There’s a photo that ran in one of the New York City tabloids some years ago with Cardinal Timothy Dolan sitting on the steps of a long, narrow stairway. His head is bowed down and he is praying the rosary.
The steps are in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem that go up to the altar built where Jesus is believed to have been crucified and died on Calvary. Those steps mean just about everything in the world to me. Jesus did it for me, there, after all. He accepted this tortuous death and there it was finished — only for our new lives in hope of the promise of eternity to begin.
In the photo, Cardinal Dolan is quietly praying the rosary alone. So here’s a powerful, well-known, educated historian, submitting himself to humble faith, demonstrating his fidelity to the mother of God as his mother as well. And for all the world — or at least his fellow pilgrims on a pilgrimage for priests he was leading, readers of a well-circulated secular city paper, and whomever stumbled upon it thereafter (it lives on on the Internet) — to see. He’s meditating on the reality: He did it for me.
The photo took me back, having been there myself the year before. It reminded me of the power of the visual, something Angelus readers are well-familiar with.
And yet, even knowing the power of the visual, I didn’t expect a visit to the tomb of Christ interactive exhibition at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., to be as powerful as it was.
I went during Lent — popping in during the middle of a weekday after some meetings before heading on a train to New York. And it could have easily counted as a pilgrimage.
The first time I was in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, I did something like curl up into a ball and cry. It was one of those moments that the best Good Fridays and the best retreats can be: real reflection on the reality of Christian belief and the wages of sin and the miracle of salvation. I didn’t do that on 17th Street in the northwest section of Washington, but I came close.
While it was described as “an immersive 3-D experience unlike anything you’ve seen in a museum before,” that it could be a door into the incarnational nature of our faith close to the power of being in the actual tomb of Christ isn’t quite what I expected. And yet, it’s what I encountered.
The nature of the exhibit, which opened in the fall and continues through the beginning of next year (Jan. 2, 2019), is to show off some of the restoration work that’s currently being done on the church.
Had it not been for a virtual knock on the door warning that the church was about to close during my virtual reality experience sitting with headgear at the end of the tour, exploring from top to bottom the church and tomb to inside and out on my own, I’d probably still be there.
A number of things whizzed around in my head, all settling me in on the reality that Jesus Christ died for me. I thought of the accounts Anne Catherine Emmerich gives of visions she had of the Lord’s final days (which were the basis of a lot of the Mel Gibson “Passion of the Christ” movie and can be helpful meditative tools). As the translation I’m looking at (Dover) puts it:
Two soldiers, bearing torches in their hands, walked on first, that there might be some light in the grotto of the sepulcher; and the procession continued to advance in this order for about seven minutes, the holy men and women singing psalms in sweet but melancholy tones. …
The procession stopped at the entrance of Joseph’s garden, which was opened by the removal of some stakes, afterwards used as levers to roll the stone to the door of the sepulcher. When opposite the rock, they placed the Sacred Body on a long board covered with a sheet. The grotto, which had been newly excavated, had been lately cleaned by the servants of Nicodemus, so that the interior was neat and pleasing to the eye.
The holy women sat down in front of the grotto, while the four men carried in the body of our Lord, partially filled the hollow couch destined for its reception with aromatic spices, and spread over them a cloth, upon which they reverently deposited the Sacred Body. After having once more given expression to their love by tears and fond embraces, they left the grotto.
Then the Blessed Virgin entered, seated herself close to the head of her dear Son, and bent over his body with many tears. When she left the grotto, Magdalen hastily and eagerly came forward, and flung on the body some flowers and branches which she had gathered in the garden. Then she clasped her hands together, and with sobs kissed the feet of Jesus; but the men having informed her that they must close the sepulcher, she returned to the other women.
They covered the Sacred Body with the extremities of the sheet on which it was lying, placed on the top of all the brown coverlet, and closed the folding-doors, which were made of a bronze-coloured metal, and had on their front two sticks, one straight down and the other across, so as to form a perfect cross. ...
You’re overcome with: He was here. They were here. This was real. As virtual as the National Geographic visit is, it is a door into the supernatural and yet is so natural, too. It’s history. It’s archaeology. It’s memory. It’s my history. It’s my memory. It’s my identity. This is true for every Christian.
At a time when there is so much confusion and impatience and intolerance and misery about such things, every window into the truest realities is such a gift.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem sometime make news for altercations between some of the different Christians who care for the holy sites. And, to be honest, I had a run-in with a Franciscan inside the tomb, misunderstanding in the early hours of the morning what was open for a visit and what was not … or something.
There, I took some prayerful shelter behind the tomb, at a Coptic altar. The priest who eventually came to incense the altar seemed not to be bothered by my presence. I’m guessing he saw the likes of me before, drinking in every moment in this holiest of places.
Back in our nation’s capital, I lingered for every last second inside the National Geographic Museum, while the soundtrack seemed to play in my memory of the Negro spiritual:
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
rnWere you there when they crucified my Lord?
rnOh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
rnWere you there when they crucified my Lord?
It’s not an exaggeration to say there’s a trembling about the journey through the exhibit. And the trembling comes not only because of the death but the life.
The tomb of Christ gives life, even as a secular exhibit, because it has the power to draw us by its very fact deeper into the heart of the Christian life. It’s a reminder of what Pope St. John Paul II said in 2000 when he made his pilgrimage to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre:
The Resurrection of Jesus is the definitive seal of all God’s promises, the birthplace of a new, risen humanity, the pledge of a history marked by the Messianic gifts of peace and spiritual joy.
At the dawn of a new millennium, Christians can and ought to look to the future with steadfast trust in the glorious power of the Risen One to make all things new. He is the One who frees all creation from its bondage to futility. By his Resurrection he opens the way to the great Sabbath rest, the Eighth Day, when mankind’s pilgrimage will come to its end and God will be all in all.
Here at the Holy Sepulchre and Golgotha, as we renew our profession of faith in the Risen Lord, can we doubt that in the power of the Spirit of Life we will be given the strength to overcome our divisions and to work together to build a future of reconciliation, unity and peace? Here, as in no other place on earth, we hear the Lord say once again to his disciples: “Do not fear; I have overcome the world!”
Do not fear. That is what we hear here. Whether you’re on the ground in Jerusalem, visiting virtually, or in prayer.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review and a contributor to Angelus.