Last summer, my wife Shirley and I had opportunity to experience a thirty-five-day learning tour in Israel. The experiences where unending and life-changing.
The group who hosted us was incredibly connected. Despite the complexities of deep division and hatred which existed among the religious communities and the disputed real estate and holy sites, our hosts ably nurtured deep relationships with the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian leaders. As result, this trust and favor opened spaces typically inaccessible to the public.
One experience stuck with me in a unique and unforgettable way.
One evening, two pastors and I were invited to spend a night in vigil in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. When asked of my interest, I leaped at the invitation. This Jerusalem site lays claim to the very place where Jesus was crucified and the tomb in which Christ’s body was placed.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, an enormous church built by Constantine’s mother, Helena, in 335CE, swallows the entire holy site. Concrete, candles, incense, and extravagant décor across five Christian traditions fill this massive church. The gaudiness virtually prohibit any imaginative hint of the first century imagery which filled my mind.
However, standing at the very place where Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected it is incredibly powerful to ponder.
During daytime hours, this church is open to the public. Having been there earlier in the month, I found the church noisy with lots of pushing and elbowing amid the long lines waiting to enter the tomb or to kneel at the foot of Calvary’s rock where the cross of Christ was said to been placed. The priests giving oversight are rude and bark loudly at guests with little restraint.
Holiness seemed absent among this most holy site.
For this overnight event, I was instructed to arrive by 7:30 PM. Priests were shouting and emptying the building. Anyone who did not exit would be locked in until 5:00AM. I entered and stood inside awaiting the church doors to be closed. These massive doors were fifteen feet in height and one foot thick.
As a result of centuries of fighting among the various Christian traditions responsible for the care of the Holy Sepulchre, a Muslim family is responsible to secure the door at 8:00 PM. This family holds the church key in their possession and unlocks the doors at 5:00 AM. Amazingly, this responsibility has been passed down through the same Muslim family since the seventh century.
At 8:00 PM, the young Muslim man began ringing the bell at the doorway announcing the minutes until the doors would be closed. On cue, several Israeli police officers arrived to ensure there would be no fighting among the gathered priests representing the various Christian traditions in this daily evening ritual. Finally, at the appointed time, the huge doors were manually closed by two clearly distinct Christian priests representing the Greek Orthodox and the Armenian Orthodox traditions. The doors were secured inside with a key with several locks scaling the height of the door and requiring a ladder to secure. A small door within the massive door allowed the key and ladder to be passed through to the Muslim man now outside. The Muslim man secured the various locks on the outside of large doors using the ladder and, when finished he passed the ladder back through the small door. Lastly, the small door was firmly secured inside and out.
In a matter of two minutes, all doors were firmly secured inside and out. The ladder was propped against the inside door ready for the 5:00 AM ritual of reopening the church. Several dozen priests, in their differing garb, having looked on to assure this ritual was shared and completed correctly, quietly retreated to their quarters inside the massive church.
For the next four hours, the holy space fell strangely silent. Services by the various traditions would be silent until 12:30AM.
The very small group of us who remained were now locked inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We had privilege to go anywhere for any length of time including the tomb and Calvary. One could sit, pray, journal, read…anything but sleep until the doors reopened at 5:00AM. The invitation was to keep vigil with the Lord in this place where the Lord suffered, died, and was buried for three days.
The friend who had invited me gave the gift of a small cross made of olive wood to help keep focus during our time. Throughout the hours of the night, I was able to have significant time sitting at the stone at Calvary, and also reading Scripture and praying in the tomb. Indeed, this was special. I continue to carry this small olive wood cross in prayer walks and in personal times with the Lord.
Throughout the night, the massive doors kept drawing me back time and again until 5:00 AM. Observing the earlier rather peculiar ritual amidst an obvious hostility among the Christian faith traditions seemed so out of place in such a holy space.
In silence, I found myself just staring at the massive locked doors.
Those massive locked doors reminded me how the Fall touches even the most holy and sacred places.
Those massive locked doors reminded me of the assurance one can have being safe and secure in the salvation of Christ and the finished work of Calvary and the empty tomb.
Those massive locked doors reminded that someday the time of grace will end—someday the doors of grace will indeed be shut—forever.
Those massive locked doors reminded how I longed for the doors to be reopened so I could witness the faithfulness of God by seeing the rising of the sun and the beginning of a new day.
Those massive locked doors reminded how I longed for the doors to be reopened so that others could also freely come and see.
Those massive locked doors reminded of a time yet to come when the massive doors in the Kingdom of Heaven will never be shut for there will be no night there for the Lamb will be its light.
Indeed, someday so it will be…even so come Lord Jesus.
The city had no need of the sun or of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God illuminated it. The Lamb is its light. Its gates shall not be shut at all by day, there shall be no night there. Revelation 21: 23, 25.