The Myth of Original Christianity and the Holy Sepulcher's Immovable Ladder

“The Holy Land”—the modern state of Israel and the West Bank—is a space sacred not for its singularity in relation to the rest of the globe, but rather for its iconic representation of the human drama, condensed into a pressure cooker of 27,736 square kilometers or 10,709 square miles. To provide a sense of scale: Texas is 268,597 square miles, New York State is 54,556 square miles, and Indiana is 36,418 square miles.

Located in the heart of this Maryland-sized plot of land, the Old City of Jerusalem takes up a mere 0.9 square kilometers or 0.35 square miles. Within this city, whose area is one-fifth the size of the University of Notre Dame’s campus, there is a piecemeal basilica-church which occupies approximately 0.007 square kilometers or 0.003 square miles. Since Constantine reclaimed it for the local Christian community in the 4th century, that church, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, has been a keenly cherished destination for Christian pilgrims. Just as Israel/Palestine is a crux for crises wrought by human frailty and power compressed into one small space, similarly, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is an intimate arena for the drama of the Christian people and faith, contained in two small acres of land.

For centuries, Christians have kept a tradition of following the footsteps of Christ from the night before he died, from his trial, his agony in Gethsemane, and his journey to Calvary. The exact historical path is disputed, one path leading from Gethsemane, through the Kidron Valley, across Mount Zion. One path marches from the Citadel. The current Crusader-era Via Dolorosa begins from the Crusader church of St. Anne’s, by the ruins of the pools of Bethesda, and winds through the heart of the current Old City. The final destination of these diverse routes has remained consistent: the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a location which has been revered as the site of Christ’s passion and resurrection putatively since the first century. The first attested liturgical celebrations happened on this site—a former quarry—in 66 AD. The quarry was subsequently filled in by Hadrian in the second century, to build a temple for Venus and Jupiter. Two centuries later, Constantine, in accord with the tradition of the Jerusalem community, dismantled the temple, and built a basilica honoring this sacred site of death and resurrection.[1]

The building’s history, like the history of the Christian church, is a story of many divisions, destructions, fights, and rebuilds. The divisions between Christians in the church are many pilgrims’ initial and primary impressions of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Since the 18th century, the church has been divided between the Copts, the Orthodox, Armenians, the Syriac Church, Ethiopian Christians, and the Franciscans. An American pilgrim, describing his visit to the Church in 1889, begins his description of the Holy Sepulchre by noting the divisions in the church between the Catholics and the other sects, highlighting particularly the “the schismatic Greeks; schismatic Armenians,”[2] phrasing which certainly lacks ecumenical élan, but reflects the “jealous possessiveness”[3] embodied in the church.

While the church building is no longer frequently besieged by violence, the long history of entrenched tensions are still visible in seemingly petty quibbles over space. In one of my first visits to the Church, while the Orthodox were conducting a prayer service at the Tomb Chapel, I witnessed Orthodox congregants walking past the Franciscan chapel of Mary Magdalene, sometimes attempting to cut across the chapel, as it is open to the rest of the church, with no firm boundary. A Franciscan brother stood at the edge of the pristine tile, and, with each attempt of an Orthodox congregant, be it an elderly woman, a young boy, or a slightly perspicacious priest, he would wag his finger and tsk-tsk disapprovingly, directing them around the chapel. Thankfully, the tensions did not erupt into fisticuffs, as a 2002 squabble did, leaving a handful of monks injured.[4] A piquant sacramental of the centuries of in-fighting, the “immovable ladder” has been propped up underneath a window the current facade of the Church since the 19th century. The ladder represents the current solution to these centuries of in-fighting: a firmly enforced status quo which makes even the movement of a small ladder contested. It is certainly a tragedy, but no doubt apt, that the longest-held shrine of the Christian faith is divided. The chaos and the past violence, now apparent in bouts of incivility, are a scandal to the unity which Christ prayed for: “that they all may be one” (John 17:21). As I watch the bickering between the Franciscans and their Orthodox brethren, I am struck by the strange interactions of West and East, universal dynamics playing out in this particular, cramped arena.

Many Western, particularly American, pilgrims are nonplussed by the church. In her 2014 study of the traditions of American pilgrimage, Hillary Kaell reports on seven different pilgrim group’s experience in the Holy Land: four Catholic tours and three Evangelical/Baptist tours. Currently, pilgrimage to Israel/Palestine is a highly corporate enterprise, overseen by the Israel Ministry of Tourism, whose concern is (rightly) with the significant income stream pilgrimage provides to their economy, and not with the religious encounters the pilgrims crave. Fundamentally, Kaell’s study examines the search of contemporary American Christians an “authentic” faith experience through the practice of pilgrimage. (Although, with a tone of pessimism Walker-Percy-esque in flavor, Kaell’s study sometimes throws into doubt the ability of the contemporary pilgrim to truly encounter anything.) In recording the tour group’s impressions of holy sites, Kaell captures their skepticism about the aesthetics and devotions of Eastern Christians.

