Not a pilgrim but (Part 2) – Via Dolorossa and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

No I wasn’t a pilgrim. But how could a tourist be in Jerusalem and not visit these famous sites. So I decided I would explore these famous sites. Continuing today with the the second oldest of the three religions in Jerusalem, Christianity and its holy sites – the via Dolorossa and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Walking around Jerusalem, map in hand, made me wonder if there were more Christian churches in and around the old city then there were synagogues and mosques.

Within a 5km radius of the old city was the Ethiopian Church (Ethiopian Orthodox), Russian Cathedral (Russian Orthodox), Church of the Dormition (Roman Catholic), St Peter Gallicantu Church (Roman Catholic), St George’s Cathedral (Anglican), St Stephen’s Basilica (Roman Catholic), Gethsemane Basilica of the Agony (Roman Catholic), St Mary Magelene’s Church (Russian Orthodox). Within the old city was St Saviour’s Church (Roman Catholic), Church of the Redeemer (Lutheran), Cathedral of St James (Armenian Orthodox), Christ Church (Anglican), St Helena’s Church (Coptic Orthodox), Church of St Constantine and Helena (Greek Orthodox), Mar Jacob Church (Arab Orthodox)…

You get the point.

But the one place that all the churches want to be present at is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site of all Christianity.

This church, originally built in 335 during the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine and is believed to be the site of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Why is this important? Let’s look at the core of what Christians believe, explained in the Nicene Creed.

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.

And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Jesus’ holiness, crucifixion and resurrection are vital to the salvation of mankind and this church is believed to be built on where Jesus was crucified and then resurrected. Making it the dead place of Jesus and the birthplace of Christianity.

Jerusalem Church of the Holy Sepulcre DiagramSource

How to get there?

I decided to follow the way that pilgrims usually go, starting with the Via Dolorossa, the way of the Cross. The way of the cross is the path that Jesus took, humiliated and paraded in the streets after being whipped and assaulted brutally, towards the site of his crucifixion.

Pilgrims leave in the bus loads and take this same path to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Almost on cue, the skies parted with tears and the umbrellas of the pilgrims came out. A local stall holder came running out, “korea, korea, umbrella, umbrella”. I walked on trying to get to shelter as fast as I could.

Humans give meaning to inanimate things. The streets of the Via Dolorossa are normal, uninspiring at best. The streets look just like any other. They are normal streets, with numbers and signs that bear a symbolic meaning to pious Christians. But this street that looks like any other has the power to brings tears to pilgrims because it actualises the stories of their faith.

The path of the via Dolorossa is not straight but eventually leads to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

I got there before the tourist groups did, they were still stopping at the various stations of the Via Dolorossa, and entered a quiet church. Where were these sites though? Without a plan or a guide I walked around the church and explored the various nooks and crannies that opened up to me.

Altars and prayer rooms of all sorts of denominations rounded the domed church, some were Roman Catholic, others were Orthodox (Greek, Russian, Armenian etc).

In fact the church was divided into sections for the Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthoox, Syrian Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox Churches.

Jerusalem Church of the Holy Sepulcre Possession MapSource

The altars were ornate and elaborate, but where were these holy sites? I had made a round around the church compound and was still no where closer to finding these two sites. My feet had brought me back to the starting point, the tour groups had still not yet arrived. But just as I was about to give up and wait for the tour groups, a procession came down from the stairs. A Catholic priest led by altar servers had just completed Mass,

Following them were sisters from the Missionaries of Christ, set up by Mother Teresa. They left the mass and knelt before a stone structure kissing it.

I went up the stairs they came from and I found it, the Altar of Calvary, Golgotha.

This altar sits on a hill, where the crucification is meant to take place.

A few believers went into a small alcove under the altar. I found out later that this was the base that the cross of Jesus was located.

As I came down I saw a group of pilgrims with their tour guide moving to centre of the church. I didn’t know where they were going but I followed them.

There was a queue and I joined it. What was this place? What if I had to do some sort of prayer ritual that I didn’t know? Would I offend anyone? I decided to join the queue anyway.

We entered a small room with a lit candle, and two by two the people in the queue entered an even smaller room. I looked at the decoration around the entrance to the even smaller room and then I got it.

This was the tomb of Jesus. See in the carvings above the two women with jars, those are the female diciples who went to Jesus’ tomb to dress the dead body of Jesus with perfumes for the three days. See next the winged angel on the right, this was the angel of god who asked who they were looking for, because God has risen.

The place where Jesus was lain to rest and resurrected.

I was stunned at how tiny the space was. I walked in and was brought face to face with a bed just in front of me. I could touch it and feel it. It was so small, it was so humble, it was unimaginably powerful.

The church itself was large and impressive, but the two main sites – the altar of calvary and the altar of the tomb were much smaller, but  much more powerful. A grand structure has the ability to take your breath away for a while, but a small site like this has even more power and influence. The fact that such a powerful act could take place in such a small space was mind-blowing.

If a person like me was moved, how could a truly pious individual not be moved. Especially those on who their life has been based on the faith in the creed of Christianity, how could they not kneel down when faced with the actualisation of their faith.

An old gentlemen coughed outside the room.

I walked out and left.



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