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).

Day 2 – The Old City, Western Wall, Gabbatha, Bethesda, and Dead Sea Scrolls


Today we entered the Old City. The map above should give some idea of how the walls enclosing the Old City have shifted over time. If you see a scenic photo of Jerusalem the odds are good you will notice a big wall. This is either the wall built a few years before Jesus was born by Herod the Great surrounding the Temple Mount, or it is the much larger wall built in 1535–1542 by the Turkish sultan Suleiman the Magnificent surrounding what is now called the Old City. As you can see there were other walls throughout history that were built as the city was expanding, but for the most part those walls are gone.

The Old City does not equate to the city limits that Jesus knew, it’s just a designation for the area inside Suleiman’s wall, and it includes the Temple Mount and a significant part of ancient Jerusalem.

Anyway, to get into the Old City you need to go through one of the 8 gates that are built in the wall. There’s a longer history of the gates, but today there are 8 open gates and at least three closed gates (closed meaning sealed up). We entered through the Dung Gate (you can imagine what the gate may have been used for) which is right near the Western Wall of the Temple Mount.

The Temple Mount has a long history and much but not all of it is narrated in the Bible or by an historian named Josephus. I’ll summarize. When Moses led the people out of Israel he was directed by God to build the Ark of the Covenant (see this Wikipedia article for more info – Indiana Jones’ Raiders of the List Ark got the look and power narrated in the Bible pretty right on). The Ark eventually held the Tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written, a jar of manna, and Aaron’s staff, but those items were not really the point. The main feature of the Ark was the Mercy Seat on top which was where God could sit – it’s really important that the seat is empty because the Israelites didn’t worship an idol or the Ark itself, just God who had chosen his people Israel and would be present with them on the seat. The Israelites took the Ark with them throughout their wilderness wandering, keeping it in a tent that was called the Tabernacle and carrying it before them whenever they marched to a new place. The exact dimensions of the Ark and Tabernacle are all in Exodus so do yourself a favor and read that if this is all new to you. The tent Tabernacle had a holy place in the imiduare entrance area, and a most holy place further in called the Holy of Holies and that is where the Ark was kept. Moses, Aaron, and the priests would offer sacrifices at the Ark inside the Tabernacle and consult with God by visiting the Ark.

The Israelites took the Ark with them into the Promised Land, and it was carried into battle as they conquered various towns and peoples (This is all in Joshua). After a convoluted history (read Judges and First Samuel) King David brought the Ark to Jerusalem and set up the Tabernacle on Mt Zion.

Around 957 BC David’s son Solomon built the first Temple to house the Ark. The Temple basically copied the style of the tent by having a Holy Place and a Holy of Holies (you can read all about this in 1 Kings and 1 Chronicles. This Temple was destroyed in 586 BC (or 425BC depending on who you ask) by the Assyrians. There is no record in the Old Testament of what happened to the Ark. There is a rabbinic story that King Josiah hid the Ark somewhere on the Temple Mount. Other rabbis suggest it may have taken to Babylon. 2 Maccabees 2 (Deuterocanonical Scripture and part of what we call the Apocrypha) states:

The Prophet Jeremiah “having received an oracle, ordered that the tent and the ark should follow with him, and that he went out to the mountain where Moses had gone up and had seen the inheritance of God. Jeremiah came and found a cave-dwelling, and he brought there the tent and the ark and the altar of incense; then he sealed up the entrance. Some of those who followed him came up intending to mark the way, but could not find it. When Jeremiah learned of it, he rebuked them and declared: “The place shall remain unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows his mercy. Then the Lord will disclose these things, and the glory of the Lord and the cloud will appear, as they were shown in the case of Moses, and as Solomon asked that the place should be specially consecrated.””

A Second Temple was built (read Ezra-Nehemiah) in 515BC on the same spot and featured the same design (though apparently not as grand as the Firsr Temple) of a Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. The Ark was never restored to the Second Temple and it isn’t clear (at least to me) what (if anything) happened in the Holy of Holies at the Second Temple.

Herod the Great (who was renowned for his building programs) renovated the Temple and expanded the Temple Mount by building a massive wall around it around 20BC. The wall made possible several courtyards and areas for money changers, etc.

The Second Temple was destroyed in 70AD by the Romans after a Jewish Revolt. The Romans built a temple to Jupiter on the Temple Mount. The Emporir Julian (the Apostate) allowed the Jews to rebuild the Temple but an earthquake in 363AD and the death of Julian in the same year meant plans to build a Third Temple never got going.

In 691 AD Muslims built the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount to commemorate the traditional location Mohammed’s ascension into heaven with the Angel Gabriel (part of Muslim tradition but not the Koran). The Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque which was built around the same time are on the Temple Mount today.

Parts of the walls of Herod’s expansion of the Temple Mount are still visible and have been excavated so that Southern Wall and a part of the Western Wall are accessible. The Western Wall, as it is called, is only a segment of the whole unexcavated Western Wall. Wikipedia notes: “The term Western Wall and its variations are mostly used in a narrow sense for the section traditionally used by Jews for prayer; it has also been called the “Wailing Wall”, referring to the practice of Jews weeping at the site over the destruction of the Temples. During the period of Christian Roman rule over Jerusalem (ca. 324–638), Jews were completely barred from Jerusalem except to attend Tisha be-Av, the day of national mourning for the Temples, and on this day the Jews would weep at their holy places. The term “Wailing Wall” was thus almost exclusively used by Christians, and was revived in the period of non-Jewish control between the establishment of British Rule in 1920 and the Six-Day War in 1967. The term “Wailing Wall” is not used by Jews, and increasingly not by many others who consider it derogatory.”

