Old City of Jerusalem in the strong light of midday, looking east across the Kidron Valley. The gold Dome of the Rock (Muslim ‘Noble Sanctuary’) occupies the former site of the Jewish Temple.
By Professor Glenn Juday
Events of Saturday, May 28
Our Arab guides say that a pilgrimage group that is rained on during the summer (a rare event) has received a special blessing. When we wake up Saturday morning, the last stage of a good shower is soaking our section of Jerusalem.
The city of Jerusalem
The ancient Israelites believed, and Jews of today believe that the Temple in Jerusalem was the unique place where God dwelled on Earth with his people. Christian tradition agrees. There are many other beliefs about the occurrence of crucial incidents in the history of salvation occurring at or near Jerusalem, for example Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. And any one of these additional beliefs would make Jerusalem a place of singular significance for Jews, Christians, and to some degree Muslims—collectively half the Earth’s population. Sometimes it seems that the weight of it all is too much for one city to bear.
At the location of Jerusalem, there is really no set of natural features that would logically lead to founding or sustaining a city, let alone one so significant through so much of history. The geography of New York Harbor and San Francisco Bay nearly suggest that cities be built there. But Jerusalem occupies a series of ridges and hilltops, is not all that close to an agriculturally productive region, was not on a trade route, has no harbor, and has always struggled with water issues. Local resources were sufficient for modest numbers of people to take advantage of its defensibility and highland climate from the Bronze Age up to the time of the city of David (approximately 1000 BC).
However, once David made Jerusalem the place from which he ruled a united kingdom, and his son Solomon built the Temple, Jerusalem became a magnet for large-scale permanent habitation for largely religious reasons, which weren’t strictly divided from royal administration. Religious pilgrimage and administration of religious affairs became necessary. Once that need and activity was established, scholars, teachers of the law, royal officials, and builders and merchants to meet their needs all had a reason to be on this ridgetop in the Judean Hills. Over time, those activities and functions as a rationale for the existence of Jerusalem were reinforced by the deep tug of historical memory. Even during periods of desolation and physical abandonment, and there have been a number of them, Jerusalem lived on in the mind—and in desire:
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy. (Psalm 137: 5-7)
Geology, the Roman cross, and the tomb
Geology plays a significant role in the story of Jerusalem. This section of the Judean Hills is made up of rocks of the Upper Cretaceous Judea Group—limestone, dolomite, marl, shale—in beds of varying thickness. It’s a karst (limestone dissolution) landform. The limestone often contains variable amounts of silica in the form of chert or flint, a non-soluble silicon dioxide impurity used since the dawn of humanity to make cutting edges or knives. Because of the different hardness and erodability of the interbedded layers, caves and especially overhang shelters are common when lower, softer material is overtopped by harder, more resistant rock.
Builders in stone in the Jerusalem area have long had a variety of materials with different properties to choose from. Quarries to supply large amounts of building stone have extensively altered parts of the Jerusalem landscape. Since ancient times various types of the pale limestone (calcium carbonate) or dolomite (magnesium carbonate) or dolomitic limestone or the area have been used in buildings. Local impurities add swirls of color and visual interest. Collectively known as Jerusalem stone, the colors of local quarried rock vary from white to pastels of pink, yellow, buff, and tawny. One of the most prized building stones is Meleke (the stone of Kings). It’s soft and easy to chisel, but it hardens with exposure to the atmosphere and then becomes highly durable. It has been used in the most famous structures including the Western Wall.
Slab of Jerusalem stone with cracks and red-yellow coloration just inside the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Called the Stone of Anointing or The Stone of Unction, it commemorates or may be the “embalming stone” where the body of Jesus was laid out and hastily and partially prepared for burial after his death on the Hill of Calvary, which is just above and to the left of this picture. Generations of pilgrims have rubbed and touched the stone, polishing it smooth.
Municipal ordinances require that buildings in Jerusalem be faced with local Jerusalem stone. The ordinance dates back to the British Mandate and was part of a master plan for the city drawn up in 1918. This stonework gives an almost ethereal quality to appearance of Jerusalem in the low-angle light of the early morning and late evening playing on the limestone surfaces. I have seen the same phenomenon in the limestone mountain areas of Alaska, and I usually ended up using language that involved metaphors based on “cathedrals” or “monuments” in describing it. It’s hard to capture in a photograph (impossible in black and white)—a classic case of ‘You had to be there.’ Photographs taken of Jerusalem in the harsh light of the mid-day are mostly just brightly washed out, harsh even.
During the massive effort associated with the expansion and re-construction of the Jerusalem Temple on a grander scale under Herod ‘the Great’ (19-20 BC), a vigorous quarrying program operated just outside the city walls. The quarrying proceeded along a plane, and at one point it encountered a deep crack or fissure that introduced weakness in the stone and undesirable discoloration. So the small section was left in place while quarrying continued around it. The rock remnant became a modest mound that suggested to viewers the shape of a skull, so it was called “the place of the skull,” in Hebrew ‘Golgotha’, or in Latin Calvariae Locus. At the time the site was just outside the city walls, and was used as a place of execution. Since execution and routine handling of dead bodies would cause ritual defilement, execution had to be outside the city walls.
