Today in the Holy Land, Jeff and I, along with many pilgrims will be visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a site that is core to the Christian faith because you can see the places where Jesus was crucified and resurrected. Our pilgrim groups will walk and pray along the Via Dolorosa, the path that Christ walked to Golgotha, ending up inside the Church to venerate the tomb and Golgotha and to attend Mass in one of the chapels there.
I remember my first experience walking into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1985 on my very first visit to the Holy Land. At the time, Jeff was pastor of a church in Minnesota, and we were ecstatic to have the chance to go on a “familiarization” tour of Israel, sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism for pastors. I was seven months pregnant and tagged along as best I could behind my husband and the Israeli guide trying to hear every word about this amazing country.
I was expecting to see the land as I had imagined it from all the Bible stories I had read, so I was put off to find that a church had been built on every site that Jesus, Mary or the apostles had been. I wanted to see it just like it was in the time of Christ. I wanted to see a cave in Bethlehem, Peter’s house in Capernaum and the hill of Golgotha, but to my surprise, St. Helena and others had beat me to all those sites and erected a church over it! I realize now that had they not built these churches, there would be little for pilgrims to visit today, so now I’m eternally grateful that churches were built to commemorate the important moments for Christianity.
In 1985 I was not yet a Catholic, so our visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was all the more foreign to me. I was confused and overwhelmed by the layout, the ancient, dark interior, the hanging lanterns, robed priests and altars. What did all this mean? Where was the tomb? I made a quick dash around the rotunda inside the church and up a narrow staircase to Golgotha before heading back out to the main courtyard for some fresh air. How could that possibly be the site of the Resurrection?
All those questions led me to further study of this holy site. As part of my degree in Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology from the University of Minnesota, I decided to do my senior project on the church so I could wrap my mind around it all. If this spot is the focus of all of Christianity, then I wanted to embrace it with not only faith, but with historical understanding. From my research came A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Sepulchre and Golgotha in Jerusalem. It helps unravel the mystery of the current Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I want everyone who enters into the church to have the background to understand it so they won’t miss the spiritual opportunity to connect with the past, with Christ’s crucifixion, death and resurrection.
Many of the pilgrims who travel with us to the Holy Land have also studied the Bible with The Great Adventure and find a special connection with other pilgrims because they are not only journeying in the Holy Land, but they have also journeyed together in Bible study. For me, one of my greatest joys is to help others understand the Bible and the places made popular by Jesus, Mary and the apostles and other Bible heroes. I feel honored to be able to introduce others to Bible places through pilgrimage, Bible study and archaeology.