Friday, September 25, 2009

A Church of Many Names

SEPTEMBER 25, 2009
Jerusalem, Israel

I have seen many impressive buildings in my lifetime. There are few that can compete with the historical and religious magnificence that is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Also known as “Golgotha” (the Hill of Calvary) by many Christians, or the “Church of the Resurrection” by Eastern Christians, it is venerated as one of Christianity’s most holy sites. Christian pilgrims have flocked to the Old City since the 4th century CE to pay homage to the site at which Jesus Christ, son of God, was stripped of his clothing, nailed to a cross, and crucified by the Romans. It is also, according to tradition, the burial site of Jesus Christ (the Sepulchre) as well as the place at which the Resurrection occurred.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, originally a temple for Aphrodite, proudly overlooked the Old City for over eight hundred years- from its construction in the second century CE, to its destruction at the hands of Fatamid caliph al-Hakim in 1009. Al-Hakim, supposedly, “was aggrieved by the scale of the Easter pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which was caused specially by the annual miracle of the Holy Fire within the Sepulchre.” (Christian writer Yahya ibn Sa’id) Still, the destruction of the church “was only part of a general campaign against Christian places in Palestine and Egypt.” Other major churches damaged in the raid include the Church of St. George. Little did al-Hakim know that his precious slash-and-burn fest would be cited by Pope Urban II, in 1095, as one of the foremost “justifications” for the First Crusade.

Reconstruction was funded by Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX and the church was completed, though not nearly to its original splendor, in 1048 CE. It stood untouched through the Crusades, conquered by Salah al-Din (Saladin) in 1187, and later became the seat of the first Latin Patriarchs.

Now, here I am, a thousand years later, in 2009 (exactly one millennium after al-Hakim’s little raid), sitting in a quiet corner next to “The Prison of Christ.” Just upstairs is the “Calvary,” where one can view the approximate place at which Jesus is believed to have been 1) stripped of his clothing, 2) nailed to the cross, and 3) raised to the cross and crucified.

(where Jesus was nailed to the cross)

(where Jesus was crucified)

(the Edicule at the center of the church)

(Church of the Holy Sepulchre from the outside)

One of the first things I noticed upon entering the church is the solemn atmosphere. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, marking the place of Jesus’s death, is most certainly a place of mourning. The constant unmelodious hum of monastic chant pervades throughout the interior as pilgrims light candles as a symbolic gesture of lifelong dedication to Jesus Christ.

(the Stone of Anointing- marks where Jesus was prepared for burial by Joseph of Arimathea)

This atmosphere was much different from what I had witnessed at the Church of the Nativity (which was allegedly built upon the birthplace of Jesus Christ) during my visits to Bethlehem last December and January. The Church of the Nativity is a place of rejoicing, of celebration. I recall walking in on a sermon directed to a large group of Nigerian pilgrims that ended on a melodious note with a group rendition of “Silent Night.”

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