By: Marthame Sanders
April 5, 2015
In Jerusalem, there are two pilgrimage sites that hold competing claims for our resurrection scene today, that empty garden tomb where Christ had been laid to rest. The first is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In Arabic, it is called the Church of the Resurrection, which is a far more appropriate name. Nested amid the winding streets of the Old City, the Church is surrounded by vendors selling religious knick-knacks and glow-in-the-dark Jesus figurines; that is, until you reach the open courtyard. There, shrouded clergy rush to and fro across large paving stones smoothed with the passage of time and millions of pilgrims’ feet. The place smells of history; candles and incense burn around the clock. Bells chime. In one corner, Ethiopian Coptic monks chant prayers in Amharic in front of large-eyed icons withered with time. In another, Italian tourists follow their priest, celebrating Mass in the newly-renovated Franciscan chapel. The place is huge. The architecture is chaotic, as the divisions of the Christian community through the centuries have been played out in this building. There are ecumenical committees formed to decide who can change lightbulbs and who is responsible for repairs. If this is the scene of vacant tombs and empty crosses, of stones rolled away and folded linens, it remains hidden in the solemn echoes of feet and the fervent whispers of prayer.
The other site rests outside the walls of the Old City, a short walk of ten minutes. Trinket salesmen have set up shop there as well, but this place, known by the less formal name of the Garden Tomb, becomes an instant place of respite from the noise and traffic of East Jerusalem. The place is serene. It is, in fact, a garden, and it was a garden roughly around the time of Christ, as the eager tour guides will tell you. Olive trees, blooming flowers, and the open sky surround. From one vantage point, you can look over the East Jerusalem bus terminal and see the Old City walls. And just off to the left is a cliff whose face is very much in the shape of a skull. Golgotha, perhaps? The tour of the Garden Tomb ends at its namesake – an ancient stone grave, which also possibly dates from the time of Christ. There is a stone trough in the ground directly in front of the door, a groove in which the massive stone would have been rolled to seal the tomb. There is no such stone now; only a simple wooden door that bears a sign, in English, that reads: “He is not here; for he is risen.”
In terms of history, there isn’t much competition at all. The Holy Sepulchre is the real place. Early Christians venerated the site long before there were any buildings there. The first Church building was erected in the fourth century. Even the Garden Tomb guides willingly admit as much when pressed. But, they also say, “Unlike the Holy Sepulchre, the Garden Tomb can give you the feel of what it must have been like at the time of Christ.” And though I doubt very much that Mary Magdalene had to walk through the giftshop on her way back to share the news with the disciples, and though the stones are a little too pristine to have that sense of the Holy Sepulchre’s history, I must agree with the guide. You can feel it there. You can see a skull shaped hill – even if it’s not the skull-shaped hill; and you can set foot inside a tomb – even if it’s not the tomb. It feels like the place where our Easter morning celebration took place, where stones are rolled away and figures in dazzling white bring the most absurd of good news: “He is not here, for he is risen.”
Is that enough, though? For a place to feel like it’s the place? Or is it more important for the place to actually be the place?
In part, the divide between the two places is an historical one. We Presbyterians are newcomers to the faith; the ancient holy sites are firmly entrenched in the control of the Eastern Orthodox branch of the family tree. So when a German Lutheran archaeologist learned of the ancient garden site in 1867, it quickly became the Protestant site of veneration. And even with the overwhelming evidence that this isn’t really the place, it remains a huge pilgrimage site because of that spiritual feel of being transported back in time.
And that fact, that the spiritual feeling holds such power in a place that really isn’t the place, may give us thought for how we approach our faith. There is a gift when we give a boost to the spiritual meaning of our story. The risk, however, is that we do so at the cost of its material truth. If so, then Christ’s ministry among those who live in abject poverty becomes a word only about spiritual poverty. It loses its original power of promises made to those who literally have nothing. And the words which we read this morning, “The Lord is risen; he is risen indeed,” some of their material muscle atrophies when we begin to speak only of a spiritual resurrection.
So which is it: the material essence of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or the spiritual force of the Garden Tomb?
Whenever I have had the privilege to visit Jerusalem, I have felt torn between these competing holy sites, this spiritual and material promise of the gospel. In the Garden Tomb, there is this sense of relief and respite. It becomes an escape from the overwhelming exhaustion of a land of conflict and pain, where the dual violence of Occupation and Terrorism beat down and destroy. The Garden is escape, quiet reflection, meditation.
And yet, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre became my first Jerusalem stop. There is an exquisite path through the Old City’s crooked lanes, past excitable shopkeepers and anxious pilgrims. Entering that courtyard, the sky itself opens up for the first time. In the Church, you get lost in space and time. Every visit uncovers a new nook or cranny claimed by this ancient Christian sect or that: the Armenian stairway with its grand arch; the mud huts of the Ethiopian monastery perched on the roof; the exquisite iconography of the large Greek Orthodox sanctuary; the small Egyptian Coptic chapel at the head of Christ’s tomb. Each spot is a reminder of how little we actually about church history; and, by extension, how little we really know of the fullness of God’s power and mercy.
I still don’t want to give up that spiritual feel of the Garden Tomb, this pitiful Protestant protest. But this morning, I invite you to walk with me among the cold stones of the Holy Sepulchre, as hymns of mystery mix with the smoke of incense and candles, unfurling into the ancient domes. And as the bells ring for yet another prayer in yet another language we don’t understand, may this question ring in our ears: What if this is actually the place? And what if what we have read is actually true? Not just spiritually true, but materially true as well?
And not just literally true, either; for if we only believe in a literal story of resurrection, then all we need to say here today is that Christ was dead and buried. The tomb was sealed. The angel came, the stone was moved, the Lord was raised; and one day, we, too, shall be raised. If we move away from the spiritual meaning to the literal meaning alone, then we’re done. The Easter sermon is finished and we can all move on to the rest of our Sunday plans.
But what if the story is materially true, as real as those old paving stones in the courtyard of the Holy Sepulchre? What if there is something to that haphazard building amid the crowded streets of Old Jerusalem? What if the very fabric of reality was changed on that ancient Easter morning? And what if we, who seek follow the risen Christ, are materially – really – changed by that moment of resurrection? What if we were willing to believe that the stone was rolled back every single day from our tombs? What if we are transformed into people of the Resurrection, the promise of life anew, the strange hope of encounters with dazzling angels and open graves?
The message that rings from the church bells of ancient Church is for those who have ears to hear: the promise of Resurrection is really true. It can and will transform old conflicts into new promises of reconciliation. It can and will build up what has been destroyed. It can and will bring an end to war and a beginning to peace. And it can and will transform us into the body of Christ, that community of the faithful bringing spiritual and material hope to a world so desperately hurting.
Are we listening? Do we have ears to hear? Are we willing to walk those crowded streets?