Just over a year ago, I stood in the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. I looked at its plain exterior and remembered the wonder of the first time I had been there. Twenty some years had passed. Since then, I’ve learned a bit of its history: Dedicated on September 14th of 335 AD, it was constructed by Constantine the Great, the Roman Emperor who issued the Edict of Milan in 313, making Christianity a legal religion of the empire.
I remember stepping through the church’s enormous doors last year. Memories of past trips flooded me with an overwhelming sense of awe. I was again in the midst of a multitude drawn from all nations of the world. All of us were gathered in the name of Christ and I knew that I was in the presence of Christ. Thousands of people were swarming throughout a cavernous and ancient building dissected by walls and walkways.
To my right, I saw steps leading up a hill to a chapel. You can no longer see that hill. It has been chiseled away, to make room inside the church. I followed the stream of pilgrims up those steps and entered the small chancel housed above. The area seems a bit like a balcony the way it overlooks the area below.
Incense fills the small area, while the faithful wait their turn with prayerfully bowed heads. One by one, we took our place, kneeling beneath the altar. A star on the floor outlined the opening through which we could reach below the floor and feel the rock that once received the cross of Christ when it was lifted heavenward with Christ nailed to it. Every faithful pilgrim has a moment to take their turn. Reverently we each emerged knowing that the simple act of touching the stone connected us to a great host of people who have done the same because of their faith in Jesus.
Truthfully, nobody knows for sure that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built over the place where the cross once bore Jesus. Constantine the Great’s Mother, Helena, declared it to be the place after she discovered three crosses buried beneath a pagan temple said to have been built to conceal the grave of Jesus. Legend says she discovered the cross to be the True Cross of Christ by bringing out of the city a dying woman. Touching two of the three crosses, nothing happened. But when the very sick woman encountered the last, when the wood of that third cross touched her, she was healed, raised to health, returned to the living. In this way, Helena discovered the True Cross. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built in that place.
I made my way down another set of steps. Many voices of various groups engaged in various sorts of worship mixed from different nearby sacred corners and coves. Syrian Orthodox Christians made their way in solemn procession toward a basement chapel. Roman Catholics called the faithful into a worship space on the other side of the enormous building. Coptic monks chanted ancient liturgies. Spanish songs mixed with prayers being lifted up from the center rotunda. At one point, an enormous organ broke through all other sounds and filled the entire basilica with beautiful and resonant music.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the most holy sites of the faith, is anything but the picture of a beautifully, well-kept building. It is a dark building, sooted with centuries of smoky incense. Poorly-lit rooms are harshly punctuated by the bane of lighting technologies, compact fluorescent bulbs. Dark corners. Shadowy open areas. Dustiness. The church’s dinginess, however, can’t and doesn’t hide the beautiful acts of faithfulness happening in it: people from around the globe worship the resurrected Christ in many languages, many melodies, and many ways. They give thanks that God raised Jesus from the dead, forgiving sin, bringing new and eternal life to all who believe.
I made my way toward another part of the building, stopping at a large flat stone, said to be a stone where the body of Jesus was anointed for burial. Seven lamps are suspended above it. Several people stretched out their hands and rubbed the flat stone while in prayer. Rosaries, scarves, bibles, and handkerchiefs were placed on the stone, each laid out in hopes of capturing an essence of its holiness.
Around the corner is a stone-clad structure surrounded by candles and people. It is the tomb from which Jesus was raised. Careful excavation around the cave-tomb created walls around the grave that once was buried in the hill. Worshippers around the tomb wait to make their way into the small space, ushered along by guardian priests. The place of resurrection has enormous candles and is clad in silver and other metals. It is gaudy, dark, and worn, nothing like the freshly dug tomb it once was, when it received our crucified Lord.
Almost 1700 years have passed since the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was dedicated. September 14th, 335, the first date to be observed as Holy Cross Day. I look forward to going back that basilica. For in it, I discover the breadth of the faith: how the kingdom of God is so much bigger and messier than I experience it in the neatly organized churches of the American Midwest. It is a bustling gathering of multilingual voices and variously colored skins. I look forward to marveling that the chaos of that building all points to a singular reality: that God who came among us and died, rose from the dead, bringing new life to all who are gathered into him.
Today is Holy Cross Day, as is every September 14th – the anniversary of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre’s dedication. Today, we remember that the cross of Christ is the power of God at work in the world. It is a cross that defies logic, a sign that in the hands of God, even instruments of torturous death give way to new life. Holy Cross Day reminds us that God’s love for the world led Jesus to the Cross, becoming the way of eternal life for all who call on him.
We call on Him. We remember His cross in the worshipping community. We gather around it as beggars in need of God’s mercy and love – we are beggars who receive mercy and grace. We sing of the cross in our hymns and announce it as the location of God’s greatest work. Many of us trace it across our body, as a reminder that God joins us to Christ’s death and resurrection in Holy Baptism. We wear the cross as beautiful reminders of our faith.
The cross is an unwise scandal that the church proclaims whenever it gathers. We proclaim a foolishness that makes no sense to those dedicated to the ways of wisdom and rational thought. Our belief in God’s resurrecting power at work in the death of Jesus defies logic. “The message of the cross is foolishness,” the Apostle Paul wrote. “It is foolishness to those who are perishing…. But to us who are being saved, the cross of Jesus is the power of God” at work in the World. For this reason we’ll cling to the cross and trust God’s work through it.
Many among us are thinking about participating in next year’s trip to the Holy Land. I invite you to consider being a part of it. We’ll spend time at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as we will so many other places important to the faith. It will be a pilgrimage to a holy place. Most of all, it will be an encounter with the story of the cross. We’ll spend half a day tracing Christ’s path of suffering, the via dolorosa. It is a path that leads to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In faith we’ll honor that which many consider to be foolishness. That’s what we do each week when we gather here. We remember the Holy Cross of Jesus because we know that its message is God’s power at work in our lives – a proclamation that moves us to faith. Living in Faith, God gives us new life.