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Overnight in the Holy Sepulchre

By Pat McCarthy

Getting permission to stay overnight in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — the ancient edifice in Jerusalem that enshrines  the place where Jesus died and rose again — is easier than I expect.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre overnight

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built over Calvary and the Tomb of Christ (Seetheholyland.net)

The Franciscan sacristan consults a slip of paper with numbers on it, checking he’s within his quota of 15. “No sleeping,” he warns.

Sleep? At the most sacred place on earth? Then I remember the disciples who could not stay awake one hour with Jesus during his agony — their drowsiness recalled by sleeping figures under the altar in the Grotto of Gethsemane.

My wife Suzie and I had led our fifth pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Our pilgrims had gone home and we were spending time by ourselves in the Old City of Jerusalem.

 

Door-locking follows protocol

The dun-coloured Romanesque basilica stands gloomily against the darkening sky when we arrive, well ahead of the 7pm closing time we have been given.

We wait on one side to watch the door-locking ceremony.

Two gun-toting Israeli policemen see the last visitors off the premises and an Orthodox clergyman pushes the massive door shut. Representatives of the other denominations, one a brown-habited Franciscan with a crewcut, see that protocol is observed.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre overnight

An Orthodox clergyman closes the door of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Seetheholyland.net).

Outside, a man in a striped T-shirt — from one of the two Muslim families who for more than 750 years have been charged with holding the key and opening or closing the church — climbs a ladder and locks the door.

He then passes the ladder through a square hatch in the door, so it can remain inside until opening time.

The clergy depart and our small group of all-nighters — 15 altogether, including four nuns, from Mexico, the United States, New Zealand — is alone in lamp-lit shadows beneath the sombre darkness of the great dome.

 

Reverential silence permeates the building

I’ve spent many hours in this church over the years, marvelling that mind-boggling events of salvation history happened right here. Always it has been abuzz with visitors — cameras flashing, cellphones ringing, the chatter of conversation, tourists getting their photos taken in front of Christ’s Tomb . . . .

Church of the Holy Sepulchre overnight

The edicule containing the Tomb of Christ, with doors closed while sacristans work inside (Seetheholyland.net).

Tonight it is quiet. This unlikely fact is worth restating: It is quiet. Quiet to climb the timeworn steps to the mezzanine floor of Calvary. Quiet to visit the Tomb where Christ lay — the site of the Resurrection. Quiet to descend 29 steps to the underground Chapel of St Helena and, further down, the rock-cut cistern that is now the Chapel of the Finding of the True Cross.

A reverential silence permeates this vast building with its sprawling jumble of 20-plus chapels and worship spaces.

At the edicule (“little house”) built over the Tomb, its unstable walls held together by iron girders installed in 1934 during the British mandate, Orthodox sacristans move in to trim the flickering oil lamps and pick up rubbish left by visitors.

 

‘He is risen! He is not here.’

Church of the Holy Sepulchre overnight

Inside the Chapel of the Angel, with a low doorway leading to the Tomb. The pedestal at right contains what is believed to be part of the rolling stone that closed the Tomb (Seetheholyland.net).

When their work is done, we can visit the Tomb in our own time. Past memories of being herded in and hurried out by a Greek Orthodox priest controlling a motley queue of visitors behind police barriers are best forgotten.

The edicule has two chambers. The first, the Chapel of the Angel, is an antechamber leading to the Tomb. In the Tomb chamber, a marble slab on the right covers the rock bench on which the body of Jesus lay. The slab was deliberately split in 1555 to deter the Ottoman Turks from looting such a fine piece of marble.

Half a dozen ornate lamps and a similar number of candles burn, casting a glow on artworks and vases of flowers. The sweet smell of incense lingers. The angel’s words resonate: “He is risen! He is not here.”

Leaving the Tomb, I forget how low the doorway is and bang my head on the carved stone arch.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre overnight

The marble slab covering the rock bench on which Christ’s body lay. The slab was deliberately split in 1555 to deter Turks from looting it (Seetheholyland.net).

Sitting on a bench in front of the Tomb, one of our all-nighters makes notes on her iPad. At the altar of Mary Magdalene, two nuns sit and pray, their backpacks beside them.

In the distance a church bell rings. Somewhere in the church a dove coos. In the living quarters, a key turns and a door opens. Feet hasten on stone steps, evoking an image of Mary Magdalene and the apostles running to the Tomb.

