The Arab souk of Jerusalem has no shortage of tawdry souvenir shops, and vendors promising to sell me “a piece of the actual cross” are commonplace but I ignore all this and just revel in its sights, sounds and smells.
All along The Via Dolorosa I can see remnants of its biblical past. I spot scratch marks on walls where Roman soldiers played their own form of tic-tac-toe to stave off boredom on guard duty. The Stations of the Cross where Jesus is said to have paused to gather strength on his journey up the hill to his place of execution are all clearly marked.
The Via Dolorosa eventually leads me to the holiest spot in the Christian faith, the magnificent Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the hill where Jesus was crucified, laid to rest and resurrected. Up a steep stone staircase inside to the right of the doorway is Calvary, the place of the Cross, where a glass-encased rock has a slot clearly carved into it.
Downstairs, the center of the church is dominated by the huge Sepulchre over the empty tomb of Christ, where each Easter the “Miracle of the Holy Fire” takes place. This involves a priest entering with an unlit candle and emerging a short time later with it miraculously ablaze. Other candles are lit by its flame and passed on until the whole church is filled with candlelight. For the rest of the year a candle constantly burns from this flame and is used to light visitors’ prayer candles.
Today, the Greek Orthodox Movement administers the building and I ask a priest guarding the entrance to the Sepulchre about its historical accuracy. “There are many arguments about that, although there are far more who agree this is where our Lord was laid to rest than those who disagree,” he says. “However, what it is really all about is faith. This is real. This church is much more than a simple historical location. This is where you come to reinforce your faith.” As he says this, a foreign woman approaches holding a candle and lights it from the ‘miracle flame’.
For me, regardless of historical right or wrong, no one can take away the sheer emotional majesty this church evokes. The actual building has been steeped in history since the second century, changing hands and religions many times since then, with Persians, Byzantines, Ottomans and Christians each leaving their own particular mark on it. Remnants of the past speak to me from nooks and crannies everywhere I look.
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