You go to the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre when you want the real thing. What you can’t find in Milwaukee you will get in Jerusalem. This is the place where the Divine Messiah was crucified, died and was buried. Calvary and the Tomb are here, contained in one church. If you want to see them, come. Just be careful: this church smacks you in the pisk.
The Sepulchre is the holiest site in Christendom. For centuries, Christians risked enslavement; they impoverished themselves and defied death by shipwreck or the scimitar to come here. This is a hardscrabble church. This is a carnal and an incarnate church. In Christ, the Master of Creation came into the blood and tallow of our creaturely lives. The Carpenter had dirt under his fingernails, and so does the Holy Sepulchre.
Did you expect the place would be set in solitude on a hilltop or a parade ground? A pastel oasis in a garden? We’re adults here. The basilica’s face droops at the back of an uneven plaza of ancient stones that you must go down stairs to enter. It’s encumbered by anonymous buildings on three sides. A minaret looms over it: there are two charming mosques in the immediate neighborhood. God with us.
Go through that time-blasted door and you are channeled, not into an awesome nave, but through the ruptured side of the church. Inside, there’s a wall that stops you short with an overbright mosaic showing the dead Christ. The soapy smell of incense is everywhere. A tangle of brass lamps blocks the view. Under them lies a glossy, coffin-sized stone. Ladies from Russia are on their knees around the stone, kissing it, haunches in the air. It’s the Stone of Unction, the slab on which our naked Lord was scrubbed and rubbed with oil before being wrapped in a shroud. The ladies dump water out of plastic bottles over the catafalque and scoop it up or sop it with towels, then dribble it back into the bottles. A keepsake.
The hill of Calvary is to your right. Go up the narrow stairs. Avoid the Romanian nun coming down against traffic. A tour-guide’s umbrella is in your back, so move swiftly. Get to the top and wait. When the Greek monk glares in your direction, approach the altar of the crucifixion. You see a conventional painting of the Virgin and Saint John at the foot of the cross and the face of Jesus, baking in the sun. Someone in some century thought it would be nice to embellish this mediocre daub with silver coronets and drapery. There’s a marble table in front of it all, marked in Greek — under it, a round hole in the floor, fringed in silver. Put your hand down there and you can touch the rock into which the Cross was planted. Your bare hand touches the root of the Tree of Salvation. When the monk grunts, get out.
Try to get down the stairs on the other side of Golgotha before the Armenian seminarians come through in procession. Their chant is hypnotic but some of them are built like boilermakers. They have a swift gait and heavy elbows. By the time they reach the site of the Tomb — another low marble altar over another ancient cranny encased in an onion-domed kiosk partly shattered by an earthquake — they will be dangerously close to the turf of the Greeks and the Roman Catholics. Our Roman representatives in this scrum are the Franciscan friars. They’re a plucky bunch. The good brothers will let the Armenians know they’re pressing their luck by blasting Italian church music on their pipe organ. You can’t hear a word of Armenian then.
The back of the kiosk (if you want to be genteel, the aedicule) in which the Tomb is caged has been commandeered by Copts as a mini-shrine. A Syrian chapel is across the aisle. Ethiopian monks are camped out in huts on the roof. Each eyes his brother warily. Each defends his turf and guards his rights. This is the universal Church of Christ. These are the creatures God came to save.
In America, there are houses of worship where the carpet and the bright lighting and the beige make you forget you left your living room. Then there are the churches engineered to overawe. Awe is better than banality, but as your Sunday shoes click across the slick floors in our big shrines and cathedrals, as you thumb a pristine hymnal and sit and mind your manners, you could be forgiven for forgetting that the Lord died a thief’s death on a Friday afternoon at the town dump.
The Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre cures you of your forgetting. Here is a church smelling of summer clothes and smoke, with walls incised with graffiti from all centuries since the eleventh and floors cleaned only occasionally with an old straw whisk. The Christians can’t agree on who should lock the door at night, so a Muslim family does it. Sometimes, especially on Easter, monks from different countries get into a fistfight and whack each other with a processional cross or a candlestick. No matter: Israel’s Jewish policemen are there to break it up.
We worship with the body here. We sweat here, cry here, sing here and fight here — right here — in front of the Tomb of our Lord: Here we are. Save us.
A few years back, the celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins used this sanctuary as proof of the absurdity of religion. He didn’t get it. The God Dawkins rejects isn’t our God, but a grade-schooler’s grandpa perched on fluffy white clouds. Our God is totally transcendent and utterly immanent.
Every pilgrimage is prayer with the body. We trudge around this huge and broken building on our busted feet in dusty sandals and we know He went before us. We are followers of Christ. We duck into the kiosk and squeeze into the inner chamber and hunker down and peer into the Tomb:
But when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”
Here — now — we get it.