Good afternoon fellow travelers on the Way! We are getting close to the end of the pilgrimage. It is hard to believe that it is over already, but when I look back on all that we have done these past eleven days it is pretty amazing all the different sites we visited and all the people we have met. I know that I have changed, and I probably won’t realize the full extent of that transformation until long after I have returned home.
In these final days of the pilgrimage we were given a very special treat. Canon John Peterson joined us and took us to one of his favorite sites in the Holy Land. John was the Dean of Saint George’s College for twelve years and he also served for nine years as the Secretary General for the Anglican Communion. His love of this land and its people, along with his immersion into the land gives him some unique insight to different sites, as well as access to sites that other pilgrims may not get to see. For example, on our last night at the Sisters of Nazareth Convent we were given a very special tour of the excavations under the convent. The sisters only allow Iyad and John to take groups down to the ruins. Under the convent is one of the best preserved kokh tombs west of the Jordan River, including the rolling stone.
A kokh is a type of tomb complex characterized by a series of long narrow shafts, in which the deceased were placed for burial, radiating from a central chamber. The central chamber included a trench in which the body is anointed and prepared for burial. The body is then laid in one of the narrow shafts, and then sealed with bricks and mud; just like how the chicken was cooked in the video from last week. Incidentally, that oven is a kokh oven. These tomb complexes were generally carved into a rock face, and were usually closed with a stone slab and had channels cut into the center of the shaft to drain any water that seeped through the rock. Families would have one kokh tomb with several shafts. These tombs were just temporary. After about two to two and a half years, the shafts would be opened, the bones removed and put into an ossuary, and the shaft would be used again for the next family member. And so underneath the convent is one of these kokh tombs.
Now, dear readers, why would seeing this type of tomb be useful, besides just being cool? Well, it is useful because today we visited the Church of the Resurrection, as it is known by the Orthodox, or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as it is known in the west. This is the church that houses the sites where Jesus was crucified, died, buried, and resurrected. So, Jesus would have been laid in something similar to what we saw in Nazareth.
It is interesting that the west has chosen to name it after the sepulchre or tomb, thus focusing on Jesus’ death. Whereas the Orthodox name it after the resurrection, and focusing on life or new life. This is the holiest site in all of Christendom and based on the sheer number of people at the site each and every day it is perhaps the most popular site in the Holy Land. Today was no different, as the church was absolutely packed with pilgrims from all corners of the world.
As we made our way from Saint George’s to the Old City we stopped several times as John gave us an idea of where the old city walls would have been, as well as where the walls of the original church would have been. He gave us such wonderful details that only he could offer. Instead of entering the church through the Crusader doors we began on the roof where the Ethiopian Orthodox monks and nuns live and worship. They have been relegated to the rook because of political differences with the Copts, but the Ethiopians have a great relationship with us Anglicans and they often worship together during major feasts. The Ethiopians have a small dark but beautiful chapel because they have no rights to have services in the main church. After being caught in a sudden deluge, with thunder, we circled back around the block to enter the church through the 12th Century Crusader doors.
The church was built upon a quarry where crucifixions occurred during the 1st Century under Roman rule. This site was used by the Romans because the bedrock that remained was not suitable for building. Right now the phrase “the stone that the builders refused ahs become the chief cornerstone” might be running through your mind. If not, it will come back again a little later. So when Helena came to the Holy Land she found the True Cross in the quarry and built the first church on that site. The church was built as two connected churches over the two different holy sites, including a great basilica, an enclosed colonnaded atrium with the traditional site of Golgotha in one corner, and a rotunda, called the Anastasis (“Resurrection” in Greek), which contained the remains of a rock-cut room that Helena identified as the burial site of Jesus. According to tradition, Constantine arranged for the rockface to be removed from around the tomb, without harming it, in order to isolate the tomb; in the center of the rotunda is a small building called the Aedicula in Latin, which encloses this tomb.
After Jerusalem came under Arab rule in the 7th Century, it remained a Christian church, with the early Muslim rulers protecting the city’s Christian sites. A story reports that the Caliph Umar visited the church and was invited by the Patriarch to pray in the church; but at the time of prayer, he turned away from the church and prayed outside. He feared that future generations would misinterpret this gesture, taking it as a pretext to turn the church into a mosque. He entrusted the keys of the church to a Muslim family, who to this day still carry the keys to the church, and they lock and unlock it every day. All was well under Muslim rule, until 1009 when the caliph at the time order the church completely destroyed. Almost nothing was left standing. The tomb was destroyed along with the walls of the original church. This would become one of the reasons for the Pope in Rome to call for a crusade decades later.
The church was rebuilt and damaged several more times, before the Crusaders took the church and could only rebuild less than half of what the original church was before its destruction. The tomb and aedicule were rebuilt and other chapels created. While there were further reconstructions, renovations, and some damage from wars and natural disasters, the church as it is today is roughly as it was since the 1800’s with what is known as the Status Quo, meaning that the church is divided amongst six Christian Churches and nothing can happen within the church without all six in agreement. As I mentioned before the Ethiopians were one of the six, but have essentially lost their rights and are on the roof.
Once inside the church, John took us around to each site and to all the chapels. He gave us so much information on every little nook and cranny in the place, that I cannot even being to share it all with you. I will let you look at the pictures at the end of the post and I will try to caption them as best I can.
This was by far the best experience of the Holy Sepulchre I’ve had, even with all the other pilgrims. It was not the most powerful experience of the pilgrimage, but I am always glad to step foot into that sacred space. There is something very deep and mysterious about it. Even though the tomb of Jesus has been destroyed and rebuilt, and is likely not where Jesus was buried, there is something to be said for payer in the same spot as millions upon millions of pilgrims who have prayed there for nearly two thousand years. Jesus would have been placed in a kokh tomb, that scripture says belonged to Joseph of Arimathea, and what stands today is more of a memorial than the “real” place. That’s ok, because regardless of where the tomb was or the authenticity of the current location, it is nonetheless deeply moving to visit the site.
We will be back again soon to the Church of the Resurrection when we walk the stations of the cross before we leave on Wednesday morning. However, it is now time for bed. Until tomorrow dear friends!