we were with Hana and we were attending with the spirit of worship. As we arrived, the bishop was sprinkling everyone heavily with water, to remember their baptism. People received the abundant water with prayerful glee, rubbing it over their faces and into their scalps. A large basket emerged from a back storage room, overflowing with fresh, round bread, similar in size and shape to a pita. The basket moved hand to hand overhead to the bishop, who blessed it. Then the worshippers crowded in, hands extended, reaching out for bread, pushing their way forward (gently) to get a piece. It was a huge basket for just 25 or so worshippers, so everyone got a big piece. We held back, unsure if we were allowed to partake. Hana whispered that this was not communion (which would be closed to us), this was blessed bread, and if they gave it to us we could have it. And give they did—generously! Each of us received a big hunk of bread to taste and enjoy. I don’t know what the symbolism or meaning of the blessed bread is for the Coptic Christians, but for me it was a symbol of welcome and inclusion. It reminded me of Jesus feeding the 5,000—there is bread enough for anyone who is hungry, and it has been blessed just for you. It tasted great, too! Later in the morning, we crossed paths with the Coptic bishop again, and he invited us up to his home for tea. Although we had to decline, I knew his welcome was warm and sincere.

The booth that holds the altar of the Coptic church.

Behind the Coptic space, buried in a tiny chapel, was the Syrian Orthodox worship service. We visited their empty chapel on Saturday, and saw its shameful state of disrepair. The altar was falling apart, the glass covered in dust, the walls covered in soot. All this stems from a dispute between the Syrians and the Armenians over the chapel. The Armenians claim ownership of the chapel, but the Syrians have a right to worship there. To clean the chapel is to claim rights to it—so the only way they have kept the peace is to have no one clean or repair it. When we returned on Sunday, however, the whole chapel had been transformed. Bright tapestries covered the crumbling walls, altar clothes rendered the broken wood invisible, and the red and green and gold vestments of the clergy made it the most colorful service we had seen. We could only peek inside, because the door landed us at the front of the chapel and there was no non-intrusive way to enter.

The chapel used by the Syrian Orthodox, in disrepair on Saturday.

My glimpse at the Syrian transformation reminded me of all the storefront churches I’ve known. A Haitian church that I worked closely with in Boston worshipped in a former synagogue. An African-American church met in an abandoned grocery store. My college church met in a transformed bank building. They all renovated and transformed the church with decorations and furniture to make it feel like a sanctuary. Sacred space need not be built-in, it can be created in any kind of space where people gather.

From the Copts and Syrians we made our way to the large Greek Orthodox chapel, where their mass was in its final stages. There were only a few worshippers scattered around the edges of their space, the largest of all the chapels. Our group was far larger than the gathered congregation, but they had occupied the edges of the sanctuary. We were trying not to block their view, to be quiet and respectful and inconspicuous, but it was difficult. As I tried to pass by toward an unoccupied piece of wall, one of the nuns stepped forward and said sharply, “Down! Down!” Another colleague and I dropped to one knee instantly. When it became clear that we were going to be there awhile, we switched to two knees. That was not any more comfortable on the stone floor. At one point, I started to get lightheaded, and slumped down to reposition for a moment so I didn’t pass out. The same nun rapped me on the shoulder immediately. “No good! No good! Up! Up!” Back to my knees I went, and there I stayed until it was time to depart.

A nun sweeping the floor, a sacred act, in the Greek Orthodox chapel at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

It was a strange experience. Unlike the Copts, this nun went out of her way to make us feel uncomfortable in their worship service. We were uncomfortable already, trying to be respectful and not knowing what to do or where to go or what was being said. It was even stranger because, next to us and the disciplinarian nun, there were three nuns chatting and talking and sharing needlework designs—so close that their skirts kept touching my arm as I kneeled. I’m not sure why they could stand in her way and talk, but we had to kneel. My knees hurt and my legs fell asleep while I kneeled there, so I meditated on the sacrifices and hardships of all the pilgrims who have come before. This was a small measure of discomfort by comparison. Even more, I thought of the people I have known over the years that are just like that nun—and how much I appreciate them, even as they are a pain in my knees. There are always those people in the church who strive to protect the decorum and honor of the worship service because they passionately believe God deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. For this I admire them, even if I wish they would learn how to be more welcoming and hospitable to those who are seeking to worship, but don’t yet know quite how.

