I decided that instead of giving you my opinion of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, I would simply describe my experience. Hopefully you will realized why I called it the “Jerusalem Jesus Theme Park”:
Our group turned the corner of the narrow alley we were walking down crowded with venders and merchants, trying to sell us their wares.
“We’re here,” said Cole (pseudonym), one of the students who had been there before.
“Where?” I asked, looking at the large opening with a door that to me looked like a large warehouse.
“That’s it,” he said, pointing to the door.
As I looked closer, I could see that the reason I didn’t recognized the building as a church immediately like I did the other churches we visited was because the building had been added onto so many times. We stood outside as our professor told us a story about the church:
“The church here is home to three—well, technically four—different Christian denominations: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian, and some Ethiopian. Not all of the denominations get along. In fact, they argue quite frequently. In the past, they didn’t trust each other because they had to share the building. Consequently, each denomination would show up earlier and earlier in the morning to try to beat the other people to get in the building, arguing over who would get the key and would unlock the building. Finally, they gave the key to a Muslim family in the area, and to this day, one of the Muslim family members comes here every morning and unlocks the door of the church and locks it up at night because none of the churches trust each other.”
After hearing this story, we walked into the church and immediately saw a large crowd of people standing around a stone slab on the floor with incense hanging over the top. As I got closer, I saw people pushing and elbowing each other out of the way to try to get down to the slab. People were kissing the stone and rubbing relics all over the stone slab, muttering prayers and sentences in various languages—one I recognized as Latin.
Slipping past them, it tried to find a place where there wasn’t so many people. Sadly, it took a while navigating through the hallways before my girlfriend and I found a room where there wasn’t many people. The church was so loud, with kids running around and people talking—sometimes shouting at each other. Tour guides with loud speakers talked from room to room. This was totally different than previous churches we had visited where we had to totally cover up and could not speak at all.
My girlfriend and I entered a larger room that looked different from other areas of the church. Nobody was in the room, and judging from the pictures and decorations, it looked like a shrine to Joseph of Arimathea. It was nice to have some quiet for a moment and just observe everything around the room. The decorations, while very old and tarnished somewhat, were still very beautiful. The pictures on the walls were faded due to flash photography, but we could still tell that at one point they would have been strikingly awe-inspiring.
As we casually walked around the room, we heard a gentle thundering that sounded very much like a stamped of horses. We turned around in time to see about eight kids—from about age four to twelve—running down the stairs, yelling at each other, and pushing each other. They were just kids being kids. They ran past us and immediately ran up onto the altar and started touching all of the relics and pictures all over the wall and table set up front. When they got bored touching everything, picking stuff up and moving it around, they started to play tag in the room.
One kid—about ten years old—found a very large heavy metal chain on the floor used to keep people back from the altar (that had obviously been moved) and picked it up. Realizing how heavy it was once he got it to his waist level, he dropped it on the marble floor, causing a ear-piercing clang that made my girlfriend and I wince. The boy smiled and picked it up again and dropped it again, this time holding it higher and dropping it with much more force than the first time, making an even louder clang. He repeated this process several times, with both my girlfriend and I wincing each time. Just when I was about to go over and stop him, another kid tagged him and he joined the tag game.
Looking around, I saw three more women come down the stairs, two of them carrying babies, talking very loudly to each other in a foreign language I think was Spanish. When they saw the kids running, they shouted at them and the kids ran, laughing out of the room. The women walked up to the altar and looked briefly, stopping their conversation only for a moment, before turning around and heading back up the steps after their kids. My girlfriend and I just looked at each other dumbfounded and left the room.
Making our way around the church once more, we ran into Cole. We told him what happened in the room we were in, and he seemed unaffected, like it was normal behavior. Changing the subject, he asked, “So, you were in the Armenian Quarter; did you see the floor?”
“Yes, what about it?” I asked.
“Did you notice the tiled design?”
“Well, last time I was here, some of the priests were telling me that during times when the churches are feuding, they won’t let priests of the other denominations touch anything in their church, including the floor. So, for these preists to get to their respective quarters, they are only allowed to walk on specific tiles to get to their quarters. It’s almost like playing hop-scotch down the hallway—or hot lava, whichever you played when you were a kid.”
As we moved on, we noticed random objects lying around the church. Ladders and scaffolding along with various repair tools lined the hallways. I was looking to see if there were doing remodeling or something, but as I looked up, there wasn’t any sign of remodel. Going over to the ladders, I noticed from the cobwebs and dust that they haven’t been used in a while.
We finally reached the traditional spot where Jesus rose from grave. There were so many people waiting in line to go into the tomb, my girlfriend and I decided not to go. Instead, we went into the chapel where they previously conducted services. Services no longer are conducted in the building, but rites and processions still go on. The room was so large, with high, domed ceilings. We stood in awe at the expanse of the place.
Off to each side were benches people could sit down on and relax. On one of those benches sat a couple and their children—a four year old, a two year old, and an infant. The two year old was not having a great time and was screaming at the top of her lungs, which echoed very loudly off of the high arched ceilings. The child screamed there for at least fifteen minutes, with the parents doing nothing to try to calm the child or remove her. They just sat there ignoring the child, oblivious to all of the glares of everyone who walked by, wincing at the sound echoing off the vast ceiling.
It was after this point my girlfriend and I decided we had enough, so we decided to leave. It seemed that most everyone else had the same idea and was already outside. Thus concluded our tour of the Jerusalem Jesus Theme Park. I hope you will understand why I did not have a spiritual experience at the place like many people do. That’s not to say I didn’t have fun. I found the whole place entertaining and fascinating. I learned a lot and really respected the decorations and art that was everywhere throughout the building. Would I go back? Absolutely. Do I expect to have a religious experience there next time? Probably not. That’s alright; God speaks to me in other ways. He is a great God like that.
Following His Call,