Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Two Tombs: One Full, One Empty

After a five hour delay in Tel Aviv, and a five hour layover in New York, we are finally in the air for the last leg of our journey home to California.

All-too-comparable to what I experienced on the Temple Mount as I stood next to the giant Muslim shrine was the brief time I spent inside what is known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

I was immediately struck by the darkness of the place. Icons of gold and silver were everywhere. As I walked in the front doors of the church, I saw a slab of polished stone. Around the stone were people, men and women, who were bowing before the stone. Some rubbed cloths on the stone. Some rubbed their hands across the smooth surface. Others laid prostrate atop the stone. Still others bowed to repeatedly kiss the stone.

It was obvious that the people were worshiping the stone, as if some power or comfort was to be had by making contact with this inanimate object.

I stopped several people to ask them the identity and significance of the stone. None of them spoke English.

I walked up a narrow spiral staircase to the right of the adored slab of rock. There I found a long line of people waiting to stoop beneath a wooden table to kiss yet another rock. This one, in the minds of many, marked the place where Jesus died on the cross. The area was dark, even though the light of the candles reflecting off the gold and silver icons and artistry was hard on the eyes.

I made my way down the stairs and walked to the left of the worshiped slab of stone, and around the corner. There before me was a large burnt structure. It was what many believe is the tomb where Jesus' body was laid, before His resurrection. The scene around the sepulchre was more macabre than that around the yet-to-be identified slab of rock, or the supposed site of Jesus crucifixion. Darkly lit. No joy on people's faces. Bondage. Opression. Works.

I couldn't take any more. I had to get out of there. I made my way to the front door of the church, returning to the sunlight and to others from my group who were standing across the courtyard.

I asked Erez, our tour guide, if he knew what the stone slab was just inside the entry of the church. With a smirk on his face (I think he sensed my consternation), Erez told me that the stone slab is believed to be the stone upone which Jesus' body was laid, after He was taken down from the cross. Catholic and Orthodox tradition hold that it was there that Joseph of Arimethea and others cleaned Jesus' body and prepared Him for burial.

Erez pointed out a very significant problem with this tradition. The stone slab dates back to only 1808, which replaced the 12th century slab that was destroyed sometime earlier. The slab is co-owned by the four main organizations maintaining the church--the Roman Catholic, Orthodix, Armenian, and Coptic churches.  There's no way it could be the stone upon which Jesus' body was laid.

But that didn't matter to the worshipers in that place.  People bent down to kiss and worship the stone, believing the stone is atop the site where Jesus' body was prepared for burial.

Christians worship a risen Savior. Yet the vast majority of the people inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre appeared to be in a state of mourning, as if they were mourning the death of Jesus. Captive to the various religions of works represented by the organizations that own and maintain the church, many pilgrims to the site are themselves buried in a tomb--a tomb of false religions based on works, with no real eternal hope.

Sadly, the tomb of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, while Jesus is not there, is filled with the souls of the religious--those who, unless they truly repent and place their trust and faith in Jesus Christ alone for their salvation, will one-day hear the Lord say, "Depart from me. I never knew you; you workers of lawlessness."

Thanks be to God that the day did not end on such a depressing note. We moved from a place of darkness to a place of light--from a place of death to a place of life--the Garden Tomb.

The contrast between the atmosphere of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and that of the Garden Tomb (an alternate site many Christians believe is the actual place where Jesus was buried and rose from the grave) is the contrast between darkness and light, night and day, mourning and joy, death and life.

One of the park tour guides led us to a place in the garden that overlooked Golgatha--the Place of the Skull. He was quick to point out that the likely site of Jesus' crucifixion was not at the top of the hill, but more likely at the bottom. The reason being that the bottom of the hill would have been a place of a great deal of activity, with large numbers of people walking by. The Romans used such locations for executions in order to strike fear in the hearts of the other citizens.

The area where Jesus would have been crucified is now a bus stop, which, if you think about it, is very appropriate. Just as there would have been people milling about the area two thousand years ago, most paying little or no attention to the death of Jesus; the same can be said of the world's population today.  They ignore the One who died and rose again for the remission of sins.

Then we made our way to the Garden Tomb. Unlike the sickening, ostentatious, and idolatrous decor of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Garden Tomb is simple, peaceful, respectable, beautiful.

And unlike the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which today is a tomb filled with mourners, many of whom are far from Christ; the Garden Tomb is empty!

For Jesus Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!

Archaeologically and historically, both the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Garden Tomb have much commending them as the sites of Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection. But the Garden Tomb is the place I believe where these eternally-significant events happened.

The site has not been defiled by the religions of men. The site is a place of joy, peace, and true worship. And the mourning taking place at the Garden Tomb is the mourning of those who are blessed. For they mourn over their sin (not over the opression of religion and the worship of objects) and will be comforted by their risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

The Garden Tomb is empty--empty of anything that would take the attention away from Christ and put it on sinful men and their religions.

I saw two tombs that day--one is full, and one is empty.