 

Orthodox faithful arrive for Divine Liturgy

Shortly after 10.30pm a cool breeze sweeps through the church. The door has been opened and scores of Orthodox faithful, the women wearing head scarves, stream in for their Divine Liturgy.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre overnight

Orthodox faithful, arriving for their Divine Liturgy, venerate the Stone of Anointing that commemorates the preparation of Christ’s body for burial (Seetheholyland.net).

They crowd the Stone of Anointing and queue to enter the Tomb. Some light bunches of tapers from candles outside the Tomb, then hold them under a snuffer to extinguish them to take home.

An air of business prevails as Orthodox clergy and sacristans bustle around to prepare for the vigil service. It reminds us that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — which the Orthodox more appropriately call the Church of the Anastasis (Resurrection) — has been predominantly an Orthodox place of worship since 1757.

Six churches share the building: Greek, Armenian, Syriac, Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox, and Catholics. The Greeks rate first in the pecking order, followed by the Catholics (known as Latins in the Holy Land).

A Greek priest emerges from the Katholikon — the main worship space, which is the Greek Orthodox cathedral — and physically uncrosses the legs of an unsuspecting all-nighter. Crossing the legs is a no-no to the Orthodox, who believe we should always sit attentively in church.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre overnight

Orthodox clergy undertake an energetic round of incensing before their Divine Liturgy (Seetheholyland.net).

An energetic round of incensing, including the Catholic chapels, precedes the Orthodox liturgy. The service itself — in front of the edicule, with the congregation standing — is a splendid ritual of ornate vestments, bells, chants, incense and processions.

The only words we recognise are “Kyrie Eleison”. This plea for the Lord’s mercy is repeated time and again.

As we move closer to observe, a Greek priest confronts us. “You Orthodox?” he demands. We shake our heads. “Go, go.” Vigorous arm movements support his words of muscular, rather than ecumenical, Christianity.

 

Orthodox service takes four and a quarter hours

We retreat to the calm of the Catholic Chapel of the Apparition, which commemorates the tradition that the resurrected Christ appeared first to his Mother. In the choir behind us, Franciscan friars begin to chant their Office.

Around 3am a series of resounding responses from the Orthodox congregation heralds the end of the service — four and a quarter hours after it began.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre overnight

Behind tall candlesticks, Orthodox clergy celebrate their Divine Liturgy (Seetheholyland.net).

Gradually the stillness returns. Lamps gently flicker. Noises echo in cavernous spaces.

There’s time to meditate and pray. To bring the Risen Lord into the past, present and future of ourselves and our loved ones. To remember those who have died and gone before us. To remember those who had asked us to pray for them in the holy places.

Time to reflect on the artworks and to think of the thousands of holy people and pilgrims who have walked these flagstones.

 

Eucharist in the Tomb

Shortly before 4.30am a Franciscan invites us to the first Catholic Mass of the day — inside the edicule, in Italian.

The priest has set up an altar over the Tomb slab. Two nuns bend low to join him in that confined space. The other nine of us, one a young man wearing a Jewish prayer shawl around his shoulders, cluster elbow to elbow in the Chapel of the Angel, around a central pedestal containing what is believed to be a piece of the rolling stone used to close the Tomb.

At Communion time the priest tucks the chalice into the crook of his left elbow, holds the ciborium in his left hand, and gives the Eucharist by intinction on the tongue. The simpleness of the ritual in no way detracts from the immense reality: The Body and Blood of Christ in the very place where his body lay.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre overnight

An altar is set up over the marble slab covering the rock bench where the body of Jesus lay (Seetheholyland.net)

As we leave the church, the sequence of worship is continuing. A sing-song chant is rising from the Coptic Orthodox at their tiny altar attached to the rear of the edicule. Upstairs, Franciscan friars are concelebrating in the Chapel of Calvary.

We walk down deserted streets of shuttered shops in the Old City. A lone star stands out in the predawn sky. A rooster crows. We buy warm cinnamon croissants from a man pushing a barrow.

Our vigil is over, but the sounds and smells and images remain vivid in our minds. And we are still not sleepy.

