Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Holy Land Pilgrimage – Lessons from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Note: In January 2011 my wife and I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This post is part of a series of blogs I have written to convey what I learned while on this life changing trip. You can read about the entire trip in the devotional book Touching the Footprints of Jesus.

While touring Israel a few weeks ago, my wife and I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is inside the Old City of Jerusalem. This church is built on the traditional site where the crucifixion and burial of Christ occurred. It was an amazing building to walk through and one could visit it again and again before discovering all the little chapels wedged into nooks and crannies throughout the building. As lovely as the building is, there is considerable doubt among scholars if this is actually the site on which these important events took place. The Bible says that Jesus was crucified outside the city. But this church is built in a location that was almost surely inside the ancient walls of the city. Though some historians have attempted to redefine the walls as being in different places in the New Testament era, there is no archeological or historical evidence for such an assertion. If the site does not fit the historical account, how did it become associated with the crucifixion and burial of Christ?

The location of the church was chosen by Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine. Helena traveled to the Holy Land in 326 A. D. to investigate the location of such sites. Some were very easy to determine, others required a bit of guess work. Helena decided that the particular location on which the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built was the place that the crucifixion and burial of Christ happened. She supervised the construction of a Christian church on the site. It is interesting to note that archeologists have discovered the remains of a pagan temple under the church. They theorize that Helena chose this spot as a way to remove that pagan temple from Jerusalem and replace it with a meaningful Christian site. Helena’s supporters defend her choice by saying that the pagans built their temple on the site as a way to desecrate the holiness of such a Christian event and that Helena was simply setting everything right by returning the site to its Christian heritage. The debate is endless and there is no real way to settle it to everyone’s satisfaction.

Regardless of what one thinks about the historical accuracy of the site, it is a church that is amazing to behold. Though the original church that Helena built was severely damaged in 630 A. D. and then totally destroyed in 1009, it was rebuilt nearly 100 years later. After it was rebuilt, the church changed hands back and forth between Christians and Muslims a number of times in the centuries that followed. In 1555 Franciscan Friars undertook a major renovation and expansion of the facility and the church has remained essentially the same since then.

Even though there is serious question about whether this is the actual location of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, Christians have taken pilgrimages to visit this site for over 1000 years. Our group entered place of the skull which was ornately decorated, as one might expect such a sacred place to be. In another section of the church we touched the stone where legend says they laid Jesus to prepare him for burial. We saw hundreds of people praying, seeking a touch from God. Their devotion was genuine and powerful to behold.

Later that day, we visited a second site, which some people think is more likely the actual spot of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. I will write about that in an upcoming post. Regardless of which spot these important events happened in, what is most important to remember is that the events happened. Walking through this church and spending time looking at the various sites was very moving because it made me consider the human side of the Gospel story. The pain, the suffering, the reality of the entire passion of Christ, all came crushing into my thoughts and spirit as I walked through that place. Even if that is not the actual spot of these events, having touched the stone, knelt by the altar and offered prayers of thanksgiving to God in that holy place, my life will never be the same.

1 comment: