Christianity’s Holiest Shrine

by Sir William J. Doyle, K.G.C.H.S.

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Pilgrims who come to Jerusalem with scriptural images of Golgotha as an imposing hill outside the walls of the city and of an empty tomb in a verdant garden will surely be puzzled and disappointed. The Gospel of John (19:17-18) says Jesus carried His cross “out of the city” to the place of the crucifixion. Today the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is well within the old city walls. Since Jesus’ day, they have moved west as the city grew.

The site of Jesus’ crucifixion and His tomb are found in a medieval church amid the old city’s narrow, crowded streets. Modern archaeology and other scholarship have verified these sites.

The earliest followers of Christ revered these sites. Yet political events helped mark them for future generations. When the Roman emperor Hadrian sought to suppress Jewish insurrection in the year A.D. 135 by destroying all native culture, he inadvertently marked the Christian shrines by building a pagan temple over them. Two centuries later, when Constantine converted to Christianity, he replaced the temple of Venus with a great basilica honoring Calvary and the tomb.

In his zeal for building a magnificent shrine, Constantine changed the natural landscape. He cut away the entire rock hill of Calvary and left only a slender column of stone about forty feet high. Then he dug into the hillside of the tomb to remove a great circle of stone and leave the tomb free to be incorporated into a new rotunda, the Anastasis. The pillar of stone from Calvary was a short distance to the east, in an open atrium. A little farther to the east he constructed a rectangular basilica called the Martyrion for devotion.

When Constantine finished, there were two lavish buildings: the Rotunda, containing the tomb, and the Martyrion. Between them was an open atrium with the stone column of Calvary. For the next two hundred years, Christian pilgrims found the two sites enshrined in this imperial splendor.

From the invasion of the Persians in 614 until the capture of Jerusalem by the First Crusade, the Basilica of Constantine suffered severe damage from various hands as well as from the great earthquake of 810. About 1030, repair was begun on the Rotunda, but the Martyrion was lost forever. After the fall of Jerusalem in 1099 to the combined Christian armies and the establishment of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, further restoration created much of today’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre. When completed, what was left of Calvary and the tomb were under one roof for the first time, much to the confusion of subsequent generations of pilgrims.

The present Church of the Holy Sepulchre may appear confusing and unimpressive on first sight, crowded as it is in the middle of the old city. Still, it is a treasure house of history and a place which inspires deep reverence and devotion.

One enters the building from the courtyard on the south side. In the constant gloom of the interior, the pilgrim finds the Stone of Unction directly ahead. It is a marble slab raised somewhat and surrounded by three sets of large candlesticks. Here, between Calvary and the tomb, Jesus’ body was prepared for burial.

Directly to the right, a steep stairway climbs to an upper level on the remaining stone of Calvary. Here, along the far wall, ornate altars commemorate the three Stations of the Cross on Calvary (XI-XIII).

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Tags: Jerusalem Christianity Pilgrimage/pilgrims Holy Sepulchre