 Pat McCarthy, a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre, directs Seetheholyland.net

Related articles:

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Church of the Holy Sepulchre chapels

Cenacle

Jerusalem

Cenacle

Cenacle or Upper Room (© Israel Ministry of Tourism)

The Cenacle room on Mt Zion in Jerusalem is where two major events in the early Christian Church are commemorated: The Last Supper and the coming of the Holy Spirit on the apostles.

• The Last Supper was the meal Jesus shared with his apostles the night before he died. During this meal he instituted the Eucharist.

• The coming of the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost, is recognised as marking the birth of the Christian Church.

The Cenacle is on the upper floor of a two-storey building near the Church of the Dormition, south of the Zion Gate in the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City.

Above it is the minaret of a Muslim mosque; immediately beneath it is the Jewish shrine venerated as the Tomb of King David (though he is not buried there).

 

Different from da Vinci

Cenacle

Pilgrims in the Cenacle (Berthold Werner)

The Cenacle is not universally accepted as the site of the “upper room” mentioned in Mark 14:15 and Luke 22:12.

But archaeological research shows it is constructed on top of a church-synagogue built by the first-century Jewish-Christian community of Jerusalem. Fragments of plaster have been found with Greek graffiti, one of which has been interpreted as containing the name of Jesus.  This would have been the first Christian church.

The only competing site is the Syrian Orthodox Church of St Mark (also on Mt Zion), which also claims to possess the “upper room”.

Wherever the site, the original place of the Last Supper would have been a simple dining hall — quite different from those depicted in paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and other artists.

Symbol of a pelican’s blood

Cenacle

Pelicans feed on their mother’s blood on a column in the Cenacle (© Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

The present Gothic-arched Cenacle is a restoration of a Crusader chapel built in the 12th century as part of the Church of Our Lady of Mount Zion.

Among the architectural details of the Crusader period is a slender marble column supporting a stone canopy in the south-west corner. Carved into the capital at the top of the column are two young pelicans feeding on the blood their mother has drawn from her breast — symbolising Christ giving his blood for the salvation of humankind.

In the 16th century, after the Turks captured Jerusalem, the room was transformed into a mosque in memory of the prophet David. Its mihrab (a niche indicating the direction of Mecca) and stained-glass windows with Arabic inscriptions remain.

 

Where Peter was left knocking

According to one early Christian tradition, the “upper room” was in the home of Mary the mother of John Mark. He was the author of the Gospel of Mark (and presumably also the young man who fled naked, leaving behind his linen garment, to escape the authorities when Jesus was arrested in the garden at Gethsemane, an event he recorded in Mark 14:51).

This house was a meeting place for the followers of Jesus. It was inside the city walls of Jerusalem, in a quarter that was home to its most affluent residents.

It was also the house to which Peter went after an angel of the Lord released him from prison. Acts 12:12-16 says a maid named Rhoda was so overjoyed at recognising his voice that she left him knocking at the outer gate while she went to tell the gathered disciples.

 

Obtained at huge cost

The site of the Cenacle was also the first holy place the Franciscans obtained, bought in 1335 through the efforts of King Robert and Queen Sancia of Naples, “after difficult negotiations and huge expenses”.

The structures around the “upper room” are in fact remnants of the Franciscan medieval friary.

Over the centuries the buildings the Franciscans constructed were frequently destroyed and friars were ill-treated and even killed.

 

In Scripture:

The Last Supper: Matthew 26:17-30; Mark 14:12-25; Luke 22:7-23; John 13:1—17:26

Institution of the Eucharist: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

The coming of the Holy Spirit: Acts 2:1-4

Administered by: Israel Ministry of the Interior

Tel.: 972-2-6713597 (Franciscan chapel)

Open: 8am-5pm daily

 

 

References

Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Mackowski, Richard M.: Jerusalem: City of Jesus (William B. Eerdmans, 1980)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: Keys to Jerusalem (Oxford University Press, 2012)
Notley, R. Steven: Jerusalem: City of the Great King (Carta Jerusalem, 2015)
Pixner, Bargil: With Jesus in Jerusalem – his First and Last Days in Judea (Corazin Publishing, 1996)
Poni, Shachar: “Renovating Royal Tomb” (The Jewish Voice, February 5, 2010)
Walker, Peter: In the Steps of Jesus (Zondervan, 2006)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)

 

External links

Church of the Apostles found on Mt Zion (Biblical Archaeological Review)
The Cenacle (Biblical Archaeology)
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