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of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem
of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. Also known as the Church
of the Resurrection (Anastasis) to Eastern Orthodox Christians,
and the Basilica of the Resurrection to Roman Catholics.
That depends on where you are standing in the building and what
time of day it is. The service I attended and on which I am
reporting was Roman Catholic, held in the Franciscan
Chapel of the Apparition, also called the Chapel of Mary
Magdalene, allegedly the site where Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene
after the resurrection. It is just north of the actual sepulchre
and quite a bit northwest of the Greek and Roman chapels on
Calvary (Golgotha). The three major stakeholders in the Church
of the Holy Sepulchre are the Eastern (Greek) Orthodox, Armenian
Apostolic and Roman Catholic churches, with the Greeks having
the largest share, while the Franciscans have the official oversight
of this and other Holy Land sites, which they have held for
700 years. The Greeks celebrate their daily eucharist inside
the tomb of Our Lord from 1.00am till 2.30am when the Armenians
take over. The Franciscans' turn starts at 4.00am and ends with
a solemn community eucharist at 7.00 am. The Coptic, Ethiopian
and Syriac Orthodox hold minor stakes. Each community has its
own space and style, and all share the common areas.
This incredible building encloses the traditional sites of the
crucifixion, anointing, entombment and resurrection of Jesus
Christ, which comprise the last four stations of the cross.
Unlike many holy places whose authenticity is nothing more than
legend or conjecture, most scholars agree that the Church of
the Holy Sepulchre is indeed located over the actual tomb of
Christ. Now hidden deep in the warren of the mediaeval marketplaces
(souks) of the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem,
this area lay well outside of Jerusalem at the time of Christ's
crucifixion. The site, whose topography conforms to the biblical
descriptions of a skull-shaped hill and nearby tombs, was identified
in the fourth century by St Helena, the mother of the Roman
emperor Constantine, who pinpointed the location of the crucifixion,
anointing and entombment under a temple dedicated to Venus.
Constantine obediently removed the temple and built a church
to protect the three holy sites. Damaged by fire and rebuilt
several times, Constantine's church was finally destroyed in
1009 by the "mad" caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (not
by the Jews, as some claimed). Reconstruction of the rotunda
and some of the surrounding buildings began in 1027, but large
portions remained in ruins until the middle of the 12th century.
An adjacent building, the Katholicon (Greek choir), was built
in the mid 12th century by the Crusaders. The Edicule itself
(the small internal building containing the empty tomb of Jesus)
was not built until 1810. To write more about the history and
appearance of this enormously complex building is beyond the
scope of this report; I refer you instead to the many websites,
that do an outstanding job at same. I'll just say that in comparison
to the grand monuments built by Antonio Barluzzi, architect
to the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land from 1919 to 1955,
the Church of the Holy Sepulchre looks random, neglected, dirty,
and in need of interior decoration. But it has survived multiple
wars, earthquakes and fires, with extraordinary co-operation
among the communities who share its space. There will always
be work to be done on a building of this age and magnitude,
and there will probably always be conflict when repairs are
required. However, this holy place is beautiful despite itself.
The competition among the represented faiths leads to an abundance
of lamps, candles, worship, music and incense as they seek to
outdo one another.
This is the Mother Church of Christianity. It includes 32 altars,
is home to monks of six faith communities, and hosts thousands
of pilgrims from all over the world every day. But the church
is no mere museum or monument, rather a passionate house of
prayer. A complex set of rules formulated in 1757 and reaffirmed
in 1852 called the Status Quo determines which denomination
controls which of every possible detail of the use and ornamentation
of this massive place of worship. A famous example of the Status
Quo at work is a ladder
that has stood on a ledge on the upper fašade for more than
a century. Apparently the Armenians wanted to clean some windows
that the Status Quo put them in charge of, but in order to do
so they had to place the ladder on a ledge that belonged to
the Greeks. No one knows who has the authority to remove the
ladder, and so there it stands. Such territorial squabbles are
not uncommon, and punch-ups among monks have famously made
it into the media. But most of the time the resident monks
of the holiest Christian site in the world manage to accommodate
not only one another but thousands and thousands of pilgrims
The entrance to the parvis (courtyard) is an unassuming wooden
gate at the end of a lane in the Christian Quarter of the Old
City of Jerusalem, which is surrounded by a ring of massive
stone walls from the height of the Ottoman Empire. The lanes
are crowded with merchants, shoppers, tourists, residents and
pickpockets, and it is very easy to miss a turn and get hopelessly
lost. When the market is closed the lanes are deserted, your
steps echo on the cobbles, the landmarks are hidden behind the
shutters of the shops, and it is just as easy to miss a turn
and get hopelessly lost. But the area is small so you soon get
turned around and find your way.
