“This is a holy place!”
The Greek Orthodox priest’s hiss cut through the sanctified hush of the cathedral, and he scampered across the centuries old stones to admonish a confused-looking German tourist couple. The woman who had acquired the wrath of the bearded man in the flowing black robe had wandered into the cool darkness from the bright Jerusalem heat, and in her tank top and Daisy Dukes she was dressed for the Middle-Eastern summer. But not, it seems, for the deathplace of Christ.
When visiting the Holy Land for the Jerusalem Film Festival last year I found myself drawn to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre again and again. I stumbled upon it while wandering the Old City of Jerusalem, itself a collection of winding alleys behind ancient fortifications, and I visited it with a tour guide, hanging on his every studied word. I came back alone, early in the morning before the crowds descended upon the holiest place in all of Christendom. It was the last place I visited before leaving Israel to return to America.
Christ has always fascinated me. I was born into a Roman Catholic family, baptized and confirmed. I never served as an altar boy (a bullet dodged, judging by the rampant stories of Catholic priest molestation) but I did have a period where I attended Mass regularly on my own. As I grew first into agnosticism and finally atheism I continued to find the Christ story in my mind. After all, it’s the central mythology of the religion that has set the course of two millennia of Western history, so you should know about it. And the story of the historical Jesus - a man who did live, and who did die on a cross - is the kind of murky mystery that I enjoy poking at.
Setting aside all religious issues, I find Jesus Christ to be an excellent role model. He’s a guy who had some very sensible things to say, and his larger messages, even when reduced to soundbites, are strong guideposts for living a good life. There is little that Jesus said that is disagreeable, even two thousand years later.
On top of that I like the story of Christ in much the same way I like the story of Spider-Man - I identify with both of these guys. They’re troubled dudes, guys working through their own issues while also attempting to make the world a better place. Jesus Christ has his anger issues and he has his moment of doubt in the Garden of Gethsemane, one of the most affecting moments of religious mythology. Even this guy, who believes he is the Son of God (and who is also God - it’s a really great mindfuck when expressed in Catholic mysticism), doesn’t want to go through with the difficult task ahead of him. He’s afraid and resentful. If you can’t identify with that just wait - you will some day be faced with a hard task of responsibility, one that will require you to set aside your own happiness and possibly safety to make the world a better place for someone else.
Jesus Christ, as they say, is alright with me. I don’t think he came back from the dead, but I don’t need him to resurrect to give weight to his wisdom, or to give meaning to his sacrifice.
My interest in Christ, and in the Ancient World itself, made Jerusalem long one of my dream destinations. When I had the chance to attend the JFF I jumped at it, and I’m glad I did. Visiting Israel is an exciting and eye-opening experience, and I am glad I had the opportunity to meet many people of many viewpoints who are directly affected by the ongoing strife in the Middle-East. The modern part of Jerusalem is lovely, and the countryside of Israel is gorgeous in that barren way a desert can be. And the food - good lord, the food. Go there and eat. I had the best bread ever, and I bought it off a guy peddling in an alleyway deep inside the Old City. It wasn’t a fancy bakery or a hip joint - just an old man, his hands crooked from years of work, sitting alone against a wall that predated every other man-made place I had ever visited in my life.
This is what it looks like to walk through the alleys of the Old City. This is outdoors, mind you:
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is an absolutely weird structure, one that has grown up to enclose the open spaces where Christ died and was buried (supposedly). In the 2nd century AD the Roman emperor Hadrian did a real dick thing and built a temple for Aphrodite on the site of the tomb where Jesus was buried and out from which he walked. I’m assuming the purpose of this was to spite the growing cult of Christ, which surely must have venerated that spot. But things change, and a hundred years or so later Constantine, the first Christian emperor, decided to get rid of the Aphrodite temple and replaced it with a church.
