Photo: © Jorge Láscar and used under license This incredible building encloses the traditional sites of the crucifixion, anointing, entombment and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which comprise the last four Stations of the Cross. Unlike many holy places whose authenticity is nothing more than legend or conjecture, most scholars agree that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is indeed located over the actual tomb of Christ. The site, whose topography conforms to the biblical descriptions of a skull-shaped hill and nearby tombs, was identified in the fourth century by St Helena, the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine. Damaged by fire and rebuilt several times, the church that Constantine built was finally destroyed in 1009 by the "mad" caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (not by the Jews, as some claimed). Reconstruction of the rotunda and some of the surrounding buildings began in 1027, but large portions remained in ruins until the middle of the 12th century. The Edicule itself (the small internal building containing the empty tomb of Jesus) was not built until 1810. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre has survived multiple wars, earthquakes and fires, with extraordinary co-operation among the communities who share its space. The competition among the represented faiths leads to an abundance of lamps, candles, worship, music and incense as they seek to outdo one another. The service I attended and on which I am reporting was Roman Catholic, held in the Franciscan Chapel of the Apparition, also called the Chapel of Mary Magdalene, allegedly the site where Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene after the resurrection.
This is the Mother Church of Christianity. It includes 32 altars, is home to monks of six faith communities, and hosts thousands of pilgrims from all over the world every day. But the church is no mere museum or monument, rather a passionate house of prayer. A complex set of rules formulated in 1757 and reaffirmed in 1852 called the Status Quo determines which denomination controls which of every possible detail of the use and ornamentation of this massive place of worship. A famous example of the Status Quo at work is a ladder that has stood on a ledge on the upper facade for more than a century. Apparently the Armenians wanted to clean some windows that the Status Quo put them in charge of, but in order to do so they had to place the ladder on a ledge that belonged to the Greeks. No one knows who has the authority to remove the ladder, and so there it stands. But most of the time the resident monks of the holiest Christian site in the world manage to accommodate not only one another but thousands and thousands of pilgrims each day.
Now hidden deep in the warren of the mediaeval marketplaces (souks) of the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, this area lay well outside of Jerusalem at the time of Christ's crucifixion. The entrance to the parvis (courtyard) is an unassuming wooden gate at the end of a lane in the Christian Quarter, which is surrounded by a ring of massive stone walls. The lanes are crowded with merchants, shoppers, tourists, residents and pickpockets, and it is very easy to miss a turn and get hopelessly lost. But the area is small so you soon get turned around and find your way. When the market is closed the lanes are deserted, your steps echo on the cobbles, the landmarks are hidden behind the shutters of the shops.
It was a Franciscan priest assisted by a brown-robed monk, but it was inappropriate, indeed impossible, to ask their names.
What was the name of the service?Mass of the Day.
How full was the building?
The Chapel of the Apparition, for this service, was amazingly quiet. I counted five nuns (of two different orders), one monk, and about a dozen lay visitors including myself. The chapel was about half full. But the building itself was busy. At the same time as the service I attended, there was a Franciscan Mass of the Passion being celebrated in the Latin Chapel on Golgotha (Calvary), and the Greek Orthodox were celebrating at the Edicule. The minor communities were presumably doing their thing in their chapels. Tourists were roaming about.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. When I first arrived, very early, a nun nodded permission for me to come in and sit down.
Was your pew comfortable?
Not uncomfortable in spite of their minimalist appearance little more than wooden benches with stark open backs. The entire chapel is minimalist, quite different from the better known Orthodox sites in the church, which tend to be gloomy and heavily adorned with lamps, candles and chandeliers.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet, reverent. The nuns were praying until just before the service, but earlier the monks had had their own service in a private quire just behind the chapel and open to it. I sat there quietly with about three nuns listening to the monks chanting and it was lovely. They came down into the main chapel to receive communion. Then there was a break before the mass of the day began. The other two nuns came in. I wandered off for a while.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Nel nome del Padre e del Figlio e dello Spirito Santo... Did I mention it was in Italian?
What books did the congregation use during the service?
No books, nothing.
What musical instruments were played?
It was a said mass, so the answer is none. However, there was a distant gong repeated several times at the beginning, which I took to be summoning the Greek Orthodox to their mass, and there was the sound of their chanting on and off throughout.
Did anything distract you?
That Orthodox chanting, but not in a bad way. In fact, I think I noticed it when it briefly stopped. It was background, not intrusive, and much nicer than the traffic and sirens I am used to.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was formal but not stiff. I didn't notice any major deviation in the liturgy from what I have seen elsewhere. I don't understand Italian but I had no trouble following the familiar structure of the mass. The priest wore a white chasuble, but his assistant wore only his brown Franciscan habit. One of the nuns served as lector, reading the first and second lessons and the psalm. Instead of intercessions there was a brief time of quiet prayer. We exchanged the peace with Pace or "Peace be with you." Communion was under both kinds, but we received the Precious Blood via intinction.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The location. The immense privilege of worshipping in a quiet space in that holy place with people who were there to pray, without throngs of tourists taking pictures throughout. The tour guides are powerless to keep tourists away from worship services when the church is open. They can control their groups, but not individuals. Throngs stand and watch the Orthodox services at the Edicule, and some even have the nerve to sit in or take communion. I didn't. I felt less of an intruder in a discreet Roman Catholic service.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Feeling a bit like an intruder myself – a spy. I was there to worship, yes, but I was also there to write a report. Would Mary Magdalene have approved?
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I didn't have to turn many corners to be genuinely lost. Inside the building, even. But nothing happened! There was a basket on the floor where we could leave an offering. I was the only one of the visitors to put anything in it. I know because I was the last to leave. I left my offering rolled up around the Mystery Worshipper card. What will they make of that?
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – If only! If I were to spend a period of time in Jerusalem I would certainly try to work out the best times to come, but my primary place of worship would have to be one where I could be part of the community, which is impossible here.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
The church did, more so than the service. Enormously.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Only one? That maybe, just maybe, I have been on my knees at or near the spot where Mary Magdalene saw the risen Lord.