As we knelt on the concrete, the Latin songs swelled to fill the small chapel-like space at the entrance to the tomb where Jesus rose from the dead nearly 2,000 years ago.
Suddenly, the cantor’s voice was drown out by what sounded like jingle bells clanging aggressively and sharply-chanted Greek. No matter we couldn’t understand either language; the chaos of the moment overwhelmed us.
We’d walked into the middle of a worship war raging since 1054.
It was a Sunday morning and the four of us – me, my wife, my brother and sister-in-law – had arisen before the sun like latter-day Marys to try to visit the site of the resurrection.
Trying to visit holy sites on a Saturday or Sunday is a mission doomed to fail, but we had arrived in Jerusalem Saturday afternoon and had only 24 hours in the Holy City. We had no choice but to try to see as much as possible in the short time we had.
Upon our arrival in the city, we’d hiked up the Mount of Olives, then made our way into the Old City – essentially the Jerusalem of Jesus’ time.
We made our way through the city, past the myriad holy sites, along the surprisingly claustrophobic roads.
Our journey on Saturday ended at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, an enormous, anonymous building hiding in the maze of shops and streets.
Despite its plain exterior, the interior is cavernous, with room for thousands of pilgrims to wander, pray or contemplate.
We entered in a mass of pilgrims, knelt to kiss the stone that marked where Jesus’ body had been prepared for burial. Immediately to our right, a staircase spiraled up to the Greek Orthodox chapel built over the hill of Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified.
We waiting patiently in the line of pilgrims for our chance to kneel under the altar, reach down and feel the hole in the rock that had held Jesus’ cross.
The crush of visitors, the cloying smell of so many people, the brevity of the moment I knelt with my hand touching Golgotha, they all impressed on me the heaviness of this place where God was broken for the brokenness of humanity.
We then made our way down and continued our counter-clockwise tour of the Church.
We came to the Franciscan chapel that marked where Jesus had appeared to Mary Magdalene after he rose from the dead. After a few moments of silent prayer, we made our way toward Jesus’ tomb.
The tomb itself was destroyed during the Crusades period.
Today, the tomb is marked by a large edifice built around a smaller room that houses the remains of the tomb. A Greek Orthodox chapel is on the back of the tomb structure, and the front of the tomb is a larger chapel the other five denominations use.
Pilgrims can enter the front of the structure, kneel to enter the tomb chamber, and spend a few moments praying over the only remaining original feature: the slab on which Jesus’ body was placed: the slab on which his body came back to life, fundamentally altering the fabric and destiny of a fallen creation.
Since I had been to Jerusalem before, I was somewhat prepared for the press of hundreds of pilgrims around the tomb.
We stood in the line (that was truly more like a mob) for nearly an hour, moving about halfway around the outside of the structure, the press of hundreds of bodies – washed and unwashed – from dozens of cultures and countries around the world.
Finally, the stress of our break-neck day got to be too much.
I suggested we abandon our quest for the tomb for the evening, head back to our hostel and call it an early night. If we got up early the next morning, we could beat the majority of the crowds, plus have plenty of time to check out a few more holy sites.
The others agreed and we left the Church.
That’s how we found ourselves on a Sunday morning, kneeling at a Franciscan-led Latin mass. When we arrived back at the Church, a small group of Catholic pilgrims was kneeling outside the tomb with their priest and three of the Franciscan friars who steward the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
A fourth friar was inside the tomb, performing the mass. He would call out in Latin, and the friars and the congregants sang or spoke back to him.
We had arrived mid-mass, so we knelt quietly in the back with maybe a dozen other pilgrims, patiently waiting for the mass to end so we could finally approach the tomb.
And that’s when the Greek Orthodox liturgy began at the back of the tomb structure, literally no more than 100 feet from where the Latin mass was already underway.
I had heard the relationship among the various denominations who jointly care for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was shockingly contentious, that the various groups despise each other, refuse to work together even for basic, necessary building maintenance, and even brawl ever few years or so.
The idea of monks and friars brawling sounds like the setup to a bad joke (or maybe a so-bad-it’s-good kung fu flick). Watching the fights that’ve been immortalized on YouTube is vaguely amusing, a little sad.
But now I bore witness firsthand. And more than anything, I was mad.
Here we were, pilgrims patiently waiting, growing desperate to approach the site of Jesus’ resurrection. And now, the sweet sound of the Latin songs was drown out by clanging bells and sharp Greek chants.
In response, the friars redoubled their melodies, their now-louder song no longer beautiful, but harsh and spiteful. It was chaotic and confusing, but so absurd we had to laugh.
Here were grown men, priests fighting like children over whose sandbox it was.
I thought of all the arguments I’ve had over hymns and choruses. Over the best Bible translation. Weekly, monthly or quarterly communion. And a dozen other issues people who are far from God couldn’t care less about.
Suddenly, the Latin mass was over, and we lined up quickly to approach the tomb. The chamber that houses the remains of the tomb is small, intimate, admitting no more than four at a time. Each of the four of us in turn entered into the tomb and knelt to reflect, offer a short prayer. But we didn’t have time to pray; we barely had time to kneel.
No sooner had we entered than an Armenian priest began demanding we leave. It was their turn, and they didn’t have time for pilgrims to pray. They had a liturgy to perform.
We left the tomb structure and the Church, headed back into the new morning.
But our spirits were heavy.
We had approached the site of Jesus’ resurrection and been rebuffed not once but twice. Liturgies designed to lead us in the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection had become barriers to that very celebration.
Songs meant to praise the beauty and power of what God did in that very spot had become weapons used to enforce personal preferences. The site that inaugurated a new humanity in which there is no Jew or Greek is instead a battle ground over ethnic identities and denominational divisions.
They were so caught up in being right and insisting on their way they kept people from experiencing the resurrection.
That’s what always made Jesus mad: religious people who’d gotten so caught up in their rituals they forgot those rituals’ original intent was to bring people close to God.
I’ve been in plenty of churches whose weekly worship gatherings are as impenetrable to those who are far from God as the Latin and Greek liturgies are to me.
I don’t want to be a part of a Church so caught up in arguing about how we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection that we turn people away from the actual power of said resurrection. I don’t claim those conversations don’t matter.
But when they emerge from my preferences, habits and comfort, rather than a desire to connect with those who are far from God, I’m keeping people from God.
I’m denying the power of the resurrection for the sake of “the way we’ve always done it” or “being relevant” or whatever sanctimonious lie I’ve chosen to baptize my selfishness with.
What I need in those moments is a fresh experience of Jesus’ resurrection, a reminder that God became like me so that I could become like God. When I experience that power, how can I do other than whatever it takes to connect others with that God?
[Photo: tomas belardi, Creative Commons]