Today was a grand adventure in Jerusalem. I lack time to do the day justice.
At 5:30 am we walked over to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which stands over both the rock of Calvary, and the tomb where he was buried.
As I mentioned in a prior post, the holy sites are governed by a set of rules called the "status quo"--and last night, we were briefed on what was expected. The main thing was: we were not to enter the Greek area while wearing liturgical garb (street clothing, even clerical attire, was not a problem).
So, to borrow a passage of Scripture, early in the morning, while it was still dark,* we came to Calvary for the Holy Mass.
The great church was built at the time of the Crusaders, on top of structures that date to the 4th century. As we enter, we walk by a large slab on the floor--over which hang many large oil lamps--which is said to be the place where our Lord's body was anointed after being removed from the Cross.
This is as good a place to say this: we have many, many places in Jerusalem in particular, and the Holy Land generally, that have been identified with our Lord and his associates. It is important to realize that we cannot be as certain about some as about others. Nevertheless, this realization doesn't call into question our Faith--because while our Faith stands or falls on certain facts, that is not to say every single fact ever asserted in connection with Christianity, even the life of the Lord, is essential to the Faith. So we know very certainly that our Lord was arrested and punished cruelly until death. But did his meetings with Caiaphas and Pilate happen here? Or over here? So when you come here, as I encourage you to do, have peace of mind about the places you visit; nevertheless, understand that with so many layers of history between then and now (and most of those layers are, quite literally, now rubble), on some matters we can only make surmises.
So, for example, when--after Holy Mass, we toured various sites along the Via Dolorosa, we came to a place traditionally associated with Pilate's condemnation of our Lord. It's a great story, but time won't allow me to do it justice; but in sum, some years back, down under a convent--situated very close to the Antonio Fortress, a pavement was discovered. Upon close examination, it seemed to match the place described in Scripture.
And yet, upon later, and even closer examination, it seems the pavement is simply not old enough: it dates from AD 135, a mere hundred years later; nevertheless, too late.
That doesn't mean the Lord wasn't condemned there; but it does mean those particular pavement stones aren't the very ones. But could the spot be somewhere close by? Yet to be discovered? Certainly! And, as I said to one of the priests--an amiable and hardworking Irishman--this pavement likely was built very similarly to what existed before; so if this isn't the very pavement, the actual pavement probably looked very much like this.
But I am getting ahead of my story; and it's almost time for a "conference" with the other priests (it's a bit after 6 pm local time--the Sabbath has just begun for God's Chosen). Let's see how much more I can describe before it's time to go...
The Church of the Sepulcher is hard to describe; like the Church of the Nativity, it's rather a mess of a building in some ways, and it has to be shared by many different groups; yet there's a good metaphor for the living stones of which Christ's Church is being built, isn't there?
We vested, and then found our way to the place for Mass; the steps up are exceedingly steep; the altar where we had Mass was just to the right of...well, Calvary! That most holy of places is in the care of the Greeks. Wedged in between is an altar bearing an image of Mary. We had enough room, just enough, for our group of twenty-plus priests, plus several other pilgrims who, even at such an early hour, chanced upon Holy Mass. Those of us lined up closer to the Greek altar were careful not to step too close, and no problems; but I confess I sought every opportunity to glance over my shoulder at the place where salvation was obtained for the world.
As we concluded Mass, another group of Catholic pilgrims began to arrive, to have Mass on the Marian altar I mentioned; and while we had a few minutes to stay and pray, I decided to head back to the Notre Dame Center (where we're staying) for breakfast, as we had a full day ahead of us, beginning at 8 am. If time allows later tonight--after our conference and dinner, I'll tell you more. It was a very exciting day!
* John 20:1