Pilgrims performing devotions at the Stone of Unction, a tradition that at first seemed unfamiliar and made me uncomfortable.

I was grateful to finally get up off my knees and move on to the Armenian service on the second floor. All these services happen simultaneously, and the Armenians were by far the best singers—we could hear them singing everywhere we went, which sometimes made it hard to hear the rest. They had plenty of room to worship—or so we thought. The all-male choir was about 30 strong, and they were arranged in two lines in a U-shape, facing the altar. The room stretched back behind them quite a way, so we filled in the back, only to discover that the choir was about to make a procession right where we were standing. A verger of some sort gently instructed us on how to move out of the way. Shortly after, they began something we all recognized immediately—the passing of the peace. The peace began with the bishop, who put his hand over his heart and gave the kiss of peace to the two priests on the chancel with him. They then passed the peace in the same way to the choirmaster, who started it around the circle in the choir. The peace was not simply a greeting each person initiated with his or her neighbors, it was a sacred blessing that was received from the bishop and passed through you and on to the next person, until everyone had received it. I loved the idea of passing the peace in this way, hands on hearts, one by one. It reminded me of the light of the Christ candle on Christmas Eve, the way one light is passed from one hand to another until the whole room is illuminated.

Our final stop was with the local Palestinian Christians, who conduct a mass in Arabic in a small chapel just outside the door to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. These are the Christians who have been worshipping in this part of the world since the time of Jesus. Unlike the other worship services, which are mainly attended by a few monks and nuns and the priests or bishops who officiate them, this was a parish church. There were families and people of all ages. The chapel did not just host the formal weekly masses of a shrine, but baptisms and weddings and confirmations. We were greeted immediately, even though the service had already begun, and the women in the back section moved over to make room to squeeze all 22 of us into a few benches. Rather than simply ignoring us, these women in the back pews pointed out what was happening in the service, and tried to explain it in a few short English words. The moment I most felt God all morning was when one of the women squeezed my hand and whispered in my ear, “Paternoster,”—the Our Father, the Lord’s Prayer. We all opened our palms to the heavens, imitating the gesture they made, and listened to them pray the same prayer of Jesus we all pray, in another language, yet still the same Christ.

My overwhelming impression upon worshipping (however briefly) with all these communities at the Holy Sepulchre is that my own branch of Christianity is just so small. Our United Church of Christ is one branch of Protestantism (which is not even represented at the Holy Sepulchre), and only in one country, the United States. My understanding of how to worship and of the language of God is but one tiny sliver in the grand scheme of Christianity.

There was much that was foreign about worship at the Holy Sepulchre, but it is the moments of familiarity that I will remember most. In spite of our many languages and diverse music and different theologies and divergent aesthetics, we know Christ in the passing of the peace, the sharing of bread, the creation of beauty, the reverence of worship, the Prayer of Our Savior. Thanks be to God.

Jesus looking down from the ceiling of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

(This marathon post represents only the first half of our day, and doesn’t scrape the surface of the lecture and information Hana shared with us. I’ll write another post about the rest of Sunday’s activities—look for it tomorrow.)

This morning we awoke to the sounds of Jerusalem—the call to prayer being sounded from the minaret, the monks singing down the hall, the traffic horns beeping outside.

