Pilgrims stand outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City while below a woman prays inside the church. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims are drawn to the site year round, but never so much as during Holy Week. Biblical scholar Murray Watson said pilgrims become conscious of walking on holy ground and “being at the literal heart of the Christian Gospel.” CNS photo/Debbie Hill

Pilgrims walk at the heart of the Gospels at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

  • March 25, 2016

There’s nothing quite like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to give one a sense of the origins of Christianity.

“There is really nowhere on Earth that compares to it,” said Murray Watson of the pilgrimage site in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem that draws hundreds of thousands of Christians to the Holy Land every year, and particularly during Holy Week. 

“You become conscious of walking on very holy ground and being at the literal heart of the Christian Gospel. This somewhat ramshackle building contains within its stones the most transformative and hope-filled message in the world; the message of forgiveness, new life, hope and renewal that Jesus offers to us,” said Watson, a Catholic biblical scholar and professor at Huron University College in London, Ont. 

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre brings you back to the days Christ walked the Earth spreading His message. Inside the church, which today is under the control of a number of different Christian denominations under a complicated arrangement, pilgrims find the Rock of Calvary where the crucifixion is said to have taken place, the Stone of Anointing where Jesus’ body was prepared for burial and the Aedicule, which contains both Christ’s tomb and the Angel Rock, a fragment of the stone which sealed Jesus’ tomb. 

Built in the fourth century, the church also holds an abundance of art spanning the centuries, including paintings, mosaics and carvings from ceiling to floor, including the famous Christ Pantocrator in the dome. 

But what stands out to Watson is the simple cross engravings on the church walls left by pilgrims over the centuries.  

“On many of the walls of the Holy Sepulchre, there are tens of thousands of small crosses carved there by pilgrims over the centuries to signify that they had made it,” said Watson, who has been to the church hundreds of times over the past 15 years. “I always find those crosses a very powerful and poignant reminder of how I am following in the footsteps of the millions of Christians before me for whom the Holy Sepulchre was the most important place in their world.” 

Watson isn’t the only one who’s been paying attention to inscriptions left by pilgrims of the past. 

For a number of years Jordan Ryan, a historian and professor of New Testament at Emmanuel Bible College in Kitchener, Ont., has been fascinated by the Holy Sepulchre, particularly the second-century inscriptions of pilgrimage Psalms 120–134, Song of Ascents, in Latin. 

“That’s kind of interesting because if it does come from the pilgrimage psalm it means that early Christians or somebody was making pilgrimages to this site and the ruins of the Temple Mount,” he said. “This is an indication that Christians were already remembering the site in the second century. There is some indication that there might have been some pilgrimages to this site going on quite early on.”

Ryan calls the inscriptions hard evidence that helps to validate the Bible against one common criticism: when were the Gospels  written. 

“It does sort of loan this idea that if sites can be remembered for 300 years, if memory can crystallize in that way, then who is to say that other things could not have been remembered with accuracy like that,”  he said. “If you compare that to the writing of the Gospels, 30, 40 years (after Christ’s death and resurrection) doesn’t seem like quite so much when you compare it to the memory of where Jesus died and is buried.” 

Ryan, who recently lectured on the historical accuracy of the Church at Toronto’s Blessed Trinity Church, admitted that when he first visited the Holy Sepulchre in 2012 he was sceptical about its authenticity despite the overwhelming support of his historian peers and archeologist friends. That was until he felt the presence of those pilgrims, the forefathers of the faith. 

“It was kind of really getting in touch with the Christian past and the Christian fathers in really a sort of tangible way,” he said. “Once I was sort of more convinced I had this sense that I really was in the place where the Christian faith had kind of all began; where Christ had paid the price and where God had raised Him and vindicated Him victorious.

“It’s a direct connection with Jesus Himself that you don’t really get by kind of reading the text.” 

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