Over the years I’ve stepped into some of the world’s most famous and beautiful churches: St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, to name a few.
Like other tourists, I quietly explored these treasures, lit a candle at the feet of the statue of a saint, and attended a mass, if I could.
But visits to these remarkable sites of worship did not prepare me for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Believed to be located on the site where Jesus was crucified, the church is not especially beautiful.
From the outside, it blends in unremarkably with adjoining buildings. Inside, the Altar of the Crucifixion is elaborately adorned. Long lines of visitors snake past the altar, the faithful inching as close to history and to the roots of their religion as possible.
You can even kneel and slip your hand into the hole where the cross was posted. And then there is the Stone of the Anointing, where Jesus’ body was prepared for burial, and the tomb.
After just a few minutes, I felt disturbed. Perhaps it was the ornateness – carved marble panels, mosaics and relief sculptures of Biblical scenes – surrounding sites of such spiritual significance. Perhaps I expected something simpler, more in keeping with Jesus’ style. Or perhaps it was the crowd hovering around me, and the sense of being pushed onward, with little time to ponder all that happened here. I expected to find peace. Even now, as much as I remain mesmerized by Jerusalem and the historic sites associated with Christianity and other religions, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre makes me uneasy.