By Molly Jane Layton

The phone read 4:15 a.m. as my alarm roused me from a light sleep. My worry about not hearing it was unfounded; excitement for the morning’s events kept me from slumbering too deeply. Clumsily juggling my phone flashlight and my toothbrush, I made a futile attempt to get ready without waking up my roommate, who stirred behind me as I slipped out the door.

At the end of the hallway, my friends Adam and Luis awaited me. As part of our pilgrimage to the Holy Land, our pilgrim group was making an early-morning trip to the Church of Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. The three of us had decided to leave earlier than everyone else to arrive in time to see the door-opening ceremony.

A church has existed on the site of the Holy Sepulchre since the mid-fourth century, though the current building dates to the mid-12th century, when the Crusaders swept into Jerusalem and began extensive renovations to the site. Not long after that, Saladin took back Jerusalem, and tradition states that it was under him that the current door-opening ceremony developed (although documentation for it only goes back to the 16th century).


Two Muslim families are responsible for opening the door each day. The Joudeh family are the key keepers and the Nuseibeh family are the door keepers. Each day, a member of the Joudeh family brings the key to the door, and a member of the Nuseibeh family uses the key to unlock it. Over the centuries, whenever control of Jerusalem and control of the church building changed hands, these two families provided stability for this central place of worship in the Christian faith. The ceremony is regarded as a symbol of religious tolerance, and we wanted to see it for ourselves.

We set out on a brisk walk to the Old City, bent on making it before 5 a.m. We wound our way through its narrow streets, the alleyways quiet. Everything looked monochromatic; at each shop the same large doors hid the brightly colored t-shirts and hijabs, as well as the delicious fruits and sweets that we normally walked past. Just before turning the corner to the church, I looked down at my phone one last time. 4:57. Perfect.

We hurried into the courtyard, and there was the door. Already open.

Confused, I looked down at my phone again. It still said 4:57. My disappointment was reflected on the faces of Adam and Luis. “Looks like we got up this early for nothing,” I said. Still, determined that the venture would not be an entire waste, we went inside.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is large and can be overwhelming, especially once it fills with tourists. Under the current use agreement, which is known as the Status Quo and is basically unchanged since 1757, six different sects hold the right to worship in the church: Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Syrian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, and Coptic Orthodox. Chapels are scattered around, owned by individual sects, most open to tourists, some roped off or under renovations.

The door is not at the far end of the nave, as is traditional for churches; rather, it opens into the side of the church. From the door, up the stairs to the right is the traditional site of Golgotha, marked by a Greek Orthodox chapel with a Franciscan chapel next to it. Turning to the left, it is a short walk to the rotunda, where the tomb of Christ is enshrined in a large aedicule. It looks like a miniature church building inside the larger church, complete with a Russian-style dome on top. Inside are two rooms: first, the Chapel of the Angels, which holds a piece of the stone that supposedly sealed Jesus’ tomb, and next, the Tomb of Christ, which contains a bench on which the body of Christ would have lain, though no living rock from the tomb is exposed.

There is generally a long line to get into the tomb, so a visit consists of walking in, reverencing the tomb, and walking out, with little time to pray or reflect. We suspected there might be more space for devotion at such an early hour, so we wandered over to the aedicule and stood with a few other pilgrims. Franciscans bustled in and out of the door into the Chapel of the Angels while we waited.

Then, one of the Franciscans came up to us and asked, “Por Missa?”

I stared at him blankly. Fortunately, Luis’s mind works better than mine at 5 a.m., and he immediately responded with a “Yes!” and eagerly gestured for Adam and me to follow the priest. By the time we got inside, I realized what was happening. We were being invited in for Mass. Any lingering disappointment at missing the door-opening ceremony instantly vanished. We gathered around the central stone in the Chapel of the Angels: the three of us, seven other pilgrims, and three Franciscan priests.

The celebrant began the service in Italian, of course. Since the rhythm of the Mass becomes ingrained in our hearts over time, the foreignness of the language was not a barrier to worship. When it came time for the lectionary passages, the woman next to me volunteered to read, since she spoke Italian. At the start of the eucharistic prayer, we all knelt on the cold stone floor, and the priests disappeared into the second room to pray the words and consecrate the host over the tomb. It was when they emerged holding up the priest’s host that the full weight of the experience hit me.

“Il Corpo di Cristo”

There before me was the body of Christ, consecrated on the empty tomb of Christ. In that moment, I saw three things at once: Christ’s dead body once buried in that tomb, his resurrected body in heaven, and his sacramental body in the host. It was a profound glimpse of the real presence of Christ. His sacrifice, his resurrection, and his sacramental grace all fused together in the simple host in the hand of the priest in front of me.

It was a humbling reminder of the reality and power of the historical events that precede and give meaning to the Eucharist wherever we gather as the body of Christ to celebrate it. “Christ has died. Christ is risen.” Because of this, we receive the sacrament filled with Christ’s real presence. The grace found therein gives us hope that “Christ will come again.” And when he does, when his resurrected body is present to us once again, he will welcome us into his kingdom forever.

After the closing prayer, we were quickly escorted out of the aedicule. An Orthodox Divine Liturgy was starting, and other priests needed to set up for it. Our early-morning adventure had gone better than planned, leaving us grateful for what we had stumbled into.

About The Author

The Rev. Molly Jane (“MJ”) Layton is the associate rector for congregational care and worship at the Parish of Calvary-St. George’s in Manhattan.


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Paul Zahl
2 months ago

Vivid, stirring, superb piece!

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