Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Despite more than 60 years of studying, teaching, and writing about the Bible, whenever I am able to visit Israel, I gain a deeper insight into the meaning of the Scriptures, discovering things I had never known before. For me, my most rewarding adventure to this intriguing land occurred when I once visited during Easter week. Remembering the events of Holy Week in Jerusalem made them come alive for me in a way that they never had before. While, for most Christians, Holy Week stretches over eight days–bracketed by Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday–I have chosen to focus on the events of Thursday, Friday, and Sunday.

The Scriptures indicate that Jesus met with His disciples to celebrate the Passover which fell that year on a Friday (remember 1st century Jews reckoned that a day ended at sunset; therefore, we refer to this Passover meal as having been celebrated on Thursday night). Today, Christians sometimes celebrate this occasion as Maundy Thursday. During this gathering, Jesus initiated the Eucharist (also called “communion” and “Lord’s Supper”) by endowing ordinary bread and wine with profound symbolic significance for the Kingdom He had come to initiate. For two millennia, these common elements that are consumed in the course of most every meal have been the center of a solemn liturgical rite which remains central in worship for Christians around the world.

Routinely, tourists are taken to a structure in the Old City on Mount Zion and told that this is the site where the Last Supper took place. This chapel has been so regarded since the 14th century. In reality, this tradition is not very strong. At best, the room is similar in nature to a room like the one in which Jesus met with his disciples. Wherever the upper room might have been, it was the place where, by washing his disciples’ feet (John 13:1-20), Jesus acted out the ministry of loving service to others. It was also where the concept of a loving friendship with Jesus was introduced, as set forth in John’s Last Supper discourses.

Also during this supper, the Lord made a stunning announcement: “One of you will betray me.” After this astonishing revelation, the group adjourned to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus was betrayed and arrested sometime during that night. Most archeologists locate Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. Today, this site is home to the Church of All Nations set among several beautiful olive trees and affords a panoramic view of the city of Jerusalem. This beautiful setting belies its role in the betrayal of Jesus.

Sometime late that night or in the early hours of the next morning, Jesus was arrested and taken to the highest Jewish Court. The Great Sanhedrin met in the Hall of Hewn Stones at the Temple every day and was presided over by the High Priest. This court was the highest in the land. Charges of blasphemy (“pretending to be God”) were read against Him. Because during this period of its history, Israel was a province of the Roman Empire, Jesus subsequently appeared before the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate. Jesus’ accusers hoped Pilate would ratify and uphold their charges against Him. Although initially reluctant to pass judgment, Pilate eventually gave in to the pressure of his subjects and condemned Jesus to death by crucifixion.

Tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Pilate held his court at the Antonia Fortress. It was here that the route known as the Via Dolorosa (or “Way of the Cross”) began. Jesus bore his cross along this route towards the execution site known as Calvary. The route is today marked by the various stations of the cross, each bearing a number written in Roman numerals. Since the 17th century, Christians have recognized 14 stations along the Via Dolorosa. Eight of the stations are located along the route itself, and the others are found inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was built over the site of Calvary. Only eight of these stations of the cross have clear scriptural references underlying them.

Crucifixion was a method of capital punishment intended to be particularly slow, gruesome, humiliating, and painful, as well as public. Crucifixion was intended to dissuade those who witnessed it from perpetrating similar crimes. In addition to bearing his own cross, the victim was made to lie upon the cross while being nailed to it. Then the cross was pulled upright by ropes and the downward weight of the victim would tear his flesh around the wrists and ankles. Victims were sometimes left on public display after death for many days.

Some Christians mark Good Friday by participating in or watching processions meant to replicate Jesus’ journey. Every year thousands of pilgrims from around the world journey to Jerusalem to walk in Jesus’ footsteps. Since it was Good Friday, I was able to witness one of these processions along the Via Dolorosa. I waited at St Stephen’s Gate near the Tower of Antonia until the participants congregated. Then I joined in and followed them as they began their journey. The leader bore a wooden cross. The participants sang hymns. It was a solemn and reverent journey.

The streets of the old city are very narrow and seem to rise and fall endlessly, reflecting the contours of a city set on a hill. I persisted for more than half an hour before reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which according to tradition dates back to at least the 4th century. This church contains many of the holiest sites in Christianity. Once inside I climbed a stairway to the Chapel of Calvary (Golgotha), traditionally regarded as the site of Jesu’ crucifixion. This raised Chapel contains the apex of the Rock of Calvary (12th Station of the Cross). The Rock is visible through a window on the altar wall, and appears to be cracked. Tradition claims this crack is the result of the earthquake that occurred upon the death of Jesus, while others claim the crack to be the result of quarrying against a natural flaw in the rock. This chapel is easily the most lavishly decorated one in the church.

Returning to the ground level, I encountered the Stone of Anointing (or “Stone of Unction”) believed to be the spot where Jesus’ body was prepared for burial by Joseph of Arimathea. The stone is decorated with candlesticks and lamps and features a beautiful mosaic on the inner wall that depicts the scene.

Garden Tomb

The place of Jesu’ burial is found in the rotunda located in the center of the church, beneath the larger of the church’s two domes. In the center of this rotunda stands a chapel called the Aedicule (diminutive of the Latin aedes, which means “small temple building”). It has two rooms, the first holding the Angel’s Stone, which is believed to be a fragment of the large stone that sealed the tomb; the second is the tomb itself. I waited in line and entered the first room so I might place a lighted candle upon the altar. It was a somber experience.

As moving as my experience was at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I felt I needed to visit another potential site for the events of Good Friday and Easter morning. This alternate Golgotha site is very popular among tourists, especially Protestants. According to the N.T., Jesus was crucified very near the city of Jerusalem, but outside its walls. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is inside these walls today, (the location of the walls changed over the years, and in the 1st century the spot where this church was built was, in fact, outside the walls).
I made the short walk from the church and entered the lush, carefully manicured grounds of the “Garden Tomb” (see John 19:41). This “alternate” site of the crucifixion is a mere 200 meters from the Damascus Gate. Since 1894, this tomb and its surrounding gardens have been maintained by a Christian non-denominational charitable trust as a place of Christian worship. The center piece of the Garden is the rock-cut tomb which was unearthed in 1867. It is considered by many Christians to be the site of the burial of Jesus. The tomb has been dated by Israeli archaeologists to the 8th-7th centuries BC.

The Garden Tomb site overlooks a rocky knoll that, to many observers, resembles a skull, and since “Golgotha” is the Aramaic word for “skull,” this site has been suggested as the location for Calvary since the mid 19th century.

Holy Week is surely a difficult time to visit Jerusalem because this tiny city is crowded and more expensive than usual; however, I can tell you without equivocation that, if you make the effort, your faith will be deepened and enriched in a way that will transform your understanding of the significance of the events that took place here.

Next time: Mount Kilimanjaro: The Roof of Africa


Dr. Watson E Mills have traveled to Israel six times during his more than 140 overseas trips. He has visited 176 of the 193 member-countries of the United Nations.