Although Easter was celebrated earlier this month, Facebook continues to send me daily reminders of my trip to Israel last year at this time, when the holiday was observed. My husband, Otto, and I had traveled to Jerusalem the night before Easter Sunday, and the next morning, in anticipation of attending a festive Mass, rushed to The Church of the Holy Selpulchre. This religious landmark was built over Calvary, or Golgotha (“Place of the Skull”), where Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected. Identified in 325 AD by Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, it is the most highly venerated shrine in the Christian world.
When Otto and I arrived that morning, we were taken aback by the hordes of worshippers queuing to get inside. We had anticipated that Jerusalem’s churches would be packed over the holiday, but we hadn’t considered that so many different Christian denominations from around the world would be represented by the busload. In addition to Easter Sunday, it was also Palm Sunday for Orthodox observers. As we were pushed involuntarily through the throng, we worried about being poked in the eye with a palm leaf—or even worse, a selfie stick. Many devotees held lit honey-dipped candles perilously close to their and our clothing and hair, making a fire explosion seem imminent. To our dismay, we soon realized it wasn’t possible to get close to Jesus’ tomb.
Looking at the photos now, during this time of social-distancing and quarantining due to the Covid-19 pandemic, our experience last Easter seems surreal. Were we really shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers from all over the world, instead of standing six feet apart? Yikes! Many wore kerchieves and turbans that day, but no one had on a facial mask. Cringe! Families had crammed together on the stone floors, sharing communal food. Uh-oh! And this was just the scene inside the church—the streets and markets outside were packed with even more pilgrims and tourists, as well as Jews celebrating Passover.
I thought back to the very different experience visiting that same church, as well as other holy sites, during Christmas 2002, when I had traveled with the Budapest Academic Choral Society to Jerusalem, where we participated in the Liturgical Music Festival. When we chorus members weren’t rehearsing or performing Bach, Rossini, and Mozart, we explored the Old City by foot. (It was forbidden to use public transport, as there had been terrorist attacks shortly before our arrival.)
Our favorite destination had been the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where we regularly attended Vespers and joined the processions through the Stations of the Cross, stopping at the holiest shrines to pray or sing hymns. My singing mates and I were often the only visitors attending and as “regulars,” we got to know some of the Coptic, Armenian, and Greek priests by name. Because the experience had been so memorable, I’d been eager to return, this time with my husband, thinking it would be a wonderful way to mark the end of Holy Week.
After Easter Sunday, Otto and I stayed in Jerusalem for several more days and frequented holy sites around the Mount of Olives, where we again encountered swarms of pilgrims. On our visit to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, we were stunned at the crowds of elderly worshippers who sat in folding chairs while waiting in the queue. When it was our turn to squeeze into the subterranean chapel, my husband and I were greeted by over-zealous Orthodox women wiping the sacred stones around Jesus’ birthplace with their headscarves. While we were disappointed that we hadn’t fully reveled in our proximity to the hallowed spot, the rest of the day was about to become the highlight of our whole trip.
A Finnish friend, Meera, who is originally from Bethany, had agreed to pick us up in Bethlehem and bring us to her hometown, where we would later join her family for dinner. Beforehand, she and her sister, Danya, showed us around their village, famous for the place where Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. Our first stop was Saint Lazarus Church, built in 1954 over the home of the saint and his sisters, Mary and Martha. The structure was intentionally erected without windows to resemble a crypt, although ample light shines down from the dome within. Several mosaics adorn the stone walls, depicting scenes from the lives of the three siblings, as well as the miracle of Lazarus’s resurrection.
The main attraction was the nearby Tomb of Lazarus, a site venerated by both Christians and Muslims. According to the Gospel of John, when Lazarus was ill, his sisters sent word to Jesus, who loved the family and made his way back to Judea. When Mary saw Jesus, she fell at his feet and told him that her brother would not have died four days earlier if he had been there. Jesus was deeply moved, and wept. He ordered the stone to the tomb removed and said, “Lazarus, come out!” Then, Mary and Martha’s dead brother appeared in his “grave clothes,” which Jesus ordered taken off.
Only a simple sign commemorated the place where this miracle had occurred. Unlike our experience at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Otto, our friends, and I were the only visitors with not a tourist bus in sight. We descended 24 deep steps and then 3 more into the snug space. Usually, I would have felt claustrophobic in the subterranean setting, but the peaceful, quiet ambiance set me at ease. A single light emanated from within the tomb, casting an ethereal glow on the ancient rocks. I envisioned Jesus with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus there and imagined how their sorrows had changed to joy in an instant.
When we were outside again, a disabled man sitting at the entrance to the tomb asked us to buy his bookmarks. I gave him some shekels, stashed the goods in my bag, and only unpacked them some weeks after returning home. They show “Flowers from the Holy Land” on one side (see below) with photos from familiar Bible settings on the other. Whenever I use them, I am reminded of our moving visit to Bethany with Meera and Danya and the luminance in Lazarus’s tomb. During this distressing, uncertain time of pandemic, it’s a hopeful sign that light shines amid the darkness. And, if we are believers, an assurance that miracles still happen.
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