There are many churches and chapels in Jerusalem dedicated to the life of Christ, but none are as universally acclaimed as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It has been a site of pilgrimage and meditation for 1,700 years, and demonstrates the power of beauty and importance of remembrance.
After Constantine the Great converted to Christianity in 312 AD, he sent his mother Helena to Jerusalem to find the location of Christ’s tomb. With the help of bishops Eusebius and Macarius, the current site was selected and commemorated with a church building. Despite conquests and sieges over the centuries, the church has remained, with heavy restoration by the crusaders in the early 1000s A.D. Built on a slight hill, the large church claims to encompass all of Golgotha, containing the sites of both Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. While near the center of Jerusalem today, it stands outside the location of the original 1st century walls of Jerusalem, in accordance with descriptions of Golgotha in the Gospels. For most of its 1,700 years of existence it has been an undisputed site of pilgrimage within the Christian faith, with nearly all modern archeologists and historians affirming its location.
Today, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is shared by Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Coptic Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox denominations. The church is a perfect example of both the unity and tension within Christian orthodoxy, with overlapping ceremonies of each religious community commemorating the same events, while also having disputes, famously symbolized by the Immovable Ladder, which has not moved since the early 1700’s. The ladder has not moved due to the “Status Quo” agreement that requires consensus by all six Christian sects that share the church to agree to any changes, a rare occurrence.
At the center of the rotunda is the Aedicule, which holds two small chambers. The first holds the Angel’s Stone, a fragment of stone believed to have sealed the tomb after Jesus’ burial. The second and smaller chamber behind it contains the tomb of Jesus, a small room big enough for a few people to kneel and pray.
The church is a beautiful site of pilgrimage and reflection. While the environment is perhaps unfamiliar and foreign to modern Christians, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre demonstrates the power of engaging all the senses in religious experience. The glow and heat of candles, smells of incense, and sounds of sacred chants engage the religious head and mind in a way often forgotten by western Protestant traditions.
Regardless of your views on religion or the historicity its location, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher demonstrates the power of beauty and importance of remembrance. It is a testament not only to the Gospel events it commemorates, but also to the uniquely human ability to build spaces of beauty and sacredness. Even the most hardened skeptic should appreciate the beauty of Christian churches such as this, and even consider the religious claims that have compelled centuries of devoted followers to build them.