Praying at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: My Experience
Despite temperatures touching 90 degrees, prayers don’t stop at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Christian Quarter of the old city. It is hard to believe that these modest walls house the site where Christianity’s four most important events — the crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, are said to have occurred.
What is Significant about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre?
The Gospels tell us that the Lord, Jesus, was crucified at Golgotha – the place of the skull. The current complex encompasses that original location. One cannot help but feel overwhelmed by the scope of history and faith that surrounds the courtyard. Wars have been fought and tales of honor among the vanquished abound.
Who Worships at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre?
Today, the joint ownership of the Church lies mainly with the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox, and the Roman Catholic denominations.
The outer walls of the Church display signs of classic Roman and Baroque architecture. However, parts of the structure have been razed and rebuilt several times. The entrance to the complex can be accessed via a flight of stairs leading up from the‘Cardo’ — the main street of Jerusalem.
Who Holds the Keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre?
Interestingly, the keys to the Church have traditionally been kept by a Sunni Muslim family since the time of Emperor Saladin. The story goes that the Caliph Umar took possession of the Church peacefully from the Roman patriarch Sophronius on the condition that the houses of worship in Jerusalem would not be harmed. To fulfill these conditions, the Caliph entrusted the keys to a loyal Muslim household called ‘Nussaiba’. When Emperor Saladin re-conquered the city from the Crusaders, he honored Caliph Umar’s arrangement by engaging another Muslim family called ‘Al-Goudia’.
Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
At the entrance to the Church building, there is usually a long line of pilgrims waiting to be admitted. A series of steps lead up to the Hill of Calvary, where lie two chapels. The lavishly decorated one on the left is believed to be the site of Jesus’ crucifixion. The chapel to the right marks the spot where Jesus was nailed to the Cross. The Rock of Calvary, from the abandoned quarry that existed in Jesus’ time, is now encased in glass beneath the altar, with an opening through which you can touch the old limestone. You can even see a fissure in the rock which is consistent with the story that the earth cracked open upon Jesus’ death as mentioned in the New Testament.
The two chapels correspond to the Eleventh and Twelfth Stations of the Cross or the Via Dolorosa. The Tenth Station, where Jesus is stripped of his garments, also occurred on Calvary. As one watches these divine relics, the Apostle’s Creed comes instinctively to mind:
“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord; Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit; born of the Virgin Mary; Suffered under Pontius Pilate; Was crucified, dead and buried; He descended into Hell; The third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven; And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; From thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit; The Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints; The Forgiveness of sins; The Resurrection of the body; And the life everlasting. Amen.“
From the Chapel of the Crucifixion, you can move on to the Stone of Anointing, now covered with a building and lined with ornate candlesticks and frescoes. This is the place where Jesus’ body was laid down and prepared for burial.
If you wish you can visit the immaculate Iconostasis – the link between heaven and the holy place. The Armenian Station of the Holy Women is commemorated by a circular slab with four pillars supporting a marble roof. From here, Mary and the women of Jerusalem are said to have watched the Crucifixion.
The Real Tomb of Jesus Christ
Going past the Station of the Holy Women, you reach the Rotunda, which houses the Tomb of Christ under a massive dome. Archaeologically, this site has been confirmed to be either the actual site of Jesus’ tomb or very close to it because a real tomb existed at the current spot. This area is flanked by barricades where Christian faithful the world over can come and pray for all kinds of miracles. For this is the site of the greatest miracle of all – Jesus Christ’s Resurrection from death — a signifier of forgiveness for mankind’s sins. This site is universally accepted as being the holiest site in Christianity and praying here is an experience Christians should simply not miss.
You can volunteer to pray overnight at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre even as you learn to wait for mass offerings in three different traditions. The doors close by 9 pm at the latest and only open at 4 in the morning. As the Franciscan priests put it, praying at the Holy Sepulchre Church can be painful but very spiritually rewarding afterward.
If by any chance, you are unable to make it to this holiest of holy sites in your lifetime, the Salvation Garden praying community can send a delegation here to pray on your behalf. We will send you photographs and videos of your prayer being recited should you so choose, for a small donation. These donations go toward travel and other logistics to make the trip possible and are only a fraction of the cost it would take for you to perform the journey on your own. Send a prayer request to the Holy Sepulchre Church today.