Standing under the large dome at the heart of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem thrills me. The recently refurbished dome is resplendent with majestic glory as light flows down and around a memorial tomb for the risen Lord, stunning and beautiful. And much of the church is old; you can feel the weight and mystery of the ages as you walk among Byzantine and Crusader pillars and ponder the many chapels and mosaics. If you get slightly off the beaten path, you can see the places where Christians a thousand years ago scratched out crosses in stone–a place to remember their pilgrimage to the place where light overcame darkness. When the teeming mobs of tourists from all points of the compass leave, and all that is left are more reflective pilgrims, the walls echo with the piety and faith of the centuries.
This is the place of Easter. And when you stand under the dome and look to the southeast, perhaps 30 yards, you can see the second story chapel that stands over the rocky hill of Golgotha. Talk to the archeologists and the historians–they all lead you to this spot. It is a very special place, full of wonder.
Yet, much of the time, the gawkers and tourists turn the holy into a peanut gallery. Shouting to friends and shoving along in the lines is common. People pose and laugh to the flash of cameras in front of the place where the body of Jesus was prepared for burial. Police stand guard to control the more unruly folk. Even the Christian groups that maintain this building are not immune from the chaos. Six different church traditions manage different parts of the building, and it’s not uncommon for a few fist fights to break out between the Greek Orthodox and the Coptic Orthodox over who gets to wash the floor of a chapel on some holy day! On one of my recent visits, during a Catholic procession, the Greeks decided to get into a singing/shouting match to drown out the worship of the Romans.
What you have is a three-ring circus in the place where God, in three days, overcame death with life. But every time I come to this place, every time I look across the skyline of the old city of Jerusalem and see the dome, every time I view a photo of this place, I remember the truth of my conflicted experience. The Easter story is no sweet story about nice people being saved by a nice God. The Easter story is a true story about sinful people being saved by a covenant-keeping God. For me, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, what Jerusalem Christians actually call the Church of the Resurrection, is a vibrant living parable. Jesus’ death on the cross and His resurrection take place smack dab in the heart of human foibles. God enters into human weakness to utterly transform. And the resurrection is the proof of God’s purpose.
That is Easter. Let us rejoice!