Day 3: Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Upper Room, Armenian Vespers


Today we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Our day began with Morning Prayer led by Randy Alexander who reminded us that Jerusalem is an earthly home for all Christians, even if we are visiting from far away, because our true home is the New Jerusalem, Eternal Paradise with God. Morning Prayer concluded with an unaccompanied hymn, Were You There When The Crucified My Lord. It was a stirring and spiritual start to a blessed day.

After prayers our guide Iyad presented a detailed background of the geography and history of the Passion, Death, and Burial of Jesus. Jesus carried his cross outside the walls (walls that no longer exist) of the (then) city limits. As I noted in a prior blog post, the city limits and walls have changed significantly over the last 2000 years. Golgotha, the place where Jesus was crucified was an old quarry outside the city limits that has been abandoned due to poor quality rock. By Jesus’ day, the quarry had been converted to a public execution site and also a grave yard. The archeological evidence for that is indisputable. It did not take long for sites important in Jesus life to be venerated and those sites were passed down from generation to generation and eventually they became Holy Sites. Empress Helena oversaw the construction of churches (and archaeological work) on many of these sites about 300 years after Jesus death and resurrection. Other most famous Church was built over the entire Golgotha and grave site which included what scholars believe was almost certainly the actual site of Jesus crucifixion and burial. Over the centuries the city expanded beyond those old limits, new walks were built, churches were destroyed or damaged by natural disasters and enemies of the church, churches were rebuilt, but through it all the crucifixion and burial sites were preserved and continued to be venerated by Christians.

Today, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which still includes part of Helena’s original basilica, but the area which was once outside the city is deep within Jerusalem. The city has expanded constantly outward. In fact, the Holy Sepulcher is inside the “Old City” which is s designation for the area inside walls built in the 1500s. Control over this church has long been disputed and today it is overseen by six different denominations (Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian, Coptic, Syrian, and Ethiopian) who all claim “turf” within the Church. The effect is that what appears on the outside as one building is in fact numerous chapels that sprawl farther out that one would imagine looking from the outside, and also far deeper underground than one would ever suspect.

Before entering we walked up to one of the roof areas and visited a chapel upstairs. A recent roof cave in means this small chapel is currently inaccessible from anywhere within the church. It is controlled by the Ethiopians, who are very poor. We prayed in the chapel for a few minutes and then left donations to support them.

Outside we encounter the first (of what would be many) groups praying the Stations of the Cross. We then headed back through the city to the main entrance of the church.

Upon Entering the Church of the Holy Sepulcher i was greeted by a sights and sounds that are amazing, chaotic, noisy, sacred, ancient, new, divine, and so very human all in one. In a word, it is the Church, or as one of our group aptly noted gazing upon a thick crowd filled with everything from tears to vocal prayers to storytellers to custodians to selfie takers… “Behold, the disciples.”

The first shrine or chapel that a pilgrim sees is the Annointing Stone, where tradition says the women brought their oils to anoint Jesus’ body. I’ll explain more about this later because it is actually the last shrine I stopped at both times I visited the church today.

To the right of the Stone is a staircase to the chapel marking the exact spot where the crucifixion is believed to have occurred. The rooms up here are dense with glorious ancient artwork if Eastern and Western styles: paintings, icons, and mosaics portraying every biblical and traditional aspect of the crucifix cover every wall and ceiling. The focal point is an altar directly above Calvary (a large stone over which this chapel is built. Below the altar is a hole and every pilgrim can crawl under the altar and reach down through the hole to touch the stone. The rooms were also dense with the faithful. We waited in a line/mob for over 30 minutes to get a chance to touch the stone. People jostled and bumped into each other, it was noisy, people prayed out loud, other marveled at the artwork, some wept. I touched the stone and said the Lord’s Prayer but quickly moved on, mindful that many were waiting behind me. I was moved, not as much by touching the stone, as I was by the mass of humanity that could find the sacred in the midst of such chaos. It reminded me of those moments in our parish Liturgy where the church is too crowded, too noisy, too much, and yet more sacred than when “everything is perfect”. Christianity isn’t about maintaining perfection. It is about moving from darkness to Light, seeking and restoring the lost, and finding the sacred in brokenness. I was right at home in the chaos of this sacred space. Our pilgrimage group is very large though, and that meant we spent far more time waiting around than a smaller group ever would. Our extended time at this shrine would mean less time in the rest of the church.

Once everyone had touched and venerated the stone, we headed downstairs. Directly below the chapel we had just been in is the Chapel of Adam which has openings (windows covering them) where you can view the entire stone of Calvary. The names of this chapel is attributed to a tradition the Adam (from Genesis) died in the same location that Jesus died, thus physically linking the old Adam and the new Adam (Jesus), the old creation and the new creation, in death. The rock you can see has a natural crack and discoloration that traditionally has been believed to be linked to the earthquake at Jesus’ death and the blood that ran from his side, respectively.

