Christ in a Crowd

W. F. Bellais II

few weeks before Easter 14 years ago I stood in the center of the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. This now ancient structure is simultaneously beautiful and weary in appearance. Further, the mob scene I witnessed there was most aston-ishing. None of those words are meant to be derogatory in any way. They simply describe my impressions on entering the space.

The day was one of those brilliantly beautiful days one can imagine in Middle East. Bright warm sunshine made everything festive and everybody
exhibited warm feelings about being there. I suppose when I think of it, the
immensity of everything overwhelmed me. The building is huge, nobody is
standing still, the air is filled with incense, and the babble of the world’s
languages makes the place mysterious. I suppose in good composition size of a building, a milling crowd, and the quality of the air and sounds do not make cohesive comparisons, but all that is what I experienced the moment I went through the building’s giant wooden doors.

I should, however, step back a few minutes. Before arriving at the wooden doors I had come down from a narrow lane that led to a small gate. When I went through the gate the place seemed odd. In fact, I thought I had made a mistake. There before me the roof of a building emerged. No mistake; the gate actually led to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,

Had I found the main entrance first I would not have encountered the people living on the roof of the building. Up there the Patriarchate of Ar-menian Orthodox Church had laid claim and had built a place of study or something like it. But because of the insistence of a man in a brimless lack stove-pipe hat and cassock the opportunity to explore the Armenian ele-ment had to be postponed. Standing before me the man in a brimless black stove-pipe hat and cassock beckoned and led me to a small chapel. A sign indicated here on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre monks of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, once a part of the Orthodox Coptic Church of Egypt.

In the chapel a gate prevented me from going farther. I had to stop wait for one of the monks to read from a book that had a highly decorative ceramic cover when opened formed a cross. I think the monk read in Ethiopian from the book and for some reason I understood he was reading from the Acts of the Apostles about the encounter between the Ethiopian eunuch and a follower of Jesus named Philip (Acts 8:26-40). How I knew this, I did not understand a word of what he had read; I can only surmise that is what I expected him to read. After reading the Scripture the monk raised the book then made the sign of the cross with it and I felt his blessing. How-ever, before I could leave a few shekels had to be dropped into the donation box.

Progressing down narrow spiraling steps I entered the court-yard in front of the main doors of the church building. A crowd that seemed to grow by the nano-second gathered at the door. Almost all were tourists, as I, but scattered in the crowd hawkers attempted to sell souvenirs; some thought-ful, but most gaudy. Joining the crowd I stayed alert for pickpockets and I wondered what more to expect. Up to that point I had been surprised by my experience. I had not expected to descend from the roof and to find Ethiopian Orthodox monks up there reading from Scripture and exacting shekels.

The push of the crowd moved me forward. Of course, I intended to be there and had no reason to be concerned other than I usually do not like crowds. On entering the church the first thing I noticed did surprise me; the cold air hit me and it felt like someone had turned on the air conditioner. Besides adjusting to the cold air, my eyes needed adjusting to the lack of light. After making those adjuadjustments I began to explore. I found the high altar with the silver and gold embellished figures of Sts. Mary and John.

Then I looked about to see Orthodox nuns (I presumed) cleaning out dead candles from the urns of sand and Orthodox deacons prostrate over relics. Then a procession of Roman Catholics formed and began to march about the cavernous basilica. I kept looking for beautiful stained glass but I do not recall seeing any. Then I took steps down onto the main floor and followed a path that took me below the high altar and there I found a giant granite stone, and I mean GIANT, that reminded me of the top of a skull and it was cracked down the middle. I asked myself, “Is this Golgotha?”

On returning to the main floor the crowd still milled about and the hubbub of chatter filled the air. I went to the opposite end of the main area to see the tomb of Christ. A line formed in front and an Orthodox priest seemed
to be in charge. I lined up and a few minutes later I entered the tomb on my
hands and knees.

Inside, the air warmed by hundreds of burning candles and walls glowed reflecting their light, I felt stifled; now not only have I experienced the fear of a pushing crowd but now I am dealing with claustrophobia. The priest outside did not want me stay long anyway, so out I crawled.

On emerging from the tomb I felt resurrected myself. Maybe that is the emotion one should have in a place like that. The more important emotion, however, came when I began to really look at the mob of people there. The world occupied that space and I believed myself to be a part of it. In that mob of people not only religious people in procession and Orthodox nuns, deacons, and priests caught my attention so did everyone else. Little clusters of people like Japanese tourists with their cameras, a group waving a Norwegian flag moved about as a tour group, other Americans could be heard over the clamor, and people from Africa and South America made up clusters of worshippers and tourists.

I thought and I believe that had Christ been in Jerusalem that day it is likely he would have been in that mix of humanity also. This place is not pristine, it is not a beautiful garden, and it is not a well-kept monument; it is just an old place that attracts the world to its door. It is a place where people argue over ownership and rights and privileges. That strikes me as the place Jesus would choose to be; it is the world that God loves so much he has made the ultimate sacrifice for it.

Note: The photo above is provided by Add Share.

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