The paradox of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher


Some of you know that I’m in Jerusalem at the moment on a tour of Israel. Today we had a chance to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as part of our itinerary.

It is my first time in Israel and I am both overwhelmed and underwhelmed by what I am seeing. Underwhelmed because the reality of the holiest sites of Christianity is not at all what I had imagined them to be and overwhelmed for exactly the same reason. I now understand better what a friend of mine meant when she said that Jerusalem is a place of profound paradox.

The Holy Sepulcher, at least as I experienced it today, is crowded, noisy, hot and incredibly human and mundane. People stand and talk as others are falling on their knees and weeping with what they are experiencing. Children run and laugh, tour groups pose for staged pictures, and guides seek lost tourists just like any other major tourist attraction I’ve ever seen. And yet, in the midst of all of this teeming life, there is the reality that something profound happened in this place that changed the course of human history.

A companion of mine and I were later reflecting on a short passage from the Book of Acts where it is related that St. Paul said “these events did not happen in a corner”. They happened in a busy city, in a place where people have always gathered and where people still stream to visit for many reasons other than the fact of the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Seeing the Church drove home to me that point that Paul was making. This happened in a mundane, human scaled place. It is hard to get my mind wrapped around the simple small scale of a church building which easily contains the place of the crucifixion and the place of the resurrection, but it is just as it is, and just as it was. Small, noisy, and common.

And it seems to me that it really couldn’t have happened in any other sort of place – at least now that I have been there.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Had a similar feeling, almost 20 years ago, while walking Via Delarosa with a group from St. George’s. Among the shops and with all the hustle and bustle, I felt our presence contrived and in a way imposing until it dawned on me that as Jesus was walking the same stone road the atmosphere was probably not much different…some stopped to looked, others went about their normal business, some shouted, some cried.

  2. It’s an ancient city that was occupied by the Roman Empire. Jesus’ entry on Palm Sunday was a counter demonstration to that of Pilate who came to keep order among the crowds at Passover.
    The paradox is real because it was an ordinary city which has been blown out of proportion by the embellishment of events and perceptions through the ages. Having been there one no longer understands the biblical record as perceived prior to visiting. Thanks, Nick for your observations.

  3. Robert H Burton says

    What I have read (not yet had the chance to visit) would lead me visualize the Church of the Holy
    Sepulcher in the context of the layers of history (e.g. 326 AD, the Emperor Constantine,…
    1149 AD the Crusaders) which have gone on in between. One thing occurs to me as a
    Christian, when I repeat each Sunday “I am sinful and unclean”…”forgive me for what I have
    done and left undone…” – “boy have we (me and the rest of humanity) ever”, “sinned against
    you in thought, word and deed”.

    When I look backwards in history, at the same instant that I look in the opposite direction,
    forward, toward a humanity being hit head-on by human over extension — global warming.
    I only hope that Jesus will somehow save us, all of humanity – I try to have faith that he will.

  4. When I was last in Jerusalem I spent some time sitting on a bench opposite the entrance to the tomb praying and watching the pilgrims and tourists come and go. I attended an early mass in the tomb said by a Roman Catholic priest in Polish. There was room for six of us against the wall, the priest and a server. Unforgettable experience.

  5. David Mook says

    When I was there, The church was relatively quiet and I had a good opportunity to reflect on the event that occurred on that spot so many years ago without being jostled by crowds. I enjoy your comments.

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