Walking down the Old City’s narrow, cobblestone “streets” was one thing; doing it at 4:00 AM was a whole other thing! To be honest, I was waiting for a scene from a blockbuster thriller to unfold right in front of me, one where a dark van with no windows comes racing up, skids to a stop and four hooded men jump out to grab us. (Irrational fear can lead to some very creative and unrealistic scenarios for me.) Nonetheless, I was glad we were a group of 12 that bravely ventured out that morning headed for the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
One of the Holy Land’s most visited Christian sites, the Holy Sepulcher was a definite highlight of our pilgrimage. Our guide, Fr. David, OFM, told us it would be wise to get there early so as to avoid the thousands of pilgrims that daily crowd the sacred Church. We were scheduled to arrive there as a group later that day but we eager, early-rising pilgrims wanted to be there a little after it was unlocked- at 4:00AM. The night before, we left our friends drinking wine under the Jerusalem stars a little early. We were scheduled for a full day of visiting the holy sites with our Franciscan guide. Making sure we were well-rested for our adventure the next morning was key. And let me tell you, walking the empty streets of Jerusalem at four in the morning is an adventure!
Miraculously we found our way there in the dark. As those of you who have been to the Holy Land know, it’s hard enough to find it in daylight. Nearing the wooden gate, two local religious sisters tucked in front of us. They wore dark clothes and long, black veils over their habit veils. Walking behind them through the courtyard brought me back 2000 years to those first pilgrims to Christ’s empty tomb… his mother and Mary Magdalene.
Next, as my anticipation grew and my heart began to thump against my chest, I thought of St. Francis who had made a pilgrimage to this very place. Then I thought of all the Franciscans who had faithfully kept custody of this spiritual place for so many centuries. I thought of all the Christians who year after year, decade after decade, century after century had made pilgrimage here to renew their faith, hope and love at the empty tomb. I couldn’t help but think about our little group, Catholic Christians stepping foot onto this holy ground like so many before us. What a sense of humility and gratitude!
As the aroma of the Holy Sepulcher warmly drew us in, a silence different from the one that filled the streets overcame us. It was the sacred silence of an empty tomb; Jesus’ empty tomb.