Seeking an authentic encounter with the place, American pilgrims are wary of sites which feel “inauthentic,”[5] or behaviors that appear forced or unnatural, which are designations they generally apply to Eastern practices of piety, such as beating one’s breast, kissing icons, and holy sites. One pilgrim recounts a scene of other [non-American] pilgrims sobbing and weeping at a holy site, which he found “way, way over the top.”[6] The American pilgrims Kaell examines are cautious of forced piety, of non-Western aesthetics, and, sometimes, of the various native politics of the land, which distract from the “authentic” Holy Land. Thus, Kaell concludes, often the pilgrims do not pilgrimage to the Holy Land to encounter “the other” or let the place encounter them, but to find “home places,”[7] place which most match up to their expectations, or feel most like their own cultural locations of prayer. One pilgrim described her experience in the Orthodox Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem as reminiscent of “Macy’s on a sale day,”[8] given the lack of organized queues and what she diagnosed as an overly-enthusiastic use of incense, which created a stifling atmosphere. Another pilgrim expressed her dismay at the chaos in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, preferring the calm of St. Anne’s for real worship, remarking: “If Jesus died in a place like where Mary was born I could really sit and pour my heart out there.”[9]

At the Holy Sepulcher, at this meeting place of East and West, I am struck by how each of these six Christian churches are strangers to this place. The abbreviated crèche scene in the Franciscan chapel—a nod to the Franciscans’ most famous innovation—featuring a chubby, cherubic Christ child, appears garishly out-of-place here. The familiar Latin ritual of Eucharistic adoration feels foreign, as though we are enlightened undergraduates attempting to bring back our fancy new collegiate practices to homespun family dinner. As I have just been visiting home for Christmas, the familiarity of this sensation is thrown into high relief. Given that my family is a living organism, made up of living human, when I return home, I continuously discover, upon my returns home, that my home and the parents who make it home have changed. In his study of the development of the Christian Holy Land, Robert Wilken writes: “The Arabic-speaking Christians who live today in Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan” are “the descendants of the first Christians,” thus “they are the only indigenous Christian community in the world.”[10] In many ways, the indigenous Christians of Palestine are the parents of the Christian household, as they continue to develop the Christian tradition in its original birthplace. And the Christian community at large owes them a great debt for keeping the flame of faith alive in its original hearth. William Dalrymple, in his beautiful travelogue of his Middle Eastern journey, notes how much the rest of the Christian globe owes to the local Christian population, without whom “the most important shrines in the Christian world will be left as museum pieces, preserved only for the curiosity of tourists. Christianity will no longer exist in the Holy Land as a living faith.”[11]

Yet their birthplace, like my home, has developed. Palestine is certainly not the same as it was 2000 years ago, when the Incarnation struck. Just as I have grown beyond the confines of my own origins, so Christianity has done the same. I am no longer cut from the same cloth as my parents. I have been transformed into a different person, while entirely owing my original self to them. It is a well-recorded fact that the proper duty of the youth is to grow beyond their origins and their parents. But what is less often included in that wisdom is that parents grow alongside their children. As they are also humans, my parents have also spent the years since I left home growing and changing. Thus, as each of us adult children encounter them again, we encounter them again as stranger. Neither party—parent or child, the origin or the development, the East or the West—is static.

As all their grown children gather back together at the holidays, my parents also recognize that our gathering is markedly different now than it was years ago. As we gather to pray in the Franciscan, old Crusader, chapel, I think of how familial the image is: each of the children with our new rituals, the Latins in front of the gold monstrance and the Orthodox singing out in the rotunda. Here, in this Church, we share a home where we both originated, yet we are both somewhat foreign to it.

There is a fallacy that we can discover this original Christianity, this patristic, ancient form of this religion. This error is on full display in C.S. Lewis’ image of the singular hallway of general Christianity, which leads into various credal “rooms.”[12] Lewis offers this image in the opening preface of Mere Christianity. Although Lewis ensures his readers do not misinterpret his metaphor to think that he is proposing an “alternative . . . to existing communions,” the image itself contains a key flaw. There never has been a “hallway” from which different rooms branch out of; but rather, development of faith occurs organically, in successive stages. Perhaps a more appropriate architectural analog would be the railcar-style apartments endemic in walk-up Manhattan apartments, in which one room opens up directly onto the next. It’s an ingenious space-saving (and cost-cutting) design to eliminate the hallway, and also an honest depiction of how humans grow. There are no hallways where the human actor can step outside the drama to view the scene and choose an entrance: the action develops from within the rooms. The effort to find the lowest common denominator, a distilled essence of common belief, is misguided, not because commonality or common ground does not exist, but because believers are bound by time just like everything else in this world. The laws of entropy, and our traditions cannot be abstracted back into union, into their common origin point. This sprawling maze of a church can never be packed back into the single edifice Constantine built.

