I was in Israel this summer for a course at the Galilee Center for the Study of Jewish Christian Relations (it was an amazing experience, if you’re interested in the subject, check out their website: http://csjcr.com/). My father and I spent some time in Jerusalem before the start of my course, visiting some of our friends from when we used to live there and just enjoying what has to be the most beautiful city in the world. I think one of the reasons why the city appears so stunning to its visitors is because so many people consider it to be holy, and you can almost feel the hopes and dreams of these people pulsating through the sand-coloured stones. For most Christians, the holiest site in the city is the Holy Sepulchre, the Church erected over the place where it is believed Jesus died and resurrected. However, over the years I have heard so many people say that they don’t see the Church as holy, in fact, many Christians don’t even want to visit it. When I asked them why not, almost everyone, without exception, answers either that the Church isn’t actually built over the place of Jesus’ tomb, so there’s no point in visiting it, or that there is so much conflict between different Churches associated with it, that it depresses them. When I first heard these arguments, it was difficult to challenge them. Yes, it is true that the Church may not be built on the exact place of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and yes, it is true that monks from different denominations sometimes get into fist fights when someone cleans their part of the Church. This is a little depressing, and perhaps doesn’t showcase the best this religion has to offer.
But upon closer analysis and some insight from a friend, I have come to realize that these arguments fall when one inspects the issue closer. Let us start with the first point: that the Church may not be built on the exact spot of the Passion. It’s a fair point if one thinks it important to worship at the exact spot of Jesus’ cross. But the fact is that most of the people whom I have heard criticize the Church for this reason are Protestant, so this is a non-issue to begin with. Our faith does not depend on finding the exact spot of these occurrences, but it does build on cultivating a relationship with the trinitarian God. And the Church, with all its faults, is at very least a symbolic reminder for us of Jesus’ atoning death which has freed us from the downfall of evil. Our religion is one of continuity: we believe that our canon and our traditions about Jesus go back more than 2000 years, and that we have kept the message more or less intact through it all, so what better way to interact with our God than in a place where Christians have been worshipping since the 300’s CE? That’s right: the Holy Sepulchre is built on top of one of Helena’s churches, dating all the way back to the fourth century. This not only increases the historical likelihood that this was indeed the place of Jesus’ death and resurrection, it also means that when we visit the church in order to cultivate our relationship with God, we are walking in the footsteps of thousands of faithful, who have been coming to this spot since the reign of Constantine. Because of this, the church becomes a meeting place of those who believe which transcends time and space.
Moving on to the next criticism of the church: that it represents the conflict between Christian denominations. While it seems a hard bargain to argue that the ladder perpetually leaned against the front of the church is a sign of friendship (it has been there since the Tuks decreed a complete freezing of the status quo sometime during the 1800’s because the monks couldn’t get along), I have recently been introduced to a new way of viewing the situation. One of my father’s friends in Jerusalem told us that her husband used to say that he didn’t understand why Christians complained so much about the Holy Sepulchre. He found it fascinating that it actually works as well as it does. If you think about it, he’s right. It’s actually incredible that after years and years of conflict, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, the Armenian Church, the Ethiopian Church, and so many others share a church. Sure, it may not always be a walk in the park, but when you put it in its historical perspective, it’s a miracle that all these denominations are still more or less united in this place. Can you imagine a Synagogue being shared by Ultra-Orthodox and Conservative Jews, or a Mosque shared by Sunni and Shia Muslims? Despite the tension which occasionally erupts in open and ugly conflict, in the grand scheme of things we are lucky to have a place on earth where different, sometimes warring denominations can worship and reflect on what we all share: the belief that God was incarnated and died for our sins, perhaps under the very stones over which the monks argue.