My sleep cycle is all messed up, so I woke up at 3 a.m., local time (or maybe it was just my 3 a.m. potty break). So, after four or five hours of sleep, I couldn't get back to sleep. Since it was still early in the evening back in the U.S. I gave Kathleen a call. Since I couldn't sleep I decided to do something unique. I read in a guidebook that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre opens at 5 a.m., so why not get down there as soon as possible and beat the crowds?
This is the church where a shrine dedicated to the tomb of Jesus was originally built in the 4th century. Plus, there is a shrine to Golgotha, Hebrew for “Place of the Skull” or in Latin “Calvary.” Archeological excavations indicate that this is a quite possible site of the Crucifixion since it was outside of the first century city walls, and it was a quarry in which there were found rock hewn tombs in the first century. So, maybe, although we don't really know for sure.
It was still a little dark when I started walking from my hotel to the church. So, that made me a little nervous, but I figured that any robbers had gone to bed by 5 a.m.. I did meet a group of about ten college age students entering the hotel at 5 a.m., and it was quite obvious that they had spent the night on the local club circuit, and were not going to join me on the trip to the holy sepulchre. Fortunately there were some orthodox Jews walking ahead of me on their way to the western wall for early morning prayers, so I was not completely alone.
Once we got closer to the church I split paths with the Jews, and I was again walking alone. About 50 yards from the church entrance I heard a rooster crow, which was kind of eerie. I thought of Peter denying Jesus three times (Matthew 26:75), and my own sins (“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). When I entered the church I wasn't exactly sure where to go, but I saw a couple of older women sitting in front of what looked like the shrine, so I sat and started reading Psalm 22. Remember Jesus' quotation of that psalm as he drew his last breaths: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Mt. 27:46). Of course there are other predictions in Psalm 22 as well, but this was what stayed with my mind and heart for the rest of the morning, to think of what Jesus did for me and you.
So, we sat outside of the shrine for a little while until a Roman Catholic priest entered the outer shrine, which is a little worship area about 10 feet by 10 feet. They did some kind of ritual inside of the shrine that I couldn't see or hear because there is one doorway in to the interior and I was sitting at the wrong angle to see inside the door. By this time there was the head priest, and a couple of assistant priests inside of the tomb. Outside of the tomb were a couple of nuns and a few old women and me (who gets up at 5 am to go to church?). When one of the priests motioned to come in I figured I might as well be a participant. This is why I was here. The priest led in a Catholic mass, speaking in Latin the whole time. I know very little Latin, though I picked up a word here and there, and there are some cognate words that overlap with Greek, Spanish, and English. So, most of the time I thought about different Scripture (Psalm 22, 1 John 1:9... “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us....”). When the priest came to “Santos, Santos, Santos” which I'm pretty sure means “Holy, Holy, Holy...” I thought of Isaiah's vision in the temple (Isaiah 6) and the heavenly temple that the apostle John envisioned (Rev. 4:8 - “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.”). Then the priest and the people said, “Hallelujah” AND THAT'S JUST WHAT I THOUGHT, “Hallelujah” because Jesus is not in that tomb. And “hallelujah” because “he who had no sin became sin for us so that in him we might have the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). It's taken care of. It's done. And now “we have” his righteousness. It's not that we don't sin, but our sin is covered. For most of the time I just followed the service. I've been to enough Roman Catholic worship services to know you just follow along and do what everybody else is doing. When they did the sign of the cross I did the sign of the cross. When they were kneeling I knelt. When we passed the handshake of peace I smiled at the old ladies and passed the peace. When I couldn't understand the service I just prayed quietly myself.
I passed on taking communion because I know that I shouldn't do it, since I'm not Roman Catholic, and even more so because my theology won't let me. Even at the tomb of Jesus, it's fairly clear to me that Jesus and Paul were speaking of the wine and bread as a symbol that points to the reality beyond the symbol, and not that mere drink and food would become the blood and body of Jesus. Jesus spoke in metaphors, parables, and allegories all the time. And communion is a big object lesson. This was also my answer to Rick the computer programmer last night. He asked me if here in Jerusalem we are closer to God than when we are back home? My answer to him is that we are not any closer to God, but we have the opportunity to grow closer to God because the object lessons are larger here in Israel. I believe that it was Martin Luther, in the middle ages, who didn't like pilgrimages to Jerusalem because of this very reason. He wanted to make sure that people knew going on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem does not automatically make you any more like Jesus or closer to Jesus. It's what you do with it that counts.
After the worship service the priests came out of the inner inner shrine which is even smaller than the outer shrine, kind of like the ancient holy of holies. The inner inner shrine had space for three people to stand in front of an altar underneath which is a marble slab, supposedly over the spot of Jesus' tomb. Again, it seems highly unlikely to me that they have the exact spot, but it might be close, so who knows? Anyway, there were two people who ducked under this little door and entered inside the inner inner area. There was room for one more, and I was next in line, so again I thought, “Why not?” The two women started kissing the marble slab, but there is no way I was going to kiss it. People here are always kissing things. The Jews are kissing the western wall and in the churches people are kissing different shrines and rocks. They can kiss all the rocks they want. I'm not criticizing anybody else, but I am not kissing a rock. All I could think of was how many germs that marble slab accumulates in a day, and do they use Windex or disinfectant on it? I sure hope so.
So, we were in the inner, inner sanctum for about two minutes, when one of the priests started yelling at us, “Out, out.... the morning is for the mass.” I guess that one of the other groups (Armenians, Greek, Copts, who knows, wanted to get their mass started. I didn't feel too bad about it. I had worshiped and it seems to that the tomb belongs to the world, and not to one church or another. By the way, the different religious groups are always fighting over who has jurisdiction over different parts of the church, and sometimes fights break out between priests, monks, and worshipers. Then, the police have to sometimes intervene and calm down everyone's emotions. The fights were so contentious and ongoing that about 150 years ago (1852) a truce was declared, and these days there is no particular Christian group that has the keys to church. Instead, it is opened every morning at 5 am by a Muslim keeper of the keys! And in fact this job has been performed by a member of the same Muslim family for several generations. Things just work a bit differently over here, but it also reminds me that territorial power structure fights are some of the ugliest sins in the world.
After the priest yelled at us I walked out of the shrine and then looked around at the rest of the church before going back to the hotel for breakfast. Heading out of the church the rooster crowed again, so maybe they leave him around so that all pilgrims are reminded of our humble nature, and even going to church early in the morning doesn't overcome this fleshly nature or our troubling problems. After three cups of coffee I was off and going again.
Addendum: This picture is actually from the top of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where the Ethiopian Christian and Coptic priests live. They are the poorest of the priests, and actually live on top of the church in little huts. Since they are so poor it is customary to leave a small offering for them when you pass through the chapel door, which is in the middle of the picture.