Constantine sent his mom, Helena, to the Holy Land to take care of this business, and she showed up in Jerusalem and started deciding where all the holiest events of the New Testament had taken place. This is why I said ‘supposedly’ earlier when talking about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as encompassing the places where Christ died - Helena kind of just made these decisions on her own, more or less guessing where Golgotha was. It’s probably a good guess - the site today is inside the walls of the Old City but around the time Christ died it would have been just outside the city. There is a tomb within the walls of the Sepulchre - you can actually go inside it! - which proves that at least part of the building was built upon a burial place (some people believe the tomb is that of Joseph of Arimathea, the dude who donated his own tomb to Christ). The spot marked for the crucifixion is on a hill. It could be where Christ died. Nobody’s really sure, though.
Helena also found the One True Cross, which was apparently left in a pile of other crosses and debris in a cave of some sort. How did she know the One True Cross was the right one, even among all the other discarded crucifixes? Simple - she waved the crosses over a very sick lady, and the one that healed her was clearly the cross upon which the savior had died. Another version of the story has her doing the waving over a corpse, which was revived by the True Cross. You would think a piece of wood that raises the dead would have been utilized more often than it was. There is a piece of the True Cross hidden away in an office in the Holy Sepulchre, and it is brought out on special occasions.
Jesus died on a hill and had been buried in a tomb whose door faced the fresh air. What had been these outdoor spaces soon got covered up by a church and then a basilica and an enclosed atrium and finally a rotunda over the location of Jesus’ tomb. The early Christians came in and turned the area into an indoor mall, basically - it’s like the earliest forerunner of the Mall of America. Walking into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with its enormous ceilings and imposing walls and the smell of incense and the hushed whispers of prayers, it’s hard to imagine this place ever having been anything but a building. You have to walk up a narrow set of stairs to reach the top of Golgotha, and at some point you realize this isn’t the second story of a building but rather a building that grew up around a hill. It’s disorienting in many ways - even as you come to places that mean the most in Christian theology you feel weirdly disconnected from it all.
Here’s a helpful image that shows how the church imposed itself on the natural geography of the area, via Wikipedia:
The history of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is long and difficult. It has been burned and it has been sacked by Muslims (although absolute baller Caliph Umar, who hated Mohammed at first and wanted to kill the guy but later converted to Islam, more or less saved the site from being the source of religious controversy in the future. After the Muslims captured Jerusalem in 614 he visited the Holy Sepulchre but, rather than pray inside he stayed outside. That was a deliberate choice so that others wouldn’t take his prayers as a sign to turn the church into a mosque. He also let Jews settle back in Jerusalem and cleaned up the site of the Temple, the holiest place to Jews, turning it into the Dome of the Rock. Unlike his excursion to the Holy Sepulchre, Umar’s time at the Temple did lead to centuries of religious in-fighting). It’s been damaged in earthquakes and left in ruins before being rebuilt again. Today the church’s care is divided between three Christian groups - the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic and the Roman Catholic. That division is serious shit - these guys do not fuck around with each other’s parts of the church. It’s so serious that there is a ladder that has been just sitting on a ledge since maybe the 1700s because nobody can agree on who is in charge of moving it, more or less. Also, sometimes the priests get into fistfights - there were two brawls in 2008 between Greek Orthodox and Armenian monks. Coptic monks and Ethiopian priests got into in 2002 and 11 people were hospitalized. The cause of the fight? The Coptic monk had moved his chair out of the burning sun into some shade in a spot the Ethiopians owned.
So today all the areas are controlled by different groups, and in some places you can really tell. The top of Golgotha, the spot where the cross was planted (and they have an altar there, with a sheet of glass over the exposed rock which has a hole in it), is run by the Greek Orthodox and it’s a garish nightmare of shiny silver and gold plated everything. It’s a fever dream of decoration, and even as people stand in front of the spot and sob, or kiss at the glass covering the hole, you feel distracted by the bling. If you’re facing the spot where the cross stood and go to your right you’ll come to the little Catholic corner, separated by a wall. Only the Greek Orthodox could make the Catholic corner look tasteful; I watched Catholic priests do a morning prayer there in Latin to a crowd of tourists, some looking at their phones the whole time. This spot, by the way, is supposed to be where Jesus was nailed to the cross. I thought about that while watching the dude in shorts, with a big plastic bag between his legs, tapping on his phone screen.
