The Shrines of Jerusalem

No place on earth more vividly and more poignantly brings the events of the first Triduum to mind and heart than the city itself in which Jesus was crucified and where He rose, Jerusalem.

While the current city, the capital of the modern State of Israel, is quite modern on the whole with its share of modest skyscrapers, the ancient Holy City is still the heart of Jerusalem. Even the Holy City must be seen in layers. Thanks very much to archeological investigation urged onward by the State of Israel, it now is possible to see many sites that long predate Christ in their construction.

First and foremost, never forget that Jerusalem is a city of great antiquity. Today, as for so long, it is a principal religious place, and point of veneration to which pilgrims flock, for adherents of the three principal monotheistic religions: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

In addition, it has seen its fair share of conflict. Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Ottoman Turks, European Christian Crusaders, Turks again, and the British, all have been overlords, and usually harsh overlords. Even the emergence of Israel as an independent sovereign power 70 years ago did not bring either tranquility or unity to Jerusalem.

For a generation after the establishment of Israel, the city was divided, much of it being under Israeli control and the rest, including the historic Holy City, controlled by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Forty years ago, as a result of war, Israel took over the entire city, but this situation still is disputed, and violence still erupts.

All of these changes in control brought destruction and reconstruction, and they brought virtually in every case a dose of a new culture. Today, as far as the Holy City is concerned, the most obvious cultural imprints are those of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. With all this upheaval, albeit over a period of thousands of years, is anything in Jerusalem authentic in that it definitely connects with Christ? This is the question asked by more than a few Christians who consider, or who actually undertake, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Is it possible, to borrow a phrase from an old African-American spiritual, ''to walk where Jesus walked''? The answer is quick and simple. Indeed, it is possible. Setting aside all the man-made landmarks, always the soil beneath a pilgrim's feet is the same soil upon which once walked the Redeemer. The land, ultimately, is the shrine.

Visiting, or thinking about, Jerusalem is an intensely spiritual experience. Jerusalem brings onto center stage the fundamental Christian mysteries of the Incarnation, the Holy Trinity, and salvation. No other place on earth, not even Rome -- and for Catholics, not Fatima, Guadalupe or Lourdes -- tells as forcefully and emphatically the fundamental understandings of Christianity. And no time is better to enter into this meditation than Holy Week.

I have never spent Holy Week in Jerusalem. However, I have spent many days in Jerusalem over the years. A visit at any time can be, and should be, a spiritual retreat. For me, the most powerful spiritual experiences have been in three places: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of All Nations and the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the crown jewel of the Holy City. First of all, what are the credentials of the present church in its claim to be the site of the crucifixion and resurrection? Dan Bahal, an Israeli scholar, is among many experts who speak for the church as the place of these momentous happenings in the Christ Event. ''We may not be absolutely certain that the site of the Holy Sepulchre Church is the site of Jesus' burial, but we have no other site that lay a claim nearly as weighty, and we really have no reason to reject the authenticity of the site.''

The Very Land

So, there is no contender in the proposition that on this ground Jesus was crucified and later rose. No reasonable and respectable research suggests an alternative site; the veneration of the land on which stands the Church of the Holy Sepulchre traces back to the earliest generations of Christianity.

No church or shrine rose quickly on the place of crucifixion and resurrection after the events themselves. After all, the pagan Romans firmly were in control. By and large, with exceptions of course, Jewish authorities regarded Jesus with skepticism if not hostility. Christians were few. But Christians, some of whom quite possibly knew Jesus in life, visited this site, and apparently there were Christian liturgies where the church now stands.

The situation radically and violently changed about 35 years after Jesus when the Jews rebelled against Roman domination. The Romans never suffered rebellions cheerfully, and with customary brutality, they put down this affront to their imperial majesty. Determined that no future rebellion would rise, they tore Jerusalem apart, dismembering the ancient temple, the very heart of Jewish religion. They also deliberately built upon the site of the present church, the place that Christians venerated as the land on which Christ died and rose, a temple in honor of Aphrodite, their goddess of carnal love.

Why such fervor in eradicating a place apparently dear to Christians? Were the Romans reacting to the association drawn by Christians between the place and the death and resurrection of the Son of the Christian God?

Despite the presence of the pagan temple, the Christians' memory of the place did not fade. Early pilgrims described the place. As fortunes changed in the empire, Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity and endeavored to locate the places in Jerusalem that had been revealed by Scripture or tradition as sites of the Lord's life and death. His scholars decided upon the site of the present church as the actual place that once saw Jesus crucified and, three days later, saw the Lord rise.

