I assumed an air of solemnity when entering the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Surely, if I were to feel the presence of God anywhere in Jerusalem, it would be here – at the site of the death, burial, and resurrection of His son Jesus. I had maintained a dry objectivity when visiting Jerusalem’s other holy sites – most of them belonged to faiths which were not my own – but surely here, as a Christian, I ought to have some sort of spiritual response.
At the entrance of the church is the Stone of Anointing, which tradition says is where Joseph of Arimathea prepared Jesus’s body for burial. The stone itself is perhaps two feet by five feet, and an unremarkable shade of brown. Eight ornate lamps hang above it, all of which are plated in gold and adorned with jeweled depictions of the crucifix.
At the time of my visit, I was unaware of the stone’s significance, and therefore confused as to why crowds of people were bowing down to pray on its surface. Only a whispered exchange with a friend revealed why everyone prostrate in worship. Intrigued, I bent down and rubbed the slab with my palm, while all of my neighbors pressed their foreheads to its surface in prayer as if the rock itself was holy. One man rubbed rosary candles, which he had purchased from the souvenir shop outside, across its surface for good luck. I wondered if these worshipers venerated the God who had lain on the stone as much as the rock itself.
A walk into the next chamber revealed the Holy Sepulchre, which is said to contain the tomb of Christ. I had always envisioned Jesus’s tomb as a discrete cave nestled in a hillside. This, however, was an ornately decorated catacomb situated inside an equally gaudy church. The façade would likely have prevented me from recognizing the tomb for what it was, had I not learned just learned how to identify holy sites in Jerusalem: where there is incense, where there is gold, where there is a queue of people waiting to worship – this is how one ought to differentiate sacred from banal.
I told my friends I’d rather go inside the Holy Sepulchre another day because the queue was long. I didn’t mention that I was trying to protect myself from further disillusionment. Were we standing in front of the tomb of the living God, or a carnival ride? Come right this way! In an effort to make your experience more comfortable, we’ve added soft lighting, incense, red velvet curtains, and gold-plated candlesticks! The event is free, but souvenir shops await at the exit. And don’t forget, cash can be withdrawn from the “Christian Quarter” ATM for no additional transaction fee!
If I had any spiritual response in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, it was one of dismay. The Jesus I know is the one who was born in a manger, employed as a carpenter, crucified on a log, and buried in a cave. He is the one who turned over the tables of the money changers at the Temple, and reprimanded them for turning His house of prayer a den of thieves.
I don’t claim to know Jesus more than the founders of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but from what I could see, the church is not an arrangement with which the humble Christ would be pleased.
It was not only the extravagance of the church that I found disturbing. It was the nature of the worship taking place inside. “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth,” Jesus instructed the Samaritan woman in John 4:24. As Werblowsky eloquently explains in “The Meaning of Jerusalem to Jews, Christians, and Muslims,” Jesus de-territorialized act of worship. Whereas the center of spiritual life for Jews is the actual, physical Temple, for Christians, it is the living Christ. Our real home is the heavenly Jerusalem, not an earthly city. As Werblowsky contends, Christians need not despise the terrestrial Jerusalem, but they must understand that “Jerusalem” is wherever Christ is; the earthly city is but a reflection of the heavenly communion that is to come (Werblowsky 6-8).
Similarly, Christ de-territorialized the act of prayer. In Judaism, one is believed to closest to God’s presence in the Temple. This is why the Western Wall – all that remains of Herod’s Temple – is holiest site of prayer for Jews around the world. Muslims are instructed to physically face Mecca – their most holy site – when they pray. Christians, however, believe that no physical posture or direction of prayer will elevate one’s supplications to God. In fact, Jesus asked his followers to pray as privately and inconspicuously as possible:
When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
I do not mean to dismiss the connection between the body and the spirit, or to claim that Christians ascribing to the “de-territorialized” conception of worship and prayer cannot have heightened spiritual experiences that are stimulated by proximity to a holy place. I only mean to say that Christians, in particular, ought to be wary of how we treat our holy places, lest we begin to conflate reverence for a location or thing with reverence for Christ himself.
God is Spirit, and God is omnipresent: His company can be found equally on all corners of Earth. Christians need not go to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to worship, and it is folly for us to believe that our prayers will be heard any better near a holy site than in our bedroom closets. As St. Augustine said, when discussing the words of Jesus in John 7:37 (“if any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink”),
When we thirst, then we should come – not with our feet but rather with our feelings; we should come not by wandering but by loving . . . He who wanders with the body, changes his place by the motion of the body; he who wanders with the heart, changes his feelings by the motion of the heart.
Christians are instructed to concern themselves principally with their personal relationship with God, which as Augustine suggests, is found through the movement of the soul, not the movement of the feet. A pilgrimage to Biblical sites is valuable in its own right – it certainly elicits appreciation of the history and authenticity of the faith – but we must not forget that communion with God can be had just as easily outside of Jerusalem as within it. A Christian can be proximate to a place where Jesus lay, but still leagues from Him in spirit: perhaps the most terrifying and attractive element of the Christian faith.
 Loannis Evangelium, Tract xxxii, P.L. vol. 35, col. 1642. (As cited on Werblowsky 7)