Around the corner is a long staircase covered in graffiti that dates from at least the 4th century – thousands and thousands of small crosses carved into the rock walls. It seems to me that the traditional Jerusalem Cross is derived from this graffiti.

The chapel at the bottom of the steps named for Helena the founder behind the original complex which includes her crypt. Another set of stairs moves deeper down into the original quarry where the chapel of the finding of the True Cross.

It’s worth nothing that there are a number of chapels and shrines in The Holy Sepulcher that are not accessible to the public without prior permission from the controlling denomination. One such chapel is in this area dedicated to St. Vartan (Armenian) which includes access to the quarry itself and an ancient ship drawing and graffiti which is one of the earliest markers the site was venerated by Christian Pilgrims traveling from foreign perhaps as early as the second century.

Back upstairs are numerous other chapels but the heart of the complex is the Edicule or “little building” which is the tomb monument. The current monument dates back to 1810 (the prior monument was destroyed by fire), but the lee is a long (and somewhat disturbing) series of destructions (natural and mannade) of the monuments that have covered the tomb. The current one is in some ways a replica of Solomon’s Temple which included a “Holy Place” and an interior “Most Holy Place”. In the Edicule Christ’s tomb I’m in the inner Most Holy Place. A marble tomb bed is there now which is venerated by Christians, but what is left of the actual tomb is underneath, and recent excavations during the renovation of the Edicule confirmed that the original complex over the tomb does date to Constantine’s (And Helena’s) era, which would mean at the very least that the site has never been moved despite the numerous destructions and rebuildings.

Behind the tomb is the chapel of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. It is traditionally held to be the tomb of these saints, and it is certainly a wonderful example of what tombs in the area looked like – we were able to crawl into the tomb and see what it was like (very tomblike). The graffiti in this chapel dates from the early 21st century and displays a jarring thoughtlessness of modern tourists – can you imagine writing your name in a Sharpie on the walls of the Holy Sepulcher?

The line to the Edicule was too long for us to wait in so the group left, but six of us came back later in the day. Our later visit featured a 40 minutes wait in line and three separate (and competing) liturgical processions in English/Spanish, Greek, and Latin, respectively. At one point we’re were trapped by dueling chanting processions. It was incredible and a sign of the holiness and diversity of faithfulness of the disciples.

Going into the tomb was a holy blur – if I had been there 2000 years ago I’m sure it would have felt similarly blurry and holy. Being in the most holy place in the Christian world for a few seconds and then coming out was inspiring but a reminder that every mountain top moment is but a brief respite from our calling to spread the Gospel to the world. “Do not hold onto me, but go and tell them what you have seen.”

The Annointing Stone is on the way out or the way in, depending on your perspective. The stone is a red marble slab that is soaked in oil (at night? By Pilgrims? I have no clue). Pilgrims rub garments or bless crosses on the stone and the smell of the oil, a smell which so permeates the Church that it is the official smell of the church. Anything that touches the stone takes the smell with it. I placed my hand on the stone and I had the Holy Sepulcher with me all day.

After our full group left the Holy Sepulcher we went to the Upper Room which is actually in the basement. This room below Saint Mark’s is the traditional Upper Room of Marks’s mother’s home. It is traditionally the same Upper Room where Peter came after being released from jail, where Pentecost happened, where Jesus appeared Easter Sunday to the Apostles, and the location of the Last Supper. Whether or not this tradition is accurate is impossible to confirm but two things stood out to me. First, the Upper Room makes numerous appearances in the Scripture and was essentially the home base of the Apostles. Second, the fact that it is in the basement of a current church makes sense when you actually walk the ruins of the city. Around the corner from the Upper Room is an excavation of the Old Roman road (Carda) that is literally 20-30 feet under the current base of the city. The city has risen several stories over the last 2000 years as buildings have been torn down and rebuilt again and again.

We ate lunch at the Lutheran Guest House – great view, great food.

Our day concluded with Armenian Vespers which was beautiful, long, and utterly confusing. The 45 minute service was chanted in Armenian. Priests and acolytes were wandering all over the place, including climbing up ladders and disappearing for long segments of time. Furniture was brought out during service but not used. Midway through the service we were directed to stand as the entire group of singers 30-40 cantors, deacons, Priests, etc) processed into another room and continued singing (in another room!!) for 20 minutes. Apparently it concluded and they casually walked out and we went home.

Half of our group went back to the Guesthouse. I went with the other half to the Sisters of Veronica who make/write icons. Mother Sullivan led us in prayer in their chapel and then looked at the icons for sale. Six of us broke off and revisited the Holy Sepulcher as noted above.

It was a marvelous day and I cannot wait to get back to the Old City. I’m a day behind on my blog now. Today we went to Bethlehem, and I will blog about that tonight or tomorrow.

Photos are here. Typo corrections will appear soon enough (I am after all working on my iPhone).