My first visit to the Holy Land took place in 1979. At the time, I was a priest student completing post graduate studies in theology at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. I lived at the famous American College that is now sadly closed. At that time, though, there were over 100 seminarians and student priests pursuing theological studies. As part of our Spring break, a tour of the Holy Land was organized. I remember vividly leaving the cold and damp Belgian climate and stepping off the plane in Tel Aviv. The sun was shining brightly and the air was warm and fragrant with orange blossoms. I thought to myself, “this is just like California!”
Our 10 days in the Holy Land encompassed all the famous Biblical sites. We were touring from morning until night. There was an unbelievable charm to the mount of the Beatitudes with its unobstructed vista of the Sea of Galilee. Since it was Springtime, the mount itself was covered in wildflowers. To this day, I cannot read or hear these moving words of the Lord without being transported to that scene that continues to be a grateful memory.
The heart of our visit was, of course, visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. To visit and venerate this ancient site is to be part of pilgrims over nearly two millennia for whom this destination was the ‘mother of all shrines.’ In virtually all great world religions, the concept of pilgrimage holds great importance. Whether it is participating in the once in a lifetime Haj to Mecca as a devout Muslim, or praying at the Western Wall, the last vestiges of the Great Herodian Temple in Jerusalem for Jews, pilgrimage remains the metaphor for the quest for spiritual fulfillment that faith brings to our lives.
Much has been written over the centuries on the Church that enshrines the physical locations of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Scripture speaks of the hill of crucifixion or Golgotha, being outside the walls of Jerusalem, with the tomb nearby. Historians tell us that shortly after the Lord’s death and resurrection, early followers of ‘the way,’ came to venerate this area of the city. It was not possible to physically memorialize this area because Christianity was outlawed by the Roman Empire. In fact, the Roman authorities eventually constructed a pagan temple on this site to dissuade it from becoming a place of veneration. However, with the Edict of Milan by the Emperor Constantine, Christianity, figuratively and literally, emerged from the catacombs and was freed from persecution. St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, embarked on the arduous pilgrimage of a lifetime to the Holy Land in search of the cross of Christ. The story of its discovery remains, to this day, a moving testimony of her unfailing devotion to this ‘sign of our salvation.’
Constantine soon ordered that a Basilica be built on this venerated site to protect the place of crucifixion and resurrection. At the place of the tomb, a small structure called the Aedicula, was built to protect the empty tomb. Between the 7th and 10th centuries, the church sadly suffered from fires and earthquakes that required extensive repairs. On 18 October 1009, Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah ordered the complete destruction of the church as part of a more general campaign against Christian places of worship in Palestine and Egypt. Negotiations with subsequent caliphs saw the rebuilding of a new church upon the foundation stones of the original Constantinian structure. It is this structure that has endured through subsequent historic periods. In 1808 a fire severely damaged the Aedicula and required that it be rebuilt over the original tomb. It is this structure that was severely in need of repair that restoration commenced several years ago and has now been completed.
It was within the Aedicula, on the marble slab that covers the original rock upon which the Lord was placed following his death, that I was privileged to celebrate the Eucharist. The inner tomb has room for no more than 4 or 5 people. A small silver altar is prepared on the marble slab on which Mass is celebrated. There is only one mass text that is used when celebrating the Eucharist at this most revered site, the Mass of the Resurrection.