Cleft in the flawed remnant of the quarry rock at the top of the Hill of Calvary, Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Even more convenient, close by was a much softer layer of rock that could be easily hewn out to make tombs. It is even probable that the fissure or flaw in the rock received the upright post of a Roman stipes crucis, or upright crucifixion post, wedged into it (Image 2387S). In typical practice, the victim would be nailed to a patibulum (cross beam) and hauled up onto the stipes. So all the elements for the Biblical account of the Hill of Calvary or Golgotha came together at this place.
Luke 23:33, "And when they came to the place called The Skull, they crucified him there, …”
A later extension of the walls of Jerusalem placed the site inside the city.
After the second Jewish revolt in 133-135 AD, Jerusalem was again turned into rubble by Roman legions, adding to the vast and particularly thorough destruction of 70 AD. Following this second conquest, Emperor Hadrian had a Roman town built on the remains. In an attempt to blot out even the memory of such a troublesome place as Jerusalem (clearly a seriously naive man) he renamed the city Aelia Capitolina. In order to stamp out all cults there (the religious scene was all a bit confusing to the Roman occupiers), he ordered a temple, dedicated to Venus and Jupiter built on fill dumped over the site of Jesus’s tomb near Calvary. Ironically the act of usurping revenge in building this pagan temple provided a sure marker for later re-location of “the place of the skull,” which in any event was not a particularly challenging feature to locate.
In 326-328 AD St. Helena (Latin: Flavia Iulia Helena Augusta), the mother of the Emperor Constantine, came to the Holy Land as a Christian pilgrim, bringing with her the full capacity of the Imperial Roman Treasury, to find and commemorate Christian holy sites. Constantine ordered the pagan temple and its fill removed and a basilica and courtyard constructed at the site of Calvary, with a rotunda over the Tomb. The current Church of the Holy Sepulcher encompassed all these elements, and was completed in 1149.
Mass at the Tomb
Pilgrims walking the streets of the Old City to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Early on Saturday our Footprints pilgrimage group rises and walks in the dim morning light to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher for a High Mass at the Tomb of Christ. The pilgrims make their way carefully down the narrow, twisting streets of the Old City, taking care not to stumble on the slickly polished Jerusalem limestone, made even slicker by showers that have just ceased. The air is cool, and the city quiet. The Tomb is scheduled to the minute, so we gather in the Church at the entrance and begin Mass precisely on time. Small groups can worship in the antechamber inside the edicule, but our group is too large, and so gathers on the wood benches at the Tomb entrance.
Pilgrimage priest Fr. Joseph giving homily at the entrance to the Tomb, Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
At the Tomb, the altar is not in the open space in front of the edicule where the congregation is gathered, but inside the antechamber through the narrow door, and so blocked from general view. During the second half of the Mass at the time for the Eucharistic prayer at the altar, the priest celebrant enters the Tomb and disappears from view, similar to how the priest goes behind the iconostasis (icon screen) during the Divine Liturgy in the Churches of the East. Because being hidden from view is slightly off key from the familiar routine of the Roman Rite, this temporary disappearance is slightly jarring as it symbolically re-enacts a temporary separation from the people suggesting death, taking place at the place of death. From inside the antechamber the words of consecration are barely audible as a muffled tone. But when the principal celebrant and the concelebrating priests reemerge, a very slight stir, almost like relief, ripples through the congregation. Franciscan monks provide chant, their clear tones echoing off the stones, alternating with the full voices of the Pilgrimage group in response, led by the powerful organ.
It’s a sublime and joyous hour, with all focused on reverently performing the sacred action in a unique setting, a setting that was the very origin of the faith that brought these pilgrims here. In their view, a Mass in the special setting of the Tomb is more than a tour stop in a very old and historical site, which would have made their presence mere antiquarianism. In this religious system, instead of the pilgrim only gaining access to the divine through a journey to a sacred place where the deity uniquely resides, the relationship is reversed and the deity comes to the faithful, wherever they are, through the words and action of the priest. Their Church defines the Eucharistic liturgy (public act of worship) as “the source and summit” of their faith. For them the Mass at the Tomb was the very same religious act, neither more nor less, that they have known and performed most of their lives, and which takes place all over the world every day—both a sign and a reality of unity.
In the midst of the tensions of the all divisions in the world, painfully brought into focus at times during their pilgrimage, the pilgrims had been both challenged and strengthened to draw upon that unity to:
“…lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called … eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4: 1-6)
The group maintained a fast before the Mass, and so return to the Notre Dame Center for a well-received breakfast. For the rest of a long day the pilgrimage group would be in the Palestinian Territories.