It was a Franciscan priest assisted by a brown-robed monk, but
it was inappropriate, indeed impossible, to ask their names.
The date & time:
Solemnity of Christ the King, 23 November 2008, 7.00am.
What was the name of the service?
Mass of the Day.
How full was the building?
The Chapel of the Apparition, for this service, was amazingly
quiet. I counted five nuns (of two different orders), one monk,
and about a dozen lay visitors including myself. The chapel
was about half full. But the building itself was busy. At the
same time as the service I attended, there was a Franciscan
Mass of the Passion being celebrated in the Latin Chapel on
Golgotha (Calvary), and the Greek Orthodox were celebrating
at the Edicule. The minor communities were presumably doing
their thing in their chapels. Tourists were roaming about.
Did anyone welcome you
No. A nun nodded permission for me to come in and sit down when
I first arrived, very early.
Was your pew comfortable?
Not uncomfortable in spite of their minimalist appearance
little more than wooden benches with stark open backs. The entire
chapel is minimalist, quite different from the better known
Orthodox sites in the church, which tend to be gloomy and heavily
adorned with lamps, candles and chandeliers.
How would you describe
the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet, reverent. The nuns were praying until just before the
service, but earlier the monks had had their own service in
a private choir just behind the chapel and open to it. I sat
there quietly with about three nuns listening to the monks chanting
and it was lovely. They came down into the main chapel to receive
communion. Then there was a break before the mass of the day
began. The other two nuns came in. I wandered off for a while.
What were the exact opening
words of the service?
Nel nome del Padre e del Figlio e dello Spirito Santo...
Did I mention it was in Italian?
What books did the congregation
use during the service?
No books, nothing.
What musical instruments were played?
It was a said mass, so the answer is none. However, there was
a distant gong repeated several times at the beginning, which
I took to be summoning the Greek Orthodox to their mass, and
there was the sound of their chanting on and off throughout.
Did anything distract you?
That Orthodox chanting, but not in a bad way. In fact, I think
I noticed it when it briefly stopped. It was background, not
intrusive, and much nicer than the traffic and sirens I am used
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip,
happy clappy, or what?
It was formal but not stiff. I didn't notice any major deviation
in the liturgy from what I have seen elsewhere. I don't understand
Italian but I had no trouble following the familiar structure
of the mass. The priest wore a white chasuble, but his assistant
wore only his brown Franciscan habit. One of the nuns served
as lector, reading the first and second lessons and the psalm.
Instead of intercessions there was a brief time of quiet prayer.
We exchanged the peace with Pace or "Peace be with
you." Communion was under both kinds, but we received the Precious
Blood via intinction.
Exactly how long was the
There was no sermon.
Which part of the service
was like being in heaven?
The location. The immense privilege of worshipping in a quiet
space in that holy place with people who were there to pray,
without throngs of tourists taking pictures throughout. The
tour guides are powerless to keep tourists away from worship
services when the church is open. They can control their groups,
but not individuals. Throngs stand and watch the Orthodox services
at the Edicule, and some even have the nerve to sit in or take
communion. I didn't. I felt less of an intruder in a discreet
Roman Catholic service.
And which part was like
being in... er... the other place?
Feeling a bit like an intruder myself – a spy. I was there
to worship, yes, but I was also there to write a report. Would
Mary Magdalene have approved?
What happened when you
hung around after the service looking lost?
I didn't have to turn many corners to be genuinely lost. Inside
the building, even. But nothing happened! There was a basket
on the floor where we could leave an offering. I was the only
one of the visitors to put anything in it. I know because I
was the last to leave. I left my offering rolled up around the
Mystery Worshipper card. What will they make of that?
How would you describe
the after-service coffee?
How would you feel about
making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 If only! If I were to spend a period of time in Jerusalem
I would certainly try to work out the best times to come, but
my primary place of worship would have to be one where I could
be part of the community, which is impossible here.
Did the service make you
feel glad to be a Christian?
The church did, more so than the service. Enormously.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Only one? That maybe, just maybe, I have been on my knees at
or near the spot where Mary Magdalene saw the risen Lord.
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