For the first time in almost 2,000 years, scientists have examined Jesus’ tomb, and what they have found underlines the historical truth of the Gospels.
The Holy Sepulchre is the rock cave in Jerusalem where Christ was buried and rose from the dead. The tomb is said to have been “discovered” by St. Helene, mother of the Emperor Constantine. It was the first Church of the “Anastasis” or Resurrection dedicated circa 335 after the Council of Nicea. The Sepulchre had never been subject to scientific scrutiny before and the archeologists, accompanied by a group of selected priests and monks, were surprised by what they saw. Despite centuries of dampness, wars, and more than a dozen earthquakes, everything in the rock-cut cave chamber is still intact.
In my long priestly life of 66 years, I visited the holy tomb 11 times – alone, in pilgrimages, with my mother, and most significantly in 1964, when I travelled there in the same airplane as Pope Paul VI, while escorting Cardinal Eugene Tisserant, then-Grand Master of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.
Not only is the rough burial shelf hewn from rock in one piece, but an additional feature was noted which verifies that the holy tomb conforms to standard burial chambers of the era.
Remnants of the original six-foot-high walls that were cut into the ancient limestone quarry still stand on the bedrock. There was also a broken slab of marble protecting the burial slab on which a small cross is carved. Equally important is how the features seen and photographed by the scientists tie in with the descriptions of Jesus’ burial and tomb in the New Testament.
Last February, safety concerns prompted Israeli police to shut down the Edicule (“little house”) for four hours. Within a month, an agreement to begin work was signed by the Churches. The fact that the details seen by the scientists in the tomb tie in with the New Testament is important in such a controversial city as Jerusalem.
Although the Gospels refer to Jesus being laid on a limestone slab and “wound in linen cloths with spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury” (Jn 19:40) only tradition identifies the site as his place of burial and Resurrection.
An alternative location near Damascus Gate, outside the Old City walls, now known as the Garden Tomb, was established in the late 19th century by General Charles Gordon of Khartoum. It is mostly visited by Protestants but dismissed by Catholics and Orthodox Christians who revere the Church of the Holy Sepulchre site.
“There is no other site that has such a claim as weighty as that of the tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre” said Dan Bahat, a veteran Israeli archeologist, who has worked on sites in Jerusalem for nearly half a century.
Although there has been extensive publicity on the fights and disagreements between the Christian denominations which share the church, few recognize that it is the only church in the world where six of the ancient Christian denominations – the Greek Orthodox, the Roman Catholic, the Armenian Orthodox, the Copts, the Ethiopians, and the Syriac Orthodox – worship side by side.
Instead of writing about any cooperation, the emphasis has generally been on how priests and monks have periodically become embroiled in bitter disputes over territories and responsibilities, sometimes involving violence.
Yet major repairs have been carried out with cooperative efforts by all six Churches. Indeed, the present repairs are minor compared to the rebuilding work to the dome in the 1960s. “The work now is being carried out by the three major communities,” said Father Athanasius Macora, who is responsible for supervising the agreement on the part of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, “and the other three haven’t created any problems and have acquiesced to it.”
Exacerbating the delays to any repairs are old Ottoman laws which prevent any alterations being made. A decree governing the rights of the different Churches issued by Sultan Abd al-Majid in 1852 in the lead-up to the Crimean War is still in force. This freezing of territorial and other rights of the Churches became entrenched in the Treaty of Berlin in 1878.
While the status quo gave the Greeks, Catholics, and Armenians rights of possession of specified areas, it only gave rights of usage to the other three Churches. Additionally, much to the disquiet of Catholics, it confirmed that the lion’s share of the church belonged to the Greek Orthodox.
The present Church of the Holy Sepulchre that houses the traditional sites of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection has had a long history of development. Although it is still essentially the Crusaders’ basilica, it has suffered not only from centuries of neglect but also from earthquakes and fires, not to mention outrageous alterations. Yet in spite of its dilapidated condition it is one of the most sacred spots in the world.
We are fortunate in this archdiocese to enjoy and possess the Lieutenancy of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem and to be the heirs of the Crusaders. The investiture of new members will take place Nov. 17 at Holy Rosary Cathedral in Vancouver.