The top of Golgotha, where Christ was crucified:
The top of Golgotha isn’t the only attraction on that side of the church. If you go downstairs the entire rock of the hill has been preserved behind a wall, and when you get to the bottom you can see it presented through glass. What makes the rock interesting is that it has a huge crack running down it; the story of the Crucifixion says that at the moment Jesus died there was a massive earthquake, and this visible crack, we are told, came of it. Christ’s blood traveled down the crack until it reached - get this - the skull of Adam, who just happened to be buried beneath the very spot where Christ died. It’s a pretty good literary trick, having the guy who brought us Original Sin be buried beneath the spot where the guy who wiped it away sacrificed himself. It’s kind of small-universe, like having Anakin Skywalker build C-3P0, but there’s a nice symmetry to it nonetheless. And no, Adam’s skull is not on display. What you will see is hundreds of pieces of paper - people write prayers on them and toss them at the crack.
I’m taking you through the church out of order. The first thing you actually see when you enter the church is the Stone of Anointing, the spot where the corpse of Christ was laid out and prepared for burial. You step in from the blazing sun (the sun is always, always blazing in my experience) and the darkness and the coolness within is like a miracle. Just as you start to enjoy it you see that you are standing in front of a whole bunch of people all kneeling on the ground, pawing at and kissing a stone that has been rendered flat and glossy by thousands of years of veneration.
It’s worth noting that there’s no charge to come into the church, no line for entry. You can get into lines - to see the site of the Crucifixion, to duck your head into the Aedicule, the spot within which is the Tomb itself - but you can very easily just stumble upon this building without knowing what you’re doing. I suspect on some level that’s what happened to the poor German tourist who was showing too much flesh. The entrance to the church is deep within the winding corridors of the Old City, and you suddenly come out of an alleyway into a big courtyard. Sometimes there will be crosses in the courtyard because some folks like to carry crosses with them as they walk the Via Dolorosa, the pathway that Christ took to the Crucifixion. You can’t bring your own big cross into the church, just as you can’t go into Disneyland in a costume.
I think it’s the sudden impact of walking in these doors and seeing the people on their knees that most impressed me when I first visited the Holy Sepulchre. You’re just walking straight into heavy devotion, and people are bobbing up and down with tears on their faces. It’s a big change from the guys trying to sell you Jerusalem magnets just steps away.
When you’re in the entrance, looking at the Stone of Anointing, you can go two ways. To your right is Golgotha, which tends to be a little busier. To your left is the rising of the rotunda, and beneath it is the Tomb of Christ itself.
The rotunda towers above you, vertiginously reaching for Heaven itself. Standing under the dome is another building, the Aedicule, which stands maybe two stories tall and has a tower on top of it, another story taller (and all of this is under a big domed roof). People stand in a long line to enter the Aedicule, a line long enough that I skipped it on most of my visits. It was only at the last trip that the line was short enough for me to go inside.
There is a vestibule, and within the vestibule is a priest. There is also, I read after the fact, a piece of the stone that closed off the tomb, the stone that was famously rolled away upon the resurrection. I missed it. I didn’t miss the priest, though, even though it’s very dark in the chamber. He’s sort of crouched in there because the ceiling is low. He whispers to you ‘FIFTEEN SECONDS!’ and then, when the person in front of you exits, ushers you into the room where the tomb of Christ sits.
