The Holiest Place On Earth: Church Of The Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem
The place of Jesus’s crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection can be visited in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. People are often surprised by how simple and even poor many parts of this church look compared with other churches, especially in Europe. And yet this somewhat austere-looking church in Jerusalem has something more valuable than basilicas with gold-covered walls, stained glass windows and masterpieces of Michelangelo have; it has the ground and the Tomb that two thousand years ago witnessed the events without which there would be no Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and no St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Short History of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Roman Emperor Constantine built the first church in the place of Jesus’s death, burial and resurrection in the 4th century. The church was damaged by a big fire in 614 and then by an earthquake in 746. The church suffered from other three fires during the 9th and 10th centuries. At the beginning of the 11th century, during the rule of the Egyptian caliph the church was completely destroyed but in the middle of that same century the church was rebuilt again. Shortly after the rebuilding, Crusaders took control of Jerusalem and of this church in 1099. They rebuilt and reorganized the church the way that it remains until today. After Saladin’s army took over Jerusalem in 1187 the church was closed. At the beginning of the 13th century Pope Innocent IV and sultan reach an agreement that two local Muslim families will be entrusted with the keys of the church; they were opening the church when pilgrims arrived and closing it when pilgrims left. Members of the same two Muslim families have been opening the church every morning and closing it every evening to this day. Every morning and every evening pilgrims and tourist come to the entrance of the church to see the opening and the closing of the church.
The church was again seriously damaged after the Khwarezmian invasion in 1244. Although after this invasion the church was open only during Easter celebrations and for pilgrimages, there was a permanent presence of Greek, Georgian, Armenian, Syrian, Ethiopian and Catholic priests in the church who lived here, prayed and took care of the part of the church that belonged to each of their communities. Franciscans have been representing the Catholic Church at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre since 1342 to this day. During the 17th century ownership of the parts of the church changed several times. In 1757 the decree of the sultan was issued stating that Catholic and Greek Orthodox communities were primarily responsible for taking care of the church. Today Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox communities manage the church together. Syrian Orthodox, Coptic and Ethiopian Christian communities have their presence in the church, too.
Although pilgrims from Europe have been traveling to this site since 4th century, the first visit of a pope happened only in the 20th century. Pope Paul VI was the first Roman Pontiff to visit the church in January of 1964. St. John Paul II celebrated Mass here in 2000, Pope Benedict visited in 2009 and Pope Francis in 2014.
How to Visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
The church stands in the Christian quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, close the Yaffa and the New gates of the Old City. If your hotel is not within a walking distance to the Old City, take a bus or a light rail train until the stop closest either to the Yaffa Gate or the New Gate and then walk (you can find more info about traveling on Jerusalem’s Light Rail here and traveling by bus in Jerusalem here.) While walking on the streets of the Old City you will see directions posted in a few languages (including English) on how to reach the Church of The Holy Sepulchre. Most streets of the Old City of Jerusalem are very old, narrow and sometimes confusing so if you have difficulty with finding the church ask someone in the Old City for directions (most people speak at least some English in Jerusalem). It is also a good idea to ask for the Old City’s map at your hotel or print it at home from here.
The church is open 5am-9pm from April to September and 4am-7pm from October to March. Early morning is the best time to visit the church to avoid crowds of people. Although the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament is the main Catholic chapel in the church, Catholic Masses are celebrated also near the Tomb of Jesus (every half hour from 4.30am until 7.45am with Solemn Mass of the day near the entrance into the Tomb at 6.30am). Masses are also celebrated at the Calvary (upstairs, in the right nave) from 5.00am to 8.30am with Solemn Mass on Fridays at 6.30am). You can find more information about the church, its history and celebrations on the church’s official website here.
There is only one entrance into the church with a small yard in front of it.
As soon as you enter into the church, you will see the Stone of the Anointing – Jesus’s dead body was prepared for burial on this stone. It is usually surrounded by standing or kneeling pilgrims who venerate this stone and pray near it.
Right next to the main entrance, if you look at your right you will see a narrow and steep staircase that leads to the Calvary – the place of Jesus’s Crucifixion. When you are upstairs, you will see a Greek Orthodox altar with a big cross and a stone under the altar. The cross on which Jesus was crucified was placed over this stone and Jesus died here. Pilgrims can kneel under the altar and touch this stone today.
On the right of this altar is a statue of Our Lady of Sorrows.
When you are ready to leave this chapel, you will need to take another staircase to go downstairs (it is located to the left of the altar).
When you reach the first floor again, take a right and walk for some time. After passing a few small chapels and altars, you will come to the Catholic Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament (on your right) which has the tabernacle with the Blessed Sacrament all the time. The chapel may be closed (with a black metal door) if the Mass is celebrated inside. Near the entrance into the chapel confessions are heard daily. You will most likely see Franciscan friars (in brown habits) walking in this area. Most of them speak English so you can ask them a question if you have one. Masses are celebrated in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament multiple times and in various languages every day.
When you are standing near the entrance into this chapel with your back towards the chapel’s door, you will see the Tomb of Jesus at the center of the church. You can enter the Tomb for a very short time, usually after waiting in a line. As already mentioned, Catholic Masses are celebrated near the entrance into the Tomb early in the mornings. I would strongly advise participating in one of those Masses near the Tomb. You will never forget the feeling that you will get when during Mass, next to the entrance into the Tomb you see a priest holding Eucharist raised high in his hands- the same Body of Christ who was buried and who resurrected here. You will feel as if you were kneeling here two thousand years ago, that Resurrection morning, with St. Mary Magdalene, in front of the Risen Christ…