My Easter in Jerusalem
For every seven years of service a priest is entitled to a year of sabbatical — or so the theory goes. Having served 15 years I was told I was entitled to a sabbatical — but two years off duty? The work ethic I grew up with couldn’t countenance such a thing. Nevertheless I allowed myself a mini-sabbatical: two months to study, be refreshed, and renewed for service.
To Study, Refresh, and Renew
Wanting to pursue some extra study, I looked for a good library and a place with room and board. As a Catholic priest, a monastery was a good option. Fortunately such places exist, and I was offered a place at the famous Ecole Biblique — the house of biblical studies run by French Dominican friars in the holy city of Jerusalem.
Bells rang, drums were beaten, chants and hymns were sung, and Holy Communion was celebrated to ritually remember the life, death — and most importantly — the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
A friar, for those not in the know, is a kind of Catholic monk, but one who has an active life in the world rather than being enclosed in a monastery. The Dominicans and Franciscans are the most famous examples. Dominicans follow the life of their founder St. Dominic, and are also known as the “Order of Preachers” because of their devotion to scholarship, teaching, and preaching.
In the Holy Land, the French Dominicans live in a monastery (or friary) just outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem — next to the famous Garden Tomb — a first century tomb set in the midst of a beautiful garden which serves as a fine visual aid for those trying to imagine what Jesus’ tomb looked like.
The Historical Site of Jesus’ Crucifixion and Burial
My two month sabbatical just happened to coincide with Holy Week, so it was with great anticipation that we entered into the solemn events of Holy Week here in Jerusalem.
National Geographic chronicled the recent archaeological discoveries on the historical site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus Christ with astounding results which can be viewed here (with subscription). They found that the site of the crucifixion was on an outcrop of rock overlooking an old stone quarry outside the city walls. Opposite the rocky outcrop, in the remains of the quarry, were tombs cut into the soft limestone. The old quarry itself was turned into a cemetery garden. This was the location Jesus’ death and burial, and the archaeologists have established this with as much certainty as possible.
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One of the details that helps prove the authenticity of the site is the fact that in the second century the Roman emperor Hadrian had a temple to Venus built over the site. Many believe this was a deliberate attempt to quash the popular new religious movement called Christianity. Hadrian’s efforts, however, helped to preserve the memory of the place forever.
Imagine a future communist ruler taking over America, destroying Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and erecting a great monument to Stalin on the site. His attempts to obliterate Independence Hall would have the opposite effect of preserving the original location for posterity.
The present Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built on the same location — now inside the walls of Old Jerusalem. In the eleventh century the present church was constructed and is controlled today by six different ancient Christian communities — the three major ones being the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and Armenians.
Solemn Events of Worship and Celebration
Holy Week in Jerusalem includes walking with thousands of fellow Christians down the Mount of Olives on Palm Sunday — waving palm branches, singing and commemorating Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. On Holy Thursday a prayer service is held in the Garden of Gethsemane, and a torchlight procession is made to the site of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin.
On Good Friday Catholic liturgies take place in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at the very site of Jesus’ death. On Easter Sunday Christians rejoice at the empty tomb — which is located at the heart of the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
I was blessed this year to stand with hundreds of others in the area to the side of the tomb where Jesus met Mary Magdalene on that first Easter. As we worshipped, the early morning light flooded into the ancient church. Bells rang, drums were beaten, chants and hymns were sung, and Holy Communion was celebrated to ritually remember the life, death — and most importantly — the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
Dwight Longenecker’s latest book is Beheading Hydra — A Radical Plan for Christians in an Atheistic Age. Visit his website, browse his blog and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com