The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre contains some of the most holy sites in Christendom. While most church buildings give people some sense of their size as one approaches the building, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is quite different. The city of Jerusalem presses in so tightly on all sides that one never gets to see the outer dimensions of width or length.

Entry to Holy Sepulchre Courtyard

As one passes through an entry arch, one enters into an outer courtyard of sorts. It forms a good meet-up spot for groups who need some room to gather just before going in or just as a group is gathering to leave. In the image below, the entry to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre appears on the left side. The entry to the courtyard appears in the corner between two sides of the courtyard that appears in the middle of the photo below. Since it's a panoramic photo, the wall seen on the far left and the far right are the same wall. The entry to the church building faces the area in the right half of the image that has steps leading up and a line of people at the top of the steps. Between these two is the fourth side of the courtyard.

Holy Sepulchre Outer Courtyard

As one approaches the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one sees two archways, with a doorway remaining in only one of the two. In the photo above, we saw steps leading up just to the right of these archways. This was the old entry point to Calvary.

Above the archways are two windows. The window on the right has the famous ladder that has been in place for more than a century, frozen in position by the rules of the status quo. By remaining in place for at least two days in a row, it cannot be removed without an agreement of those in authority of the church.

Entry to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Because of the clashes between leaders of the church, the access to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been entrusted to neutral third parties--two families of Muslims. One has the key to the building. The other has the ladder to get up to the lock for the building. Both families have managed access to the building for generations.

Tracks for the Entry Doors to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Upon entering the church, one looks forward and sees two things. One is the Stone of Anointing upon which Jesus was prepared for burial. Behind that is a piece of artwork that both tells a story of the end of the life of Jesus and it helps identify where the important sites are. On the right side of the image is Calvary; in the center is the Stone of Anointing upon which Jesus laid while being prepared for burial; and on the left is the tomb of Jesus. Since the Stone of Anointing is in the middle of the image and the stone is right in front of the image, it is clear that Calvary is to the right.

Just Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Doors

Before looking to the right, it makes sense to wander forward and to the right to find the foundations upon which the crucifixion took place. One sees a seemingly unremarkable outcropping of stone. This was the site of an ancient quarry. When the quarriers came across this stone, they would have immediately stopped work in that area and moved on to another area. Why? Because of the reddish content that reveals ironization. Ironization is where iron exists in the stone, and it oxidizes. Oxidized iron is rust and crumbles into powder. It makes the rock useless for building. Thus, this is rock the builders rejected. By rejecting it, this part of the quarry remains higher than the areas where rock is removed for various construction projects. The Romans would use this high section of land for high-profile crucifixions, since it was much higher than the surrounding area and people would see the disgraced people from a great distance.

Calvary's Ironized Foundational Stone

Ironized Portion of Stone on the Left

With this background, let's return to the entry of the church. The door to the church is visible along the rightmost edge of this photo. The second archway that used to provide access to the building was walled off after Saladin captured Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187. The following photo also shows that if the other doorway hadn't been sealed off, it would make the interior ascending stairway impractical, since it is right behind the walled-off entryway. But this also provides a way to Calvary that makes the exterior stairway obsolete. The single access point to the church was preferable, allowing a single doorway to secure. This looked so picturesque without having to edit the photo.

Steps Up to Calvary

So many people have climbed these stairs that they gradually wear down. So the steps are uneven.

Worn Steps to Calvary

From the top of the stairs, one can look down at the Stone of Anointing. If I had this to do over again, I would try to step forward a little bit to see if I could see the structure that encloses the burial place of Jesus in line with this Stone of Anointing. This angle doesn't quite show that area.

Stone of Anointing

After reaching the top and stepping a little bit forward, one can look to the right and see the site of the crucifixion of Jesus.

Adorned Area Approaching Site of Crucifixion

There is often a long line to touch the bedrock directly below where the cross of Christ stood, which is housed beneath an altar. It naturally causes one to kneel before the spot. Early morning visits often yield times as short as just having 2-4 people in front of you to having a few dozen people in line.

Site of the Crucifixion of Jesus

One only gets a few seconds before one should move on, exiting to the left, where there are candles lit for various intentions.

Above Calvary
Candles After Calvary

After a moment of prayer and reflection, one heads back to the stairs. But one should use the other set of stairs that are directly in front of the stairs used to get up to Calvary. This makes it easier for everyone to come and go from the site. Once at the base, one can look to the left and see the Stone of Anointing, but one should first check out the Chapel of Adam underneath the crucifixion site. There is an ancient tradition that suggests the first Adam was buried on the same hill as Jesus, the New Adam. But this chapel shows something unique to the bedrock beneath the crucifixion of Jesus. Testing of the crack shows it formed during the earthquake that occurred upon the death of Jesus. It is the ONLY such crack in the bedrock that's ever been found in all of Jerusalem that dates to that event.

Crack Caused by Earthquake when Jesus Died

Exiting the back of the Chapel of Adam, one sees the Stone of Anointing upon which Jesus was prepared for burial. Beyond that and slightly to the right is the burial place of Jesus.

Anointing Stone of Jesus
One can see the Chapel of Adam directly beneath the site of the crucifixion with the Stone of Anointing in the foreground of some photos.

The site of crucifixion, anointing, and burial form a nearly straight line. Just as in the image seen upon entering the church, the burial place is on the left. The Stone of Anointing is closer to the middle. And the site of the crucifixion is on the right.

Burial Site, Stone of Anointing, and Crucifixion Site

As one takes a few steps farther from the entry of the church building, one finds the structure built upon the site where Jesus was buried.

