I moved into Ecce Homo to be in the Old City during the latter part of Holy Week. Although I am close to the Tantur group, I wanted to be free to come and go whenever I wanted during these days. I could worship twice on Easter Sunday and once on Easter Monday.
Before leaving Tantur, I scanned the list of Holy Week worship services. Because the Easter sunrise service at the Anglican St. George’s Cathedral did not start until 10 AM, I decided to attend the sunrise service at the Garden Tomb.
No knowing what to expect, I thought I’d give myself plenty of time. After waking around 5 AM with the help of the Muslim call to prayer, I left Ecce Homo, walked down the Via Dolorosa, went through the Damascus Gate, and up Nablus Street until I found the entrance to the Garden Tomb. I’m glad that I gave myself plenty of time. I was probably one hundred feet from the entrance in a crowd of people waiting for the gate to open. Soon I heard various voices. “I have the key. Please let me through.” “We are musicians. No service without us.” “We are staff. Sorry.” I can’t say the crowd like the River Jordan parted gracefully, but the crowd did part to let these individuals make it to the entrance gate.
The service was an independent, non-denominational praise service. The worship leader began the service: “There are times when we should have quiet, solemn worship services. This is not one of those times.” Shouts of “Hallelujah,” “Praise the Lord” erupt from the crowd. “I am a Baptist from England. This is as excited as I get. However, you can get as excited as you want in this Easter Sunrise worship.” With that introduction, the band and singer led those gathered in singing. I didn’t recognize one praise song during the whole service. Eventually, an independent evangelist, also from England, addressed the crowd. Maybe a thousand people listened to his brief message. Being rather liturgically minded, I was surprised that he didn’t pick a Gospel Scripture passage dealing with the Empty Tomb. Instead, he preached from the traditional reading the week after Easter Sunday, the Road to Emmaus. Unfortunately, he pulled out of that passage, more a message of “recognize your sin and ask for forgiveness” and you’ll meet the Risen Christ. He ended the service by stating: “If you need help with your sins, I have a brochure I can give you as you leave this holy place.” I’m glad celebrating the Easter message doesn’t depend on exactly how one celebrates it in worship!
I thought, “I’ll make my way to the Holy Sepulchre and one of the services there.” Hundreds of others had the same thought. I made my way to the Edicule, the “small house,” the building built over the traditional site of the tomb. I stood behind a large pillar next to people from Vietnam, Ghana, Germany, France, Philippines, and the United States. Eventually, led by two Muslims in Ottoman attire pushing the crowd back, fifty or so Franciscans monks, priests, and the Church’s Administrator entered and the service began. The Administrator blessed the hundreds of people with holy water; other priests led us in prayer and in Scriptural readings; the Administrator preached a homily as many people glanced at copies already distributed prior to the service. Eventually, after two hours of standing, the service moved to the Eucharist. Interestingly, the attendants initially led a group of ten women forward. Although I couldn’t see what actually happened, I suspect that these women, representing the women going to the tomb that first Easter morning, received communion first. I remember thinking: “Nice touch. With all the men priests, it is nice that the women receive the Eucharist first.” With the service ended, I joined the line waiting to enter the tomb. Within minutes, a guard shouted “Another Service Soon. Tomb closed. Open later.”
The final worship was on Easter Monday. Leaving Ecce Homo at 6:00 AM, I walked down a deserted Via Dolorosa to the Holy Sepulchre. I didn’t see other pilgrims; I didn’t see open souvenir shops; I didn’t see even Israeli police. At the church, I moved from chapel to chapel as others slowly made their way to the church. At 7:00 AM, standing by the front entrance, I acted as a greeter, greeting the twenty from Tantur. We smiled as we exchanged greetings and handshakes: “Welcome.” “Come In” “Christ is Risen.” “So Curt, you’re our Official Greeter.”
We quickly walked up the stone stairs to the Chapel of the Crucifixion administered by the Roman Catholic Church. The Chapel was exactly next to the Rock of Golgotha, the traditional site of the crucifixion which is administered by the Greek Orthodox Church. Although I understand that it is very difficult for a group to reserve this site for a Mass, Father McDougall of Tantur pulled the necessary strings. Bishop Don and Father Richard co-celebrated for our group. Bishop Don read the prayers quickly; he exclaimed “no need for a homily in this spot on this day;” we all moved to receive the bread and wine; Father Richard said to me very quietly and apologetically as I reached out to drink from the chalice, “There is no more wine. The woman in front of you drank it all.” Within twenty minutes the service was finished. We all had a final moment of silence and prayer and climbed down the stairs so that others could stand in front of the Rock and altar.
Before we leave, we had a few minutes to take in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre one more time. One of our group said: “It would be great to enter the tomb on Easter Monday.” Off we go to the Edicule, the tomb. Since it was only 7:50, there were only ten or so people standing near the tomb. We found out why. A guard said: “The Tomb will open at 9 AM.” We all sighed. We all were disappointed. This trip was my fourth trip the church without being able to enter the tomb. Father Joe declared to us in his cheerful voice. “Well, this is close enough!” He was exactly right. In the time between the “Already and the Not-Yet” maybe it was only fitting that entering the Empty Tomb was still a “Not-Yet.”