In spite of modifications, rebuildings, partial destruction, loving care of Christians, mistreatment by others, and for some centuries now, the quite disedifying rivalry of Christian communities all claiming rights of control, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre stands today. An ancient, but nonetheless imposing church, usually filled by pilgrims along with a good number of indifferent, gawking tourists, amid the cacophony of competing Roman and Orthodox liturgies, dusty and poorly lit, the Holy Sepulchre does not instantly provide a setting of quiet in which to meditate.

Mirror of Life

In a sense, it is a mirror of life. For any Christian intent upon thinking about the Lord, life can force its way into the process with noisy and compelling distractions. But, if you enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, pause. Rise above the distractions and, to an extent, the incidental paraphernalia of the place. Stand. Take your time. Here, remember the magnificent Passion narratives of all Gospels. Here, Jesus, the Son of God, and human as the son of Mary, was crucified. Here Jesus offered to the Father His own life as sacrifice. Here, assuming upon himself human sin, Jesus reconciled all humankind with God. Here the effects of sin were crushed. Here was the greatest moment of the Incarnation, so brilliantly considered by Paul, so masterfully set in context of life here and now by Revelation. Here was Jesus, so superbly revealed by Hebrews. Here on this earth, here in the continuum of time in which we live, the Savior of the World, the Lamb of God, sealed for us the divine gift of salvation.

Here on Calvary was the mocking thief on one of the other crosses. Here too was Dismas, the thief whom Jesus made a saint. Here at the foot of the cross, was the fearless love of Mary, Mary Magdalene and the Beloved Disciple. Here were the cruel executioners and the heartless bystanders. It was reality. It is reality now.

Across the valley from the eastern wall of Jerusalem is the Mount of Olives. It is a place also venerated all through the centuries as the place where Jesus prayed, in such anguish, in the garden just before being arrested. Olive trees are abundant today. They surely did not stand at the time of Jesus. If nothing else, when suppressing the Jews' rebellion in A.D. 70, the Romans cut down every tree for miles around to use for crosses upon which rebels were to be executed. But, experts say, some of these tress sprang from the roots of more ancient trees. Did the ancient trees provide branches under which our Redeemer knelt to pray? Very possibly.

The Church of All Nations, built with donations from everywhere on earth, is a gem. It has none of the hustle and bustle of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, although, as everywhere in Jerusalem, no meditation will be secure from interruption created as tourists pass, but meditations may be uplifted by the coming of pious pilgrims.

Architecturally splendid, the Church of All Nations lends itself to thoughts of divine glory and of human homage to salvation, wrought by God in Jesus. With windows of alabaster, it is dark, and its gold and colorful mosaics gleam through shadows. The atmosphere recalls life on earth. Here was the treachery of humans, as in the betrayal of Judas. Here was the reckless loyalty of Peter, so soon to be reversed. It is reality. It is human inadequacy. It is human fear and shortsightedness. It is the human need for God and for strength. It is divine love responding to this need. It is the Incarnation again. It is the Redemption.

No mention of the shrines of Jerusalem could be adequate without a salute to the Franciscans. Since St. Francis himself, Franciscans have been the representatives of Christianity in these places, the guardians of the Holy Places, and the ministers of the mysteries of God in the Eucharist and in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. No priest should miss the opportunity of celebrating Mass at the shrines. No Catholic should miss the opportunity to confess. The Franciscans will be there for either purpose, to arrange for Mass, or to hear confessions.


Finally, the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu is on the site of the residence of Caiaphas, where he interrogated Jesus who had been accused of blasphemy. Did the home of Caiaphas actually once stand here? Perhaps. In any case, a beautiful, rather small church, served by the Assumptionists, stands today.

The centerpiece, an ancient underground chamber, is said actually to have been a cell in which Jesus was confined. It is dark, threatening and lonely. What must the Lord have endured? Abandoned and misunderstood, Jesus awaited the results of intrigue and hatred, and most difficult of all, from leaders who should have known better and who had lost trust in God. Aboveground, while He waited in the cell, the chief of the Twelve was disowning Him.

This spot is a place for profound and deep priestly meditation, and of priestly resolve. Lord, never allow my priestly heart to reject you. Lord, inspire my trust and hope. Lord, reassure me with your grace and strength even when I, your priest, am not heard, or am insulted or taunted by doubt and failure, feeling alone to withstand the world, the flesh and the devil. TP

MSGR. CAMPION is associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., and editor of The Priest magazine.