I visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre whenever I’m in the neighborhood. I know that sounds strange, but I like seeing the building and the visitors at various times of the day.
It isn’t as though I’m enamored with the building. The building is a “let-down” if you expect London’s St. Pauls or Rome’s Vatican. One entrance door closed with stone centuries ago; walls built which hide the smaller, Greek rotunda; walls comprised of all sorts of shapes, sizes, and finishes.
I find myself always sliding into criticism. Concerning many of the visitors, I find that their public religiosity is not my cup of tea, especially kissing the unction stone or kneeling in prayer before one of the chapel altars.
While touching in their showing of piety, I get tired of attempted group photos in the courtyard.
We criticize religious fanaticism which leads to all sorts of destructive actions from New Zealand to Sri Lanka to California. It is also easy to criticize the pushing and shoving, the jockeying to be first into the tomb.
Being judgmental arises so quickly while in the church. “Don’t those people know that they can’t eat their lunch here?” “Why are these people going down the staircase reserved for people going up to Golgotha?” Or, two years ago, one European priest describing his Holy Sepulchre observations to another European priest, : “The priests seem so undignified as they took part in the procession, didn’t they?”
I am bewildered by some visitors. While standing next to a column and looking at the Edicule, I’ve been asked twice in perfect English: “What is that building doing in here?” I guess they need to add a new building to the small courtyard which contains a video explaining the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Those feelings and judgments don’t comprise my whole response to the Holy Sepulchre. There are scenes that I find enchanting. I watch with others in a packed courtyard a Muslim take the key, climb a ladder, and unlock the large padlock. After climbing down, the large doors slowly swing open allowing people to enter. The basic symbolism of locked and unlocked, of being denied entrance and now being invited to enter.
Like others, I stare at the immovable ladder above the entrance. By decree of the Ottomans in 1852, that ladder will remain in place until Judgment Day. Well, maybe not quite that long.
Like a kid at a campfire, I can stare for a long time at the individuals lighting candles and the candles slowly burning even as the individual walks away.
I often see an Armenian seminarian, a Franciscan monk, a priest from all sorts of churches. Various representatives of different churches are conspicuous in their presence. I haven’t seen any inter-Christian antagonisms, let lone fights. I’m pretty sure though that such conflicts would not be displayed in public.
I have to admit that I like that the church is not overpowering. As one sees it from elsewhere, one is not impressed by its size or design. The church seems to blend into the landscape.
It definitely is not a sanitized version of the Christian faith. It serves as a reminder that no place is an automatic conduit of grace. No place gets one closer than another place to sensing that elusive reality.
I like the small, sometimes out-of-the-way chapels with some fantastic story about Adam or about St. Helena. I love the paintings hung randomly. Some paintings are hung in such a dark space that I wonder if anybody has ever seen them. One painting is so dark and the canvas so torn that I wonder why it is still hanging.
There are those simple and concrete acts of kindness and joy. A young Franciscan who let me climb to the balcony for a couple of minutes to take a few photos.
Ionas, a devout fellow from France that I stood next to waiting for the church to open for thirty minutes one day, shouts at me as he is about to enter the Edicule. Outside the church, Ionas had buried his face in his hands when he said “Notre Dame. Notre Dame;” inside the church, his face is beaming with joy.
Despite all its undecipherable features, I find the simple mosaics of Christ crucified and Christ being prepared for burial calmly overpowering. They convey the basic message that the Christian faith is more than ideas or even ethics. The message is the complicated simplicity of this figure crucified and raised.
There are those moments of beauty. The rays of sunlight entering from the top of the dome and cutting across the rotunda space, never quite lighting up the Edicule. Although I’ve taken the photo numerous times, I never seem to quite catch the effect of those narrow beams of light coming into the rotunda. Maybe next time I’ll be able to capture the sun rays.