April 19, 2007
Pilgrims to the Holy Land have as the high point of their journey of faith a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This sacred place once held the lifeless body of Jesus who rose from the dead. It is the birthplace of the Christian faith. Today’s pilgrims enter the 12
th century Crusader Church. They eagerly find their way to the tomb of Jesus.
But the pilgrims do not see a tomb. They see the Rotunda, a 19
th century monument with two separate chambers. The first chamber recalls the angel descending from heaven and removing the stone. The second chamber marks the place where the disciples hurriedly buried the body of Jesus after the Crucifixion. The place hardly looks like a tomb. The large candles. The hanging votive lights. Latins, Greeks, Syrians, Armenians, Copts, Ethiopians all huddled nearby to claim their property rights to this most sacred place.
What modern pilgrims see is not what they expected. But what they are looking for is right before them. Archaeology has uncovered the layers of history that have encrusted this place so sacred to Christian faith. Archaeology provides a great service to faith at the tomb of Jesus. Not with sensational, unproven, untenable claims as recently made by James Cameron’s documentary on the tomb of Jesus and his family. Rather, serious scientific work done over 60 years pulls back the veil of history and sheds light on the central belief of the Christian faith.
When Constantine’s engineers came to 4
th century Jerusalem, they wanted to find the place of the Crucifixion and burial of Jesus. Local residents pointed to an old Roman temple. Under it, they said, was the tomb of Jesus. And they were sure of this.
In 135 A.D., the Jews had revolted against Rome under Bar-Kokhba, who claimed to be the Messiah. The Roman legions completely smashed the uprising. A second time since 70 A.D., Jerusalem was once again destroyed. The Roman Emperor Hadrian then built a new city over the ruins of the old. He named it “
Aelia Capitolina.” To keep all Jews out of his new city, he put images of a pig’s head over all the city gates.
Furthermore, to erase the religious traditions both of the Jews and the Christians, he built pagan temples. On the Temple mount, the holiest site for the Jews, he built pagan temples to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. On top of the burial place of Jesus, he built a temple to Venus. He wanted to end the constant stream of believers to these places. But, in effect, he did a favor for all future generations of believers. His structures clearly marked the sites that Jews and Christians held sacred.
When Constantine legalized Christianity, he began to build churches in the Holy Land over places important to the life of Jesus. He built a church at Bethlehem where Jesus was born. He built another, the Éléona, on the Mount of Olives where Jesus ascended into the heavens. And, over the place where Jesus was crucified and buried, he built a shrine complex composed of a basilica known as the “
Martyrium,” a rotunda over Jesus' tomb called the “
Anastasis,” and a chapel on Calvary.
On the very places where the events took place, pilgrims could now celebrate their faith and, through the liturgy, enter the very mysteries they were celebrating. However, what Constantine did was not new. He merely made legal what Christians had done immediately following the Resurrection of Jesus.
The record of what the very first followers of Jesus did right from the first Easter morning is found embedded in our gospels. The gospel narratives of Easter morning contain more than the historical fact that Mary Magdalene, the other women, Peter and John visited the tomb and found it empty. The stories of their visits to the empty tomb were passed on for over a generation before they were written. These narratives tell us what happened. But they also reveal what continued to happen at the tomb.
In the first century, pious Jews would visit the tombs of their rabbis. They would keep his memory alive and offer prayers at his grave. No doubt the first Christians did the same. But they did so with a greater faith and unbound joy. The tomb they visited was empty. Jesus had been raised from the dead.
As the first Christians came to the tomb, they would repeat with lingering delight the events of the first Easter morning. As in all oral tradition, they began to place within the story little details to make explicit Resurrection faith. In the present text of the gospel, the angels at the tomb announce the Resurrection with the words of a liturgical formula of the primitive community. The language of liturgy shaped the narratives we now have in the gospels.
What a gift this is to us. It evidences how important this precise spot was for the early Christians. The body of Jesus was not removed to some other grave. In fact, right from the beginning, Christians kept returning to the empty tomb to celebrate the Resurrection. Jesus has been raised from the dead. This most profound truth transforms our world and lifts us up to God.