Burial Site for Jesus as Seen from near the Church Entry

The site of the burial of Jesus was covered up and a pagan temple was placed on top of it at one point. This helped preserve and mark it for future generations in a way that mere destruction wouldn't have accomplished. At another time in history, the Muslims came and destroyed the area, leaving only the slab upon which Jesus was laid. And in 1009, even that was broken up, which was among the triggers of the Crusades. The holy sites were not only in the hands of people who would enslave or kill Christians, but now they were destroying the holy sites. Some crusades sought to protect the sites, while others tried to free enslaved Christians. The broken stone upon which Jesus was placed has many stones above it now, but the place remains marked, and one can touch the upper stone.

Saint Helena originally built a church 3 times the height of the current Church of the Holy Sepluchre and left the stone exposed so as many people could easily touch it as possible. But a later rebuilding of the site enclosed it in such a way that people have to file in single file, as many as 6 at a time, waiting in the outer chamber, and then going into the inner chamber for a brief moment before having to exit upon hearing the knock of the person in charge at that time.

Tomb of Jesus Enclosure

Tomb of Jesus from the Front
Just Before Entering Tomb of Jesus (no photos allowed inside)

From here, there are other chapels throughout the building, including one on the back side of the burial tomb of Jesus. But the spot most distant from this location is another site relevant to the crucifixion. If one returns to the stone that sticks out into the hall just below Calvary and continues just a little beyond that, one will find some steps going down to a well-adorned chapel. If it's cold outside, and you want to warm up, you will find this chapel very inviting. It was close to freezing temperatures outside when I visited, and the temperatures inside seemed colder. But at the top of the stairs, I could feel warm air rising out of the chapel. The ground temperature is usually in the 50s. So when the church cools down into the 30s or 40s, this makes one of the lower spots in the church warmer, and the warm air rises out from the Chapel of Saint Helena. One level below that is the location where the True Cross was found. Since that room is the lowest point, even the coldest air coming down into the chapel can warm up a little on the way down to the lowest point, and it doesn't just settle in the chapel.

Along the walls, one finds all sorts of crosses carved into the walls. One sees a depiction of Saint Helena with the cross.

Crosses Carved by Visitors on the Way to the True Cross Site
Saint Helena Holding the Cross of Christ
Chapel of Saint Helena

One goes to the right and continues in a similar direction as one took to get down to the chapel to find the stairs going down to where the True Cross was found. Since Calvary was a tall hill, the cross was discarded on the back side of the hill, which sent it far down compared to the other sites. Other crosses were found in the area. So when Saint Helena (the mother of Constantine) had to discern which cross was the True Cross, the crosses were tested in a way that demonstrates the power God works through relics. Some tellings suggest a man was brought back to life, while others just claim miraculous healing. Only the second cross, which was also the only of the three that seemed likely had nail marks in it, and it is the only one that had the miraculous workings of God occurring.

Seeking the True Cross -- Steps Down to the Area

Steps Down from the Chapel of Saint Helena to the Site the True Cross was Found

The True Cross was found here.

Marker of the True Cross Finding
True Cross Marker

On one of the times I visited the site, I spent some time in the Chapel of Saint Helena. She became special to me when I was in the presence of her when I was able to handle her relic among more than 140 other relics. At that time, I felt a pain in my hand that made me think of the pains one might feel with stigmata. I hadn't looked into it much at that point, but I have since realized that some people live with hidden stigmata, which is more painful but less socially awkward than having open wounds bleeding and smelling of roses. In many religious moments after this time with Helena, I felt the pain again. The pain was in the midst of my palms, where many people think the nails were placed when Jesus was crucified. But He had the nails placed in his wrists. One time, while feeling the pain, instead of applying pressure to the point where the pain was felt, I applied pressure to the wrist and felt more relief. The sensation doesn't always occur when I'm near her relics. But I did many tests of handling other relics and going back to hers, feeling the pain come and go. The pain doesn't occur in non-religious situations, so it seemed like like carpal tunnel syndrome or any other strain or cramp. So needless to say, between the significant role that Saint Helena played in marking the holy sites and recovering holy relics and the special place she has in my heart, I was pleased to see a chapel for her.

Anyway, within a few minutes of settling into a spot in the Chapel of Saint Helena, some other visitors entered the area. One who had gone lower to the site of the True Cross's finding had returned and met up with another. She was saying that there wasn't much down there. I realized they weren't finding what they sought. So I approached them and found that they wanted to touch the stone upon which the crucifixion occurred. That of course is Calvary atop a hill, and we are far below that at this location. I chose to bring them to the place, since I had time, and it was better than hoping that any directions couldn't be misunderstood. So we went up as far as the True Cross had been thrown down the hill. This was one of my favorite memories of the times I spent in the Holy Sepulchre.

I also enjoyed the 6:30 AM High Mass. It's the one time when the organ and chant is allowed, due to the rules of the status quo. On the last morning that I went there, it seemed like the mass may have started as much as 2 minutes early. Another person was still saying some prayers loudly for their time of approved worship, and since it seemed to be running over a bit on time, the organ started very loudly and abruptly.

The sequence of viewing the sites within the church allowed me to get some idea of the arrangement the first time, but it wasn't a very clear picture. Only upon going back in some free time did I see just how close many of the sites were, and I came to realize just how small the church is.

I was happy to see it early in the morning on many occasions, and also during daylight. The inside is relatively dark. We approached it the first time by praying the Stations of the Cross. Each Lent going forward will allow me to remember the path of our Lord that ended on the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

I was happy we went with two priests who were able to concelebrate the mass there, and that both of them would go there each morning. One would invite others to accompany him. This built greater numbers of people who would visit the site. We would be on our own for an hour or so, so it's not like we all went there and did everything together. It was nice to travel in a group during those dark hours.

Of the sites in Jerusalem, this is the definite high point.