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Throngs at Jerusalem’s Church of Holy Sepulchre

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Christian pilgrims touch the Stone of Unction, which commemorates the anointing of Jesus before his burial, inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem 29 March. Although the stone's connection to Christ’s burial is improbable, that does not det er believers from devotion. The stone has been smoothed by centuries of veneration. (photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)  

04 Apr 2012 – by Judith Sudilovsky

JERUSALEM (CNS) — As Easter approaches, it can be a daunting task to find a quiet moment of contemplation at any of Jerusalem’s holy sites, but it is especially so at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Throngs of pilgrim groups and tourists with cameras pack the church, posing for photos at the spots where Jesus was crucified or laid in the tomb. Some place souvenirs on the sacred sites for a blessing.

But at the Stone of Unction, which commemorates the anointing of Jesus before burial, some faithful find the noise from other visitors fades away. The smell of rose water with which the stone is periodically bathed permeates the immediate vicinity.

Here is a place and a moment when they can feel the strength of prayer.

Teame Tesfamichael, 24, a Catholic refugee from Eritrea, was oblivious to the flashing of camera lights and the jostling of other pilgrims who had come to touch the stone. At one corner of the stone he slowly knelt, bending from the waist down to place his forehead reverently on the stone. His lips moved in silent prayer as his hands clasped the stone’s edge. He kissed the stone, then again placed his forehead against it. He did this several times. And as others came and went, snapping their pictures and placing their souvenirs on the rock, Tesfamichael remained in prayer.

“I have no words to express what it means for me to pray here,” he said after he finished praying. “More than anything, I feel the one who died here for me. I feel humble to be here ... I am so simple,” he said softly.

Several years ago, Tesfamichael fled Eritrea, crossing the Sahara Desert to Libya. There, he tried unsuccessfully to reach Europe before crossing back to Egypt and finally reaching Israel via the Sinai Desert.

He has lived in Jerusalem for three years and said he comes to this spot often to give himself strength.

“I never thought I would be here in Jerusalem, but God gave me this,” Tesfamichael said. “When I come here I get my mind relaxed when things are difficult. He died for me and I want to cry here like one of his disciples.”

A contemplative Catholic nun from Belgium who lives in a Jerusalem cloistered community said she comes to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher once a year to be “closer physically to the mystery which happened here.”

“It is to touch my faith,” said the nun, who asked not to be identified, as she gazed on the Stone of Unction.

“It is not only a spiritual thing but also a physical thing, and I imagine myself one of the people there,” she said. “For me this is the mystery. Christ was laid down here and it is his humanity. Every year my faith is renewed with new details.”

Though this rectangular slab of stone has been smoothed by centuries of prayer and devotion, the actual stone itself dates only to 1810, said Dominican Father Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, a New Testament scholar at the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem. He said the tradition of the stone first appeared in the 12th century.





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Tags: Middle East Christians Jerusalem Holy Land Pilgrimage/pilgrims Easter