The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is probably the most sacred site in the Holy Land. We arrived here after doing most of the Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa. The last four stations are inside the church; however, it is against the rules to do private group devotions inside the church. This has something to do with the fact that it is a church controlled by six different denominations, all with their own worship space and schedule. And they also want to keep the crowds moving along. So we stood outside in the courtyard and did the last of our stations. It was beautiful being there together.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is surrounded by city now, but according to archeologists and historians, it is the most likely spot of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. It is a very beautiful and ornate church, which is to be expected when the Orthodox and Catholic churches have a part in it. I liked it. I appreciated that they wanted to honor this holy spot. Yet it’s a bit overwhelming and difficult at the same time.
There is an incredible amount of history here, and the current church dates back to around 1100 AD. The original was built by St. Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mother, in 326 AD and was destroyed on orders of a Muslim caliph from Egypt, Al-Hakim, who was occupying the land, sometime around 1000 AD. They worked very hard to demolish it completely, including digging out the tomb of Jesus so that is was not recognizable. Part of the difficulty with the rebuilt Church is that it’s not just one church, but many chapels added on to each other. I’m betting that part of the reason for this is that the Catholic and Orthodox had to have their separate spaces, though that’s a guess. They have not gotten along well in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and according to a book I’m reading, occasionally the Catholic and Orthodox monks will break out into fistfights to this day. (It’s probably for the best that the Lutheran church is down the road a bit.)
Anyway, the result of the construction and decoration is that it’s busy and overwhelms your senses. In a sense, it’s a metaphor for the church. The Christian church’s history is messy, full of conflict and sinners, distracting from the truth. And yet it is beautiful at the same time because the Truth goes on through the bumbling efforts of sinners, as God guides them. So in this confusing yet beautiful place, we were able to go to the truth: the place where Jesus’ cross was placed and where He was placed in the tomb not far away, and that means something to me. In the midst of the messiness of life, the truth is always there. And as we’re in the middle of Holy Week now, it means something more to me to have been there in person. I remember what it looked like, and I remember the sense of awe I had at looking at everything in this church and looking at Jesus’ country, Israel.
Church is messy; it’s full of sinners. It’s full of craziness, meanness, laughter, friendship, betrayal, anger, arguments, love, and yes, it’s full of joy. It’s full of life. If you haven’t been hurt in church, then you haven’t been there very long. I feel like I’ve almost come full circle now since Pastor Matt left. He was leaving when we were on the pilgrimage. We’ve come through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, and now Lent. We’ve come through the anticipation of Jesus’ birth, and we are at the anticipation of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We are chest-deep in the call process, which in itself is messy, full of sin, yet full of joyful anticipation as well. And God has His hand on it all: on Jesus’ death on the Cross for our ultimate joy in salvation and resurrection, on Pastor Matt going to his new church in Rhode Island, where he is serving so many grateful people, on Gloria Dei as we get ready for a new chapter in our church, and as we learn how to take care of each other and keep things going with a vacancy. I am so excited about our potential pastors and can’t wait to see who God has in store for us. I have joy, and yet I also feel like I’m on the brink of joy. All because of God’s mercy. All because, no matter what we go through, He never leaves us. “I thank you, my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, your dear Son, that you have graciously kept me this day, and I pray that you would forgive me all my sins where I have done wrong, and graciously keep me this night. For into your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me. Amen.” (Martin Luther’s Evening Prayer)