After breakfast and morning prayer, we rode the bus to Augusta Victoria Hospital, a Lutheran mission outpost in Jerusalem serving the Palestinian population. We delivered over 1200 books to be distributed among the four schools they operate here. The books were collected by students at Wartburg Seminary, and we brought them over with us as an extra checked bag. A local pastor and an intern greeted us and introduced us to their work with the schools and the hospital, the only hospital were Palestinians in the West Bank can receive radiation therapy for cancer treatment, and the only pediatric oncology and dialysis available to the Palestinian community. I was grateful to hear their story, because the discrimination against the Palestinians is often invisible in tourist quarters. I thought about our driver, Talib, who lives in Jerusalem with his wife and six children. If they ever needed medical care, this would be the only place available to them. Even though our part in the effort was very minor, we all felt a great sense of gratitude for being able to contribute in some small way to this effort.

Standing atop the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem.

From there, the bus drove us to the top of the Mount of Olives, with a panoramic view of the entire Old City, including the Dome of the Rock, Al-Aqsa Mosque, Church of the Holy Sepulchre and more. I felt like I was staring at a postcard, and couldn’t believe it was the real thing. The place has been so legendary in my mind, and what I see all around me match so well to the images in my mind that I struggle to believe I’m really here.

One of many postcard-perfect pictures of Jerusalem.

After snapping a few (dozen) pictures, we began to walk down the Mount of Olives, through the Garden of Gethsemane, across the Kidron Valley, and back up into the Old City through the Lion’s Gate, then followed the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is the same path Christ would have followed during his last week, according to the biblical narrative. On Palm Sunday, he rode down the Mount of Olives into the city through the Lion’s Gate. Then he and his disciples left the city to pray on the Mount of Olives in the Garden of Gethsemane, and he was arrested and returned to the city again, then carried his cross out of the city down the Via Dolorosa. The crucifixion took place on Golgotha, outside the city gates, and he was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimithea. Both of those traditional sites are housed within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

I had expected the sites in Jerusalem to be packed with pilgrims from every nation, unloading from tour buses just like ours. I had expected the sites to be laden with the things of Christendom, packaged and enclosed in darkened sanctuaries. I had expected the onslaught of vendors trying to sell us every kind of souvenir as we went. I also expected to feel somehow connected to the story of Jesus, his crucifixion and resurrection along this journey. My first three expectations were met within moments of arriving at the top of the Mount of Olives. My last one took more effort to discover, but I did find God’s presence throughout the day.

Our first stop as we wound down the hill was at the Dominus Flavit (Jesus Wept) chapel. This beautiful little chapel reminded me of the sites in the Galilee—a simple church with a beautiful clear glass window framing the city of Jerusalem, reminding us that Jesus sat on this hill and wept for Jerusalem. With the window framing both the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the state of Israel, it was poignant to contemplate that Jesus would still be weeping over this city and its conflicts. As in the churches in the Galilee, I was touched by the way this simple shrine connected the ancient story of Jesus to the ongoing story of God in the world. It was my favorite spot on the whole route.

Dominus Flavit Church, looking through the window to the city of Jerusalem.

From there we arrived at the traditional Garden of Gethsemane. The garden is a small, fenced-in grove of olive trees, no bigger than a nice suburban backyard. Biologists claim that some of the trees were alive at the time of Christ. They were beautiful in their gnarled branches and teardrop leaves and shady trunks. We were only allowed on the perimeter, so we could not touch them or enjoy their shade. There were also many other tourists packed in around us. Still, as we read the story from the Gospel, with a little imagination you could picture Jesus and the disciples relaxing in the shade after a long day of preaching and walking through Jerusalem. Next to the small garden was another church, supposedly built upon the rock where Jesus prayed before his arrest. The church was always kept dark, to simulate night in the Garden, but it was simple and lovely.

Olive trees at the traditional site of the Garden of Gethsemane

Mass underway at the church of Gethsemane

We crossed the Kidron Valley and began to make our ascent into Jerusalem via the Lion’s Gate (which was covered over for construction). As soon as we arrived, the energy and crowdedness of the Old City closed in on us. The Lion’s Gate enters into the Muslim Quarter of the city, so there were many Muslims entering the city to pray at the mosques in the Old City.