I’m not really sure what the hell you’re looking at in there. It’s quite dark and you are crouching in front of an altar that is behind glass. The altar itself has a cloth covering protective marble and a whole bunch of junk on it. I was in there for fifteen seconds trying to make sense of what this was - was this literally the slab of stone upon which Christ’s corpse lay? Had they razed the rest of the tomb structure? And I had the priest’s ‘FIFTEEN SECONDS!’ admonition buzzing in my head - every other spot I visited in the Holy Sepulchre was chill, but there was an awful lot of pressure here. I looked around, didn’t know what I was seeing, and left.
On one of my visits I came upon monks holding mass at the Tomb. They were chanting and waving censers of incense in front of a small, but dutiful crowd. I watched from a distance and then I heard a noise, one that sounded like a meow. Sure enough, winding his way through millennia old stonemasonry, was an orange and white cat. I can’t explain why this felt so special, but for some reason it truly did - the little friendly cat rubbing on my leg as I watched a group of believers experience a religious moment at the very heart of their belief system.
To the back of the Aedicule is another small chapel, one run by the Coptic Orthodox. The guide who took us through the church explained that there was a disagreement about just where the body of Christ lay in the tomb, and that the Coptic Orthodox chapel was built at the spot where they believed his head had rested. I was very impressed by the precision on display, especially about something no one could possibly ever, ever verify in any way. I mean, the corpse disappeared so it isn’t even like anyone came by later on and made note of where Christ lay and how many inches over from this spot his head was.
That precision extends to the Catholicon, one of the best named places in the world. It’s underneath another dome, right across from the Tomb, and it represents the exact middle spot between Golgotha and the Tomb, making it the very center of the world for Christians. You can stand on a marker and know that you are right in the middle of it all.
I also visited the cave where Helena found the True Cross; it’s down some shockingly slickly treacherous steps (the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is most certainly not handicap accessible) and it seems as if nobody goes there. There is a wall of ancient graffiti behind glass, markings left by people hundreds and thousands of years ago. Across from the ancient grafitti are marks of a more current nature, scratches from people who have visited in the last decades. It’s like the guestbook of Christ.
There was one other thing I did at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, something that was maybe crude and for some perhaps disrespectful, but something that felt meaningful for me, believe it or not. I peed. The church is a major tourist attraction, and it’s a working church, and it’s full of devotionaries and religious people all the time, and they have to go to the bathroom every now and again. There’s a restroom on site, a kind really unfamiliar to Americans - it’s unisex and instead of toilets or urinals there are just holes in the ground and treaded spots for your feet while you pop a squat. But the restroom is maybe ten yards from Golgotha - if there weren’t walls you could see totally see it and shout at someone from the toilet. It’s so weirdly close, and I wonder how many people think about the proximity of their waste to this holiest of sites. The essential falseness of the church - the enclosure of an outdoor area that renders the geography meaningless - probably shields folks from realizing they’re peeing right next to where the Son of Man had his final agonizing hours, but it was on my mind in a big way.
And here’s the weirdly meaningful part of it for me - I felt like I was leaving a little piece of myself at the site. I mean, I know I wasn’t - I understand how plumbing works - but transubstantiation is such an important part of the Catholic faith and here I was doing my own, mundane form of transubstantiation. And peeing there made me think about how Jesus himself peed, probably somewhere near the places I had been walking. It’s such a basic human thing - it’s one of the earliest things newborns do - and it’s such a basically identifiable thing. Son of God or Son of Faraci, we both had to take leaks. That, along with heartburn and neck aches, insomnia and constipation, burps and farts, was part of the deal when the Word was made flesh.
I never said my spiritual thinking travels along standard paths.
Visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was fascinating. Like I said, I was drawn to it again and again, but the fascination never felt truly emotional. I enjoyed the sense of belief and reverence I picked up from the pilgrim and prayerful people, but I never shared that with them. I loved experiencing the history and the mythology first hand - it’s like going to a location where a famous movie was shot, in some ways - but I never found myself emotionally caught up while there. The church is too big, too imposing, too removed from the truth of that moment two thousand years ago. I would go back in a heartbeat, but I don’t ever expect to feel anything deep when there.
