The final days of Jesus’ earthly ministry are surrounded in truth and eternal significance from which we’ll never stop learning. In his devotional And the Angels Were Silent from the Chronicles of the Cross Collection, Max Lucado reflects on Jesus’ death and burial.
The road to Calvary was noisy, treacherous, and dangerous. And I wasn’t even carrying a cross. When I had thought of walking Christ’s steps to Golgotha, I envisioned myself meditating on Christ’s final hours and imagining the final turmoil. I was wrong.
Walking the Via Dolorosa is not a casual stroll in the steps of the Savior. It is, instead, an upstream struggle against a river of shoppers, soldiers, peddlers, and children.
“Watch your wallets,” Joe told us.
I already am, I thought.
Joe Shulam is a Messianic Jew, raised in Jerusalem, and held in high regard by both Jew and gentile. His rabbinic studies qualify him as a scholar. His archaeological training sets him apart as a researcher. But it is his tandem passion for the Messiah and the lost house of Israel which endears him to so many. We weren’t with a guide, we were with a zealot.
And when a zealot tells you to guard your wallet, you guard your wallet.
Every few steps a street peddler would step in my path and dangle earrings or scarfs in my face. How can I meditate in this market?
For that is what the Via Dolorosa is. A stretch of road so narrow it bottlenecks body against body. When its sides aren’t canyoned by the tall brick walls, they are lined with centuries-old shops selling everything from toys to dresses to turbans to compact discs. One section of the path is a butcher market. The smell turned my stomach and the sheep guts turned my eyes. Shuffling to catch up with Joe, I asked, “Was this street a meat market in the time of Christ?”
“It was,” he answered. “To get to the cross he had to pass through a slaughterhouse.”
It would be a few minutes before the significance of those words would register.
“Stay close,” he yelled over the crowd. “The church is around the corner.”
It’ll be better at the church, I told myself.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is 1700 years of religion wrapped around a rock. In AD 326 Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, came to Jerusalem in search of the hill on which Christ was crucified. Makarios, Bishop of Jerusalem, took her to a rugged outcropping outside of the northwestern wall of the city. A twenty-foot jagged cluster of granite upon which sat a Roman-built temple to Jupiter. Surrounding the hill was a cemetery made up of other walls of rock, dotted with stone-sealed graves.
Helena demolished the pagan temple and built a chapel in its place. Every visitor since has had the same idea.
The result is a hill of sacrifice hidden in ornateness. After entering a tall entrance to the cathedral and climbing a dozen stone steps, I stood at the front of the top of the rock. A glass case covers the tip and the tip is all that is visible. Beneath an altar is a gold-plated hole in which the cross supposedly was lodged. Three crucified icons with elongated faces hang on crosses behind the altar.
Gold lanterns. Madonna statues. Candles and dim lights. I didn’t know what to think. I was at once moved because of where I was standing and disturbed by what I was seeing.
I turned, descended the steps, and walked toward the tomb.
The traditional burial spot of Christ is under the same roof as the traditional Golgotha. To see it, you don’t have to go outside; you do, however, have to use your imagination.
Two thousand years and a million tourists ago, this was a cemetery. Today it’s a cathedral. The domes high above are covered with ornate paintings. I stopped and tried to picture it in its original state. I couldn’t.
An elaborate sepulcher marks the traditional spot of Jesus’ tomb. Forty-three lamps hang above the portal and a candelabra sits in front of it. It is solid marble, cornered with golden leaves.
An elevated stone path led into the doorway and a black-caped, black-bearded, black-hatted priest stood guard in front of it. His job was to keep the holy place clean. Fifty-plus people were standing in line to enter but he wouldn’t let them. I didn’t understand the purpose of the delay but I did understand the length of it.
“Twenty minutes. Twenty minutes.”
The crowd mumbled. I mumbled. I came as close to the door as I could. The floor was inlaid with still more squares of marble and lanterns hung from the ceiling.
The sum total of the walk began to register with me. Holy road packed with peddlers. The cross hidden under an altar. The entrance to the tomb prohibited by a priest.
I had just muttered something about the temple needing another cleansing when I heard someone call. “No problem, come this way.” It was Joe Shulam speaking. What he showed us next I will never forget.
He took us behind the elaborate cupola, through an indiscreet entrance and guided us into a plain room. It was dark. It was musty. It was unkempt and dusty. Obviously not a place designed for tourists.
While our eyes adjusted, he began to speak. “Six or so of these have been found, but are seldom visited.” Behind him was a small opening. It was a rock-hewn tomb. Four feet high at the most. The width about the same.
“Wouldn’t it be ironic,” he smiled as he spoke, “if this was the place? It is dirty. It is uncared for. It is forgotten. The one over there is elaborate and adorned. This one is simple and ignored.
Wouldn’t it be ironic if this was the place where our Lord was buried?”
I walked over to the opening and stooped like the apostle John did to see in the tomb. And, just like John, I was amazed at what I saw. Not the huge room I’d imagined in my readings, but a small room lit with a timid lamp.
“Go in,” Joe urged. I didn’t have to be told twice.
Three steps across the rock floor and I was at the other side. The low ceiling forced me to squat and lean against a cold, rough wall. My eyes had to adjust a second time. As they did, I sat in the silence, the first moment of silence that day. It began to occur to me where I was: in a tomb. A tomb which could have held the body of Christ. A tomb which could have encaved the body of God. A tomb which could have witnessed history’s greatest moment.
“Five people could be buried here.” Joe had entered and was at my side. A couple of my co-travelers were with him. “Two or three would be laid here on the floor. And two would be slid into the holes over here.”
“God put himself in a place like this,” someone said softly.
He did. God put himself in a dark, tight, claustrophobic room and allowed them to seal it shut.
The Light of the World was mummied in cloth and shut in ebony. The Hope of humanity was shut in a tomb.
We didn’t dare speak. We couldn’t.
The elaborate altars were forgotten. The priest-protected sepulcher was a world away. What man had done to decorate what God came to do no longer mattered.
All I could see at that moment, perhaps more than any moment, was how far he had come.
More than the God in the burning bush. Beyond the infant wrapped in a feed trough. Past the adolescent Savior in Nazareth. Even surpassing the King of kings nailed to a tree and mounted on a hill was this: God in a tomb.
Nothing is blacker than a grave, as lifeless as a pit, as permanent as the crypt.
But into the crypt he came.
The next time you find yourself entombed in a darkened world of fear, remember that. The next time pain boxes you in a world of horror, remember the tomb. The next time a stone seals your exit to peace, think about the empty, musty tomb outside of Jerusalem.
It’s not easy to find. To see it you may have to get beyond the pressures of people demanding your attention. You may have to slip past the golden altars and ornate statues. To see it, you may even have to bypass the chamber near the priest and slip into an anteroom and look for yourself. Sometimes the hardest place to find the tomb is in a cathedral.
But it’s there.
And when you see it, bow down, enter quietly, and look closely. For there, on the wall, you may see the charred marks of a divine explosion.