Holy Circus at the Holy Sepulchre. By Evans K. Chama

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During Lent, period of 40 days of prayer, penance and fasting observed in some Christian churches, which is drawing to its climax: the holy week and finally to Easter; there is a sudden blown up of pilgrims coming to the Holy Land especially in Jerusalem. More than simple touristy curiosity, many pilgrims are flocking to the Holy Sepulchre and to the Calvary in order to enter the mood of the season. Of course, what else to do you expect? The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the holiest Christian shrine in Holy Land, therefore, naturally the focal point of pilgrims. While the sacredness of the place is undisputed and the devotion of the people evident, however, according to my recent visit there, it is certainly the last place one can think of for a quiet place to pray.
The mayhem begins on the constricted Via Dolorosa Street that leads up to the tomb, from the north-eastern Lion’s gate of the Old Jerusalem city. It is often too overcrowded to see the Stations of the Cross along it, hidden between chains of souvenir shops. Only the dimming candles in those tiny cave-like rooms mark some difference. Even when you stop at a station to pray a vendor bothers you who takes you for someone shopping or he simply does not care at all what you are doing. He is interested in your money.
I zigzagged through the crowds, climbing a stair up in every step I made. I could feel I was really mounting the hill of the crucifixion. The buildings that are stuck together, coupled with their air of antiquity, give the impression of somewhat anthill maze to trail through.
At the Holy Sepulchre, my first feeling was not a pious one; a legion of armed Police was the least I had expected. Then a thought came, is it the continuation of the tradition? There Pilate had put soldiers to guard the tomb of Jesus to avoid false claim of the resurrection by the disciples. Anyhow, a lavish police presence is something one is to get used to on the streets of Jerusalem.
Straight in front, on entering the Basilica, is a slab-like rectangular stone, stone of anointing, venerated as where Jesus’ body was anointed before the burial. Here the holy drama began.
People smeared perfumed oil on the rock; some in resigned devoutness while others more hysterically. Strange enough, at the first instance, instead of praying or think about Jesus, Judas Iscariot came to mind. I imagined how he would react at the sight of those rich, expensive oils. Would he tolerate such waste while millions starved Anyway, ‘the poor will always be with you’ Jesus for once entered the scene when I remembered his response Judas.

Some other people still queued for their turn to enter the tomb in a small rectangular building in the middle of the rotunda. Its coarse, ancient appearance, with visibly different patches, betrays the fires and the destruction it has suffered over history. Around it are chapels representing the churches that share its custody.

The Roman Catholic Church is represented by the Franciscans. In their brown habits, they religiously surveyed around while others heard confessions. Others are Greek Orthodox and Armenian Churches. The black robes, black hats, often with long beard, of the Greek Orthodox monks and the Armenian priests injected another gripping air of solemnity to the place. The diversity can also be felt in the difference of their liturgies.

On the right from the stone of anointing is the chapel of The Calvary situated on a small hill that you climb by steep stairs. At the spot of the crucifixion is an altar illuminated by lamps hanging above in golden holders â€"I mistook it for a palace. Such fancy adornment not only obscures the truth but also does injustice to the story the place survives to tell.

Here I joined a queue of people who waited for their turn to kiss at the hole beneath the altar where the cross is believed to have been secured to the ground. Such devotions occasionally inevitably end up in some involuntary theatre. I witnessed one.

Just in front of me, a stout woman who had lowered herself to pay homage beneath the altar got stuck in there. The frantic efforts to free herself disturbed, for a moment, not only her own pious disposition but also that of the rest of us who just could not resist that unintended scene-in-the-theatre. It is said there often such stories of the kind that happen. Then I began to understand what, in his The Holy Land, Jerome Murphy-O’Connor says of the Holy Sepulchre.

One expects the central shrine of Christendom to stand out in majestic isolation, but anonymous buildings cling to it like barnacles. One looks for numinous light; it is in fact dark and cramped. One hopes for peace, but the cacophony of warring chants is punctuated by the ring of masons’ hammers.

When I see pilgrims pouring in I know it is not the best time to pray at the shrine unless I just want to go and have a feel of the rich and diverse Christian piety. Otherwise, it is such competing variety of expressing devotion, drawn from different traditions, that turn the Holy Sepulchre more often into something like a holy circus ground than a sacred place where one can go and pray in quiet.



© Kapungwe Chama 2007

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