The Western Wa is important as a prayer location because it is the closest possible place one can be to where the Holy of Holies is. People (mostly Jews) bring there prayers (usually written on small scraps of paper) and leave them in the Wa as close as possible to where God dwelt in the Holy of Holies.

I should admit that though the Temple is an essential part of the Gospel narrative and I was not unenthusiastic about visiting the Western Wall, still I was far more enthusiastic about visiting specific Christian sites like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I really didn’t know what to make of this transition of the importance of praying near the place where Holy of Holies had been 2000 years ago.

When we arrived at the Wall we encountered a jubilant atmosphere. There were numerous bar mitzvahs going on with drums, trumpets, and singing. I wonder now if that was the spirit and feeling of Palm Sunday. We made our way to security with a great throng and once through, the atmosphere changed dramatically. I felt what I can only describe as a holy somberness. We were given instructions about proper etiquette: men on one side, women on the other, wear a hat or covering, back away from the Wall, and take as much time as you wish at the Wall in prayer.

I approached the Wall, placed my hand on it and got walloped by the presence of God in a way that I have rarely if ever felt. I began to weep as I offered my prayers (I prayed for my wife and children, my sister and her family, my parents, my church, and parishioners who asked to be remembered at the Wall) and placed my written prayers in the Wall. Tears are flowing as I write this and I rarely get emotional like this. The experience in those few moments was so intense and overwealming that I had to draw back and move away from the Wall. After about ten minutes I approached the wall again and offered the same prayers, but the overwealming awesomeness and “Fear of the Lord” that I had had before was replaced with a knowledge that God was present in that place in a way that I cannot explain other than to note that thousands of people are drawn each day there to pray. The experience puts the entire narrative about the Ark, Tabernacle, Temple, and the Wall into a new light. “Holy and awesome is this place.” I understand now why people fell flat on their faces before God throughout the Scriptures. I left the Wall feeling shattered by the presence of God and made whole at the same time.

We headed into the winding streets of the Old City, and my main memory from the walk was feeling incredibly thirsty. I bought a liter and a half of water and drank it immediately. At one point we stopped to get out of the way of a car driving down the street – the street is no wider than a car and I cannot imagine that cars should even be there. I looked up and saw that we were turning onto a street called Via Dolorosa (this is the traditional Way of the Cross).

We walked up the Way and entered a small building to “see excavations”. Our guide Iyad explained that we were now on the site of Antonia’s Fortress. This is where Pilate would have stayed when he was in town. This is where the prisoners (Jesus too) would have been kept if they had been sent to Pilate. The Roman soldiers had a game they would play. Every week one prisoner on death row would be chosen to play “King”. The soldiers would stand the prisoner on a stone and dress the prisoner up as a king (stuff like a robe or a crown of thorns). Then they would mock the “king” and beat the “king” and finally they would execute the “king”. An excavation at some point had unearthed the “King Game Stone”. I was amazed. I had never heard that what happened to Jesus on that stone by the Roman soldiers was a game that had happened to countless other prisoners. We went down into the excavation where there was a cistern and a series of rooms with stone floors. And among the stones was a large, square, flat stone with a crown carved into it and a B for Basileus or King in Greek. Jesus had not only suffered, he had suffered as many had before and many had after, and yet this cruel game also, ironically, revealed the truth about Jesus. I prayed on that spot that I might be accompanied by Christ in any suffering I might ever have as Jesus accompanied all who suffered such merciless cruelty. Be present Lord Jesus be present.

Our next stop was the Church of Saint Anne (Mary’s mom), and Bethesda. Bethesda is a pool/bath area that includes a place of ritual cleansing for healing. It is where Jesus healed a man who had been lame for over 30 years. There are numerous photos in my album (link at the end) of the excavations of these pools (they are deep!).

Father Randy Alexander, Mother Rosemary Sullivan (a priest who is part of our group) and I offered prayers for healing and anointing with Holy Oi which I was honored to bless at Bethesda. I will continue to keep all who came to me for prayers in my heart and in my prayers. May God bless them.

We entered Saint Anne’s and sang Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God. I lit a candle at the Shrine to Saint Anne and said a prayer for my mother Nancy (which is a form of the name Anne), my wife, and my sister. May God bless their motherhood as Anne and Mary were blessed.

We headed out of the Old City and grabbed lunch back at the guesthouse. After lunch we bussed to West Jerusalem to the Israel Museum to see a scale model of Jerusalem around the time of Jesus. It was really cool and helpful to see the nearness of the different places events in the Bible happened. Check out some of the photos. The Museum houses a shrine for the Dead Sea scrolls which was fascinating to walk through.

After a long day I am ready for dinner in the grotto. I’m also ready for a good night sleep (I went to bed too late yesterday but enjoyed the late conversation with other Pilgrims).

Tomorrow we visit the Holy Sepulcher.

Photos from today are here.

(Photo link and edits for typos will be done after dinner).