I did experience profound feelings somewhere else in Jerusalem. Outside of the Old City walls, across a valley dotted with ruins and ancient graves, sits the Church of All Nations, erected on the Mount of Olives at the site of the Garden of Gethsemane. It was there that I cried.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was always busy when I visited. It was sometimes crowded (although it’s so big that crowds are only a problem in some of the smaller devotional areas) but it was usually humming with a small vibe of action. Even when I came just after dawn I found groups of people huddled in prayer. The Church of All Nations, by contrast, stood entirely empty except for one silent monk, sitting to the side of the chapel.
Outside of the church stands a small grove of olive trees. In true Jerusalem fashion I encountered a group of guys there, all claiming to be tour guides and promising me wonderful trips for just a few sheckels. But once I shrugged them off I found myself entranced by the trees with their crooked branches and thin leaves. As I stood there a lizard scampered out from the roots of one, and I wondered what Christ would have made of such a moment on the original Holy Thursday.
The church is called The Church of All Nations, a lovely name, but it’s also known as the Basilica of the Agony. And the agony here isn’t the physical kind - while walking the Via Dolorosa I saw plenty of places dedicated to whipping and falling and physical pain. It was a mental agony, the agony Christ experienced the night before he died, the agony he experienced knowing what he was in for. At the front of the church, behind some gorgeous restored mosaics that date back to previous shrines on the site, is a piece of the bedrock upon which Christ prayed. Here’s how Mark tells the story:
And they went to a place called Gethsemane. And he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them,“My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. The quote has passed into cliche, but the foundation is so true, so relatable. Anyone who has ever struggled to do the right thing, to be less selfish, to be more kind, to forgive, to heal instead of destroy, knows the struggle. And the struggle is understandable on an even more mundane level - the struggle to eat right, to live right, to read more books and fewer listicles. It’s the essential struggle of humanity, the division between our mind and our body. The things we know we should do and the things we want to do.
I sat there, alone in a pew facing the bedrock, and I thought about that story. As I said earlier, it’s the story in Christian mythology that speaks to me the most. Even though I know there was a historical Jesus Christ (Yeshua bar Yosef, as he would have probably been known) but I don’t know what in the Gospels is true, what is exaggerated and what is simply a fiction created to bring in converts and control the masses. But that doesn’t matter, because I know all the best stories I love - the ones that touch me deeply - aren’t real at all. What’s important is the story, and how it speaks to you. And I sat there, and I thought about that story, and I felt that story alive around me - the fear and the loneliness, the urge to just get the fuck out of there and give it all up and leave those dumb sleeping disciples to live a quiet life in the provinces. There’s something about well-built churches, about the space and the way sound and light become transformed by the architecture, that can be emotionally impactful at any time. But here, thousands of miles from home, alone in a foreign place and even more alone in a holy place, I felt the smallest sliver of what that agony could have been like. And I sat there and I cried.
I was hoping the monk didn’t notice. I have some pride, you know. (That isn't the monk in the picture above. That person came in as I was leaving and stopped to take this picture)
I only visited the Church of All Nations that once. The experience I had there was complete, was total. I went back to the Holy Sepulchre again and again, but I knew no return to the Basilica of the Agony could match that singular moment I had alone.
Religion is pretty bad, if we’re being honest. Dogma and fantastical allegiances to imaginary beings lead the GOP to crack down on the rights of women and gays, lead to young men blowing themselves up, lead to wars and hate. Religion has made a mess of the world and very specifically of the region where all these holy sites sit. But the stories that feed religion - the tales of men like Christ - are pretty great. There’s a reason this story has resonated for so long and with so many, and it’s because this tale of sacrifice and hope in the face of death itself speaks to us on a human level. Did Jesus Christ sit up in that Tomb beneath the Aedicule and roll aside that stone and stride out into the sunlight? Of course not, but like all the good stories it has a powerful meaning that can inform the way we live our lives.