Sights and Insights: An eerie and spiritual place

"I had one of the most meaningful moments of my life during an early-morning visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre," Dr. Wayne Stiles says.

exterior Church of the  holy Sepulchre (photo credit: Wayne Stiles)
exterior Church of the holy Sepulchre
(photo credit: Wayne Stiles)
Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land. Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or on his blog at
I’ll never forget one morning in Jerusalem when I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The problem is, every time I’m in Israel, the queue to view the tomb of Jesus has a line two hours long. I had waited for years to see the place. So that morning, I determined to get there early. Like, really early.
I left my hotel at 4:45 AM and caught a taxi to the Jaffa Gate. The dark Jerusalem morning dropped a light rain across the Old City as I made my way through the streets toward the church. The Aramaic name of the first-century place of crucifixion, Golgotha (calvaria in Latin), has death in its translation. It means, “The Place of the Skull.” All credible historical scholarship points to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as the site Jesus was crucified, buried, and where Christians believe He was resurrected.
Most Westerners who walk in the church face an awkward feeling. The various sects of Christianity decorate the interior with a hodgepodge of traditions—completely foreign to western worship.  But when I enter, I always try to look past all the stuff of religion and tradition to the faith on which it is based.
Christians in Jerusalem held worship services here until AD 66. The Roman Emperor Constantine built a church on the site in the fourth century. But the church has seen its share of trouble since that time, as different religions and sects have crammed their traditions into the church’s fixed spaces. What we see today is largely from the Crusader period.
I arrived at the church . . . and to my surprise, there were already many people there—at 5:15 AM! I got in the short queue to view the tomb and I was the next person to enter. Suddenly, a priest stepped in front of me with a chalice and communion wafers. Oh no, I thought. Another priest dressed like Friar Tuck shoved me out of the way (literally), allowing a group to enter in front of me. The doors to the tomb slammed shut.
For the next half hour I listed to the private service occurring behind the old, wooden doors. A bystander who spoke English told me that there would be consecutive Masses every half hour for the next three hours! “The reservations are made two years in advance,” he added. My heart sank. I had waited for years . . . I had traveled thousands of miles . . . I had arisen early . . . and now I was going to have to wait again for what stood right in front of me!
When the door cracked and the people started to exit, I looked this way and that way, and then I wiggled in-between the worshippers. After the three people remaining in the tomb finished their prayers, I ducked in the low-hanging entrance and knelt before the cold, stone slab where Christians believe that Jesus laid those three days before He rose from the dead. After a brief prayer of gratitude, I left the tomb.
I searched for a place in the church where I could be alone. I finally worked my way to the lowest part of the building. As I entered the space, I heard the worship service above me begin with beautiful music. While the melodies filled the nooks of the church, I knelt and read the account from Matthew 28:1-20. It was a beautiful and spiritual moment I will always remember. I exited the church later that morning to a surprise; the rain had surrendered its gloom to the bright morning sun.
How to Get There: Enter the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem, and walk past the Citadel down David Street. Turn left on HaNotstrim Street and continue until you come to the small street to the right called Saint Helena. Follow it around to the courtyard of the church on the left. The entire walk should take from five to ten minutes.
What to Do There: As you enter the church, walk up the stairs immediately on the right to the place where tradition holds that Christ was crucified. A plate of glass allows visitors to look upon a portion of the original outcropping of rock. Make your way down the stairs and across the building to the beautiful dome overshadowing the sepulcher, or tomb of Jesus. If the queue is not too long, wait to see inside. Find a spot in the church to sit and read Matthew 28:1-20. Before going, obtain a guidebook that can help you interpret the many nooks of history in this church.
Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land. Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or on his blog at