The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a church within the Christian Quarter of the old city of Jerusalem where tradition holds is the place where Jesus was crucified and buried.
According to Eusebius, the Roman emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century built a temple dedicated to the Roman goddess Venus in order to bury the cave in which Jesus had been buried. The first Christian Emperor, Flavius Constantinus, ordered in about 325 that the temple be replaced by a church.
The Bible describes Jesus’ tomb as being outside the city wall. A practice consistent for burials across the ancient world, partly because it was viewed as unclean but also because crucified bodies served as warnings to those entering a city with ill-intentions. Even though the site of the Church is within the current walls of the old city of Jerusalem, in the time of Jesus, the walled city was smaller and was located to the east of the current site of the Church. The area immediately to the south and east of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was a quarry and outside the city during the early 1st century as excavations under the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer across the street demonstrated.
A LESSON IN CHURCH UNITY
Throughout time, the ownership of the site and city changed numerous hands as Jerusalem has been conquered 44 times, been besieged 23 times, destroyed twice, and has seen 11 transfers from one religion to another.
Today, because of the importance of the site and long history of transfered control, the primary custodians of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are tensely shared between the Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, and Roman Catholic Churches, with the Greek Orthodox Church claiming the greatest share. In the 19th century, the Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox acquired lesser responsibilities, which include shrines and other structures within and around the building. Times and places of worship for each community are strictly regulated in common areas.
Establishment of the 1853 status quo did not halt the violence amongst the custodians, which continues to break out every so often even in modern times. On a hot summer day in 2002, a Coptic monk moved his chair from its agreed spot into the shade. This was interpreted as a hostile move by the Ethiopians, and eleven were hospitalized.
In another incident in 2004, during Orthodox celebrations of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, a door to the Franciscan chapel was left open. This was taken as a sign of disrespect by the Orthodox and a fistfight broke out. Some people were arrested, but no one was seriously injured.
A less grave sign of this state of affairs is located on a window ledge over the church’s entrance. A wooden ladder was placed there at some time before 1852, when the status quo defined both the doors and the window ledges as common ground. This ladder, the “Immovable Ladder”, remains to this day, in almost exactly the same position it occupied in century-old photographs and engravings.
None of the custodians control the main entrance. In 1192, Saladin assigned door keeping responsibilities to the Muslim Nuseibeh family. The Joudeh Al-Goudia family were entrusted as custodian to the keys of the Holy Sepulchre by Salah Elddin Alayoubi in 1187. This arrangement has persisted into modern times.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre serves as a great teaching point about how we as Christians are viewed by our world – many times unbelievers will evaluate our faith not in what we say but in what we do. Are we a faith built on love? Do we actually feed the hungry? Or help the sick? Pay close attention this week to how your actions and words are being viewed through the eyes of your neighbors, coworkers, and strangers.