The Lion's Gate, under scaffolding

Our first stop was at St. Ann’s Cathedral, a Crusader church next to the excavation of the pool of Bethesda. The church might once have been covered in beautiful art, but now it was just a simple stone building (having survived during the Muslim rule by being turned into a Quran school). The building’s true beauty is aural—its acoustics are stunning. We were the only group gathered at the time, so we stood in a circle and sang, first a round in Hebrew called Hava Nashira, then Holy, Holy, Holy. God felt so near in the beauty of the sound resonating off the walls and echoing in our worship. The 1,000 year old church delivered us into the Divine Presence not because of the antiquity it enshrined, but because it was a vehicle for our voices to sing praise now.

The acoustical ceiling at the Church of St. Ann

Just a few short blocks away, a man was carrying dozens of circular loaves of sesame-covered bread on a platform on his head. One of our group leaders wanted a taste. She didn’t have proper change, so she just bought three loaves. In the middle of the crowded street in the Old City, we broke the bread and passed it from one to another. It was fresh and delicious, and it was communion. Together we broke bread, and shared it, and Jesus was in our midst.

There were no words of consecration, but this sure felt like communion to me.

From there we followed the Via Dolorosa, which was a crowded street full of vendors vying for our attention and our dollars. The various stations were enclosed in churches along the way, but one blended into the other. To be honest, I was more fascinated by the color and sound and smells of life in the street than I was in remembering a solemn walk from 2,000 years ago. There were mostly Arabs, but also a few Jews and lots of pilgrims from all over the world. I could smell spices and incense and lunch being cooked. I could see all colors of skin and styles of clothing. I could watch people making the trip of a lifetime next to people making a daily trip to the market. God was present to me not in the ancient blood and suffering, but in the beauty of the people and their lives today.

The Via Dolorosa

At last we arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Crusader church housing the traditional site of Golgotha and of the empty tomb. There are no words, no photos that can capture the immense sensory experience inside. (On Sunday, we returned for worship and a more complete tour, so I will write more about it then.) The building is falling apart, and the various Christian groups inside have been vying for space and ownership for so long that they cannot agree to repair it unless it is absolutely critical to safety. It is dark and cramped, but worn with pilgrims’ prayers. Everywhere you look, you can see someone kneeling, someone praying, someone else taking a picture, someone else looking lost.

One of the chapels in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Once upon a time, this site would have been an outcropping of rock outside the city walls. It may have been the site of the crucifixion, which meant it would have seen many other executions during the Roman era. For thousands of years, it has also been revered as the site of Jesus’ tomb, which meant it would have been a graveyard for many others. Today, it is an enormous religious edifice, the site of prayer and pilgrimage, the cause of much of what is ugly and shameful in our Christian history (like the Crusades), and the reason for ongoing conflict between competing Christian groups.

The structure (inside the main church dome) covering the tomb that supposedly belonged to Christ.

One of my colleagues said, as we stood under one of the enormous domes, “I don’t really feel God here. I feel us here—the weight of 2,000 years of history piled on us in this place.” That was my experience exactly. When I arrived at the Holy Sepulchre, I felt the weight of Christian history upon my shoulders. Jesus left us a living legacy, an invitation to sing praise to God, to break bread in his name, to serve one another, to love all people—and we have built a shrine on the site of a tomb and an execution. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre made me want to ask for forgiveness from God for all the unholy things we have done in Jesus’ name.

Jesus escaped the tomb, but the church has not. We still worship at tombs—not just the shrine at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but in liturgies that care more about preserving the past than conveying the gospel into the future, with buildings that are falling apart because no one can agree on what color the new carpet should be, in church business that cares more about preserving the church than serving the community. I saw Jesus today not at the tomb, but out walking around, resurrected—in songs sung to stones, in books given in peace, in bread broken with love, in people of every color and language. I am moved to confession over the ways I have not always followed that Jesus, and inspired to rededicate my life to the living Christ.

The door to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Jesus is not held in or out by any door.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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