Awakening at the tomb

I am delighted to be back on the Times of Israel after an absence of six months.

As regular readers will remember, I am a Dominican friar and a Catholic priest. Lately, for study reasons, I have been moving around between various parts of our Dominican world. At times, I haven’t had access to the official church censor who (as is noted in my bio on the left) must approve every post I write.

That situation has been fixed.

And so I have the privilege of coming back to this platform and, virtually, of coming back to Israel.

The Israel I love: as a sort of love-note to the Land, I decided to share with you something about Israel; about Jerusalem.

From my own perspective.

But, as it’s something close and personal, it will be something dreadfully Christian.

When I first came to Jerusalem almost 10 years ago, I hastened on foot not to the Kotel (I discovered that later) but to the Holy Sepulchre. I’m talking about the great basilica-church in the Christian Quarter of the Old City that contains — we believe — both the site of Jesus’s death (Calvary — the Latin word — or Golgotha in Aramaic — based on the Hebrew root גלל‬, from which the word for skull, גֻּלְגֹּלֶת‬, is derived) and the site of his burial (and resurrection).

This is a place of which there is one in the world.

It is a contradiction and a scandal. It is in the heart of the Jewish capital and yet many Jews wouldn’t go near it.

It’s prickly.

And it’s a reason why, at this moment, I miss Israel.

So, for those who wish, I invite you now to go down into the Old City and go back to the Tomb with me:

You go to the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre when you want the real thing.

What you can’t find at the mall, you will get at the shuk.

What you can’t find in Milwaukee, you will get in Jerusalem.

This is the place where the Divine Messiah was crucified, died and was buried. Calvary and the Tomb are here, contained in one church. If you want to see them, come. Just be careful: this church smacks you in the pisk.

An engraving of the Sepulchre from 1728 CE. (Wikimedia)

The Sepulchre is the holiest site in Christendom. For centuries, Christians risked enslavement; they impoverished themselves and defied death by shipwreck or the scimitar to come here. This is a hardscrabble church. This is a carnal and an incarnate church.

Christians say that, in Christ, the Master of Creation came into the blood and tallow of our creaturely lives. The Carpenter had dirt under his fingernails, and so does the Holy Sepulchre.

Did you expect the place would be set in solitude on a hilltop or a parade ground? A pastel oasis in a garden? We’re adults here.

The basilica’s face droops at the back of an uneven plaza of ancient stones that you must go down stairs to enter. It’s encumbered by anonymous buildings on three sides. A minaret looms over it: there are two mosques in the immediate neighborhood. God with us.

Go through that time-blasted door and you are channeled, not into an awesome nave, but through the ruptured side of the church.

Inside, there’s a wall that stops you short with an over-bright mosaic showing the dead Christ.

The soapy smell of Eastern incense is everywhere. A tangle of brass lamps blocks the view.

Under them lies a glossy, coffin-sized stone. Ladies from Russia are on their knees around the stone, kissing it, big haunches in the air.

It’s the Stone of Unction, the slab on which the naked, dead Jesus was scrubbed and rubbed with oil before being wrapped in a shroud. (That part at least seems, to me, Jewish. I think of a chevra kadisha.)

But here, the ladies dump water out of plastic bottles over the catafalque and scoop it up or sop it with towels, then dribble it back into the bottles. A keepsake.

The hill of Calvary is to your right. Go up the narrow stairs. Avoid the Romanian nun coming down against traffic. A Mexican tour-guide’s umbrella is in your ribs, so move swiftly. Get to the top and wait.

When the Greek monk glares in your direction, approach the altar of the crucifixion. You see a conventional painting of the Virgin Mary and Saint John at the foot of the cross and the face of Jesus, baking in the sun.

Someone in some century thought it would be nice to embroider this patch with silver coronets and drapery.

There’s a marble table in front of it all, marked in Greek — under it, a round hole in the floor, fringed in silver.  Put your hand down there and you can touch the rock into which the Cross was planted. The Christian’s bare hand touches the root of the Tree of Salvation.

When the monk grunts, get out.

Try to get down the slick stairs on the other side of Golgotha before the Armenian seminarians come through in procession. Their chant is hypnotic, but some of them are built like boilermakers. They have a swift gait and heavy elbows.

By the time they reach the site of the Tomb — another low marble altar over another ancient cranny encased in an onion-domed kiosk on the other side of the church  — they will be dangerously close to the turf of the Greeks and the Roman Catholics.

Our Roman representatives in this scrum are the Franciscan friars. They’re a plucky bunch. The good brothers will let the Armenians know they’re pressing their luck by blasting Italian church music on their pipe organ. You can’t hear a word of Armenian then.

The back of the kiosk (if you want to be genteel, the aedicule) in which the Tomb is caged has been claimed by Copts as a mini-shrine. A Syrian chapel is across the aisle. Ethiopian monks are camped out in huts on the roof.

Each eyes his brother warily. Each defends his turf and guards his rights. This is the universal Church of Christ.

These are the creatures God came to save.

In America, where I was born, there are houses of worship where the carpet and the bright lighting and the beige make you forget you left your living room. Then there are the churches engineered to overawe. Awe is better than banality, but as your Sunday shoes click across the slick floors in our big shrines and cathedrals, as you thumb a pristine hymnal and sit and mind your manners, you could be forgiven for forgetting that the Lord died a thief’s death on a Friday afternoon at the town dump. (For that is what Golgotha was.)

The Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre cures you of your forgetting. Here is a church smelling of summer clothes and smoke, with walls incised with graffiti from all centuries since the eleventh and floors cleaned only occasionally with an old straw whisk.

The Christians can’t agree on who should lock the door at night, so a Muslim family does it.

Sometimes, especially on Easter, monks from different countries get into a fistfight and whack each other with a processional cross or a candlestick. No matter: Israel’s Jewish policemen are there to break it up.

We worship with the body here. We sweat here, cry here, sing here and fight here — right here — in front of the Tomb of our Lord: Here we are. Save us.

A few years back, the celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins used this sanctuary as proof of the absurdity of religion. He didn’t get it. The God Dawkins rejects isn’t our God, but a grade-schooler’s grandpa perched on fluffy white clouds. The God we know is totally transcendent — and utterly immanent.

Every pilgrimage is prayer with the body. Every pilgrim’s body becomes a prayer. We trudge around this huge and broken building on our busted feet in dusty sandals and know he went before us.

We are followers of Jesus. We duck into the kiosk and squeeze into the inner chamber and hunker down and peer into the Tomb:

But when they went in they did not find the body of Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” (Gospel of Luke, 24:1-6)

Here — now — we get it.

About the Author
Born in Wisconsin, Erik Ross is a priest of the Dominican Order who lives in Switzerland and comes often to Israel. For many years, he was stationed in Poland. He has long been active in Jewish-Christian conversations. He writes here with the permission of his major superior.
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