This primal Christianity, originated here in this church, has developed into unique traditions. Thus, the pilgrims who return to this font of faith are restricted to encountering Christianity in its present state. The Christians who have divided this home into six pieces all represent how the lived creed of Christianity has transformed throughout the centuries, developed through each historical moment, and mediated a core creed—the truth of what happened here, in this spot—to various cultures and geographies. Such is the beauty of what John Henry Newman named a “living idea.” A living idea is not a static proposition, but an “active principle,” which leads the idea into “ever-new contemplation of itself, to an application of it in various directions, and a propagation of it on every side.”[13] Thus, this living idea grows through “times of confusion, when conceptions and misconceptions are in conflict,” gaining new clarity, new nuance, new facets. Through the sifting of these seasons of developments, “new lights will be brought to bear upon the original.”[14] According to Newman, the living idea ought to develop and grow, discovering new modes and complexities. For, “in a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”[15] The creature, idea, or creed which truly lives does not remain stagnant. If this architectural maze of a building, with its walled-up Crusader chapels, half-finished renovations, and large stones lying useless in corridors, is an image of anything, it surely is an image of the dizzying changes which time creates. Within the chaos, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher feels very much like a living church. It represents the messy interactions of various enculturated strands of Christianity. Like children who have returned home for Christmas, they are all here equally home and not-at-home. Home has changed, and we have changed with it. Such is an incarnate faith. To live is to change, to grow towards perfection is to change often, even if slowly.

On the Vigil of the Feast Day of the Theotókos, Mary the Mother of God, I approached this small arena alongside bevies of other pilgrims. As I walked through the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, making my way towards the Franciscan chapel for Mass, I pushed my way through a solid phalanx of Orthodox Christians, thronging around the Stone of Anointing as they began their sung procession to the tomb chapel. As the Franciscan community began their own vespers, aggressively strong organ chords began to boom underneath the droning chants of the Orthodox procession. The resulting liturgical cacophony aurally expressed the millennia-deep divisions still simmering in the physical Church building. At first discordant, the vying vespers music in the Sepulcher Church began to blend together in a strange compatibility. As I listened to the Greek chant fill the dark around the Tomb Chapel and intertwine with the strong organ chords filling the bright Franciscan chapel, I was reminded of Balthasar’s insistence on the importance of taking to heart the truth that “Christian truth is symphonic. Sym-phony by no means implies a sickly sweet harmony lacking all tension. Great music is always dramatic.”[16] Balthasar reminds his readers that an essential component of the dramatic aesthetic, which is equally vital for the symphony, is its temporal aspect. The symphony and the play reveal themselves over time, both are living arts, which, like faith, depend on time to reveal their full beauty.

[1] Architectural and historical information from Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, The Holy Land, Oxford Archaeological Guides, 4th Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 45-51.

[2] Rev. James Pfeiffer, First American Catholic Pilgrimage in Palestine, 1889 (1892), 102.

[3] Murphy-O’Connor, op. cit., 45.

[4] Chris Armstrong, “Divvying up the Most Sacred Place,” Christianity Today, July 1, 2002.

[5] Hillary Kaell, Walking Where Jesus Walked: American Christians and Holy Land Pilgrimage (New York: New York University Press, 2014), 77. Kaell also notes that American pilgrims tend to privilege Galilee over Jerusalem, for Galilee is clean, fresh “untouched” and the culture clashes so unavoidable in Jerusalem can be somewhat ignored in Galilee (138).

[6] Ibid., 137.

[7] Ibid., 91.

[8] Ibid., 137.

[9] Ibid., 90.

[10] Robert L. Wilken, The Land Called Holy: Palestine in Christian History and Thought (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), xv.

[11] William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East (New York: Henry Holt & Co, 1997), 317.

[12] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 12.

[13] John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Doctrine (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), 36.

[14] Ibid., 37.

[15] Ibid., 40.

[16] Han Urs von Balthasar, Truth is Symphonic (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), 15.


Renée D. Roden

Renée D. Roden is a Master of Theological Studies student at the University of Notre Dame and a graduate fellow of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.

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