Church of The Holy Sepulchre

What I Saw In The Holy Land, 17

When I lived in Rome, I found you could always pick Americans out of the crowd at a papal audience, because they'd be the ones not dropping all pretense of prayer once the Our Father began and pressing to the front of the security walls in the hopes of shaking John Paul II's hand at the conclusion (I have the impression Benedict's crowds are so large he just travels by popemobile through St. Peter's square). You'd hear an exasperated and scandalized voice protest, "I'm sure the Holy Father would want us to pray instead." Oh, please. Can the wedding guests fast when the bridegroom is present? Similarly, if you google "Church of the Holy Sepulchre," you can find travel tip sites where many people express a similar scandal about this site; they don't find it prayerful.

It's true, there are some negatives. The Church is in disrepair. As I've written previously, you can't see what you really long to see: the site as it was. And here, as in Bethlehem, it can be disturbing to find that within these walls are not really one church, but several, with elaborate rules about who has access to the holy sites when. "Can't we all just get along?" you want to shout. Additionally, if you go only during tourist-y hours, you may be harrassed by long lines or overhearing the impious comments of other tourists. (Once when our group was on its knees to venerate Calvary, two Americans --natch!-- not travelling together happened upon each other and got into a protracted and jovial catch-up conversation about life stateside. Take it outside, boys.)

Get over it. I think the disrepair actually adds to the mystique of the place. It feels ancient. Ahem: 2000 years old, destroyed by Hadrian, then again by a mad Muslim caliph, and subject to fires and earthquakes. You try looking fresh after all that. As for the various schedules and rites: if you let them, they can be a testimony to the richness of liturgical expression within Christianity and an example of mutual cooperation. The triple (Latin, Greek, Armenian) custody of the Holy Sepulchre is an agreement more than 1000 years old, and itself now forms part of the beautiful traditions associated with the Church. There is a daily ritual of passing the keys of the church to the appropriate Christian sextons according to whose turn (or which community's feast) is being celebrated. I came to see the various rites and rules as an expression more of mutual collaboration and respect (and even ecumenism --Muslims hold custody of the keys) than one of schism.

Everything is perspective. The first morning we visited Calvary, it was Sunday at 5:30 am, and at the close of our private mass, we were in line to venerate the place where the cross had stood. I was busy repenting of my sins --every little act of selfishness having fallen heavily upon my conscience as I came face to face with the spot where their consequence was paid-- when suddenly an organ started blasting. It was discordant, to say the least. In a reflective and penitential mood, the last thing you want to hear is the triumphant tone of an organ.

However, the following Sunday, I attended the local Franciscan community's 6:00 am mass at the Holy Sepulchre --the actual site of the Resurrection-- and there the organ was exactly right. (Plus, to be honest, since the Syrian rite monks chant their Eastern-sounding hymnody at the same time, you couldn't possibly follow the parts of the mass without the organ, since the celebrant disappears into the holy sepulchre at various times.) So if you want to understand the richness and power of these holiest sites in Christendom, you owe it to yourself to come early in the morning, for Mass, but without "the masses."

Continued in the next post.