I’ve received a few requests to explain why I dislike the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I’m happy to oblige.
First of all, though, let me stress that I think it’s an essential site to visit in Jerusalem. I believe it to be the place where Jesus was buried and where he rose again the third day. But even if one denies that, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is immensely significant, historically speaking. It was the direct focus of the Crusades. Pre-modern European maps traditionally put it at the center of the world. Most Christians have regarded it throughout history as the most sacred place on earth. And so on, and so forth. When I first led a tour to Israel, it wasn’t on the itinerary, so I invited those who were willing to skip some shopping to accompany me on an optional walk to it, and now it’s a formal part of the plan whenever I take people to Jerusalem.
Nonetheless, it’s an abomination.
It’s usually very crowded, of course, but, although that’s unpleasant, it’s an unavoidable consequence of the place’s perceived holiness. Still, the jostling crowds make meditation and feeling the Spirit very difficult.
It’s extraordinarily confusing. Successive constructions and destructions have left it devoid of any real architectural style or beauty. In some ways, though, that’s a plus. The complex history of the place, from the first century quarry and graveyard in which Christ may well have been buried, through the temple of Aphrodite erected on the site by Hadrian after he had defeated the Second Jewish Revolt, continuing with the Constantinian church through the destruction by the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim in 1009 AD and the responding Crusaders (who left abundant graffiti on the walls) and beyond, is absolutely fascinating.
But it’s overdone with ornamentation. To a considerable degree, of course, that’s just a matter of differing sensibilities. My modern western taste doesn’t find the darkness and all of the silver and gold and etc. very appealing — to put it mildly. (Curiously, though, perhaps because I’m a child of California in the 1960s, I rather like the incense.) But there is a more fundamental objection that, in my view, goes beyond mere taste: In building the earliest church on the site, Constantine’s and Helena’s workers utterly transformed, completely obscured, and, as a matter of fact, totally destroyed the natural topography of the place. Calvary or Golgotha, which, according to tradition, stood directly to the right of the entrance of the church, is no longer remotely recognizable as a hill. And the ancient workers completely removed all of the earth and rock around the traditional tomb of Jesus, leaving it encased unrecognizably in a free-standing stone “box” under a rotunda:
It’s absolutely impossible, for me at least, to get any sense of the natural terrain on which the church now sits and on which, in my judgment, the most important of all historical events occurred.
The Garden Tomb, not so far away and likewise located in a spot that was once a quarry and a graveyard, is a far better location for reflecting, and for imagining what things once looked like.
Perhaps most jarring is the contentiousness of the place. Six Christian denominations — none of them Protestant, by the way — claim rights to the church. And they’re constantly fighting with one another. I’ve been there when, as soon as one choir begins to sing, priests from a rival group quickly assemble, seeking to drown the others out. Sometimes, the Israeli military have to be summoned to break up fistfights between monks. Moreover, since the Christians can’t be depended upon to open the doors of the church up to those not of their sect, the massive keys to the building have been kept for many generations now by a Muslim family, who dutifully open the doors every morning and lock them up every night.
Parts of the building are filthy, because no agreement can be reached about which sect should have the honor of cleaning them. The tomb itself, for instance, is covered on top with pigeon dung. And the little ladder that can be seen above the main entrance to the church has been there since at least 1854, because nobody is willing to let anybody else go out on the ledge to retrieve it.
One could scarcely ask for a better illustration of the plight of Christendom that prompted young Joseph Smith to seek divine guidance in the grove near his home: “a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued — priest contending against priest, and convert against convert; so that all their good feelings one for another, if they ever had any, were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions” (Joseph Smith — History 1:6).
It’s perhaps a more potent symbol, even, than the four churches at the main intersection in Palmyra, New York, near the site of Joseph’s First Vision:
And yet, and yet . . . I strongly suspect that it’s the place. And, in any event, I believe that even incorrect sites can be sanctified, and are sanctified, by the prayers and devotion of centuries of worshipers. If they weren’t holy places before, they become such.
I agree completely with the words of Father Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, a Catholic priest and a leading scholar at Jerusalem’s Ecole Biblique (who taught a multi-day faculty seminar at BYU a few years ago in which I was privileged to participate):
“One expects the central shrine of Christendom to stand out in majestic isolation, but anonymous buildings cling to it like barnacles. One looks for numinous light, but it is dark and cramped. One hopes for peace, but the ear is assailed by a cacophony of warring chants. One desires holiness, only to encounter a jealous possessiveness: the six groups of occupants — Latin Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrians, Copts, Ethiopians — watch one another suspiciously for any infringement of rights. The frailty of humanity is nowhere more apparent than here; it epitomizes the human condition. The empty who come to be filled will leave desolate; those who permit the church to question them may begin to understand why hundreds of thousands thought it worthwhile to risk death or slavery in order to pray here. Is this the place where Christ died and was buried? Yes, very probably.” (Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008], 49.)
I’ll be leading a tour to Israel again late next April, though, and would be delighted